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The Eating Disorder Before and After Pictures We Should Be Sharing

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Weight seems to always be a hot topic of conversation. The internet is full of before and after pictures, usually showing weight loss and a difference in physical appearance. There’s also a niche of opposite before and after photos that talk about weight gain. I mostly see these pictures when it comes to eating disorders (ED), where the “before” picture tends to be of someone who looks emaciated and the “after” picture is of the same person, but at a heavier, “healthier” weight. While I understand how great it is to be proud of weight gain in eating disorder recovery, I’ve truly never liked these pictures. Appearance only says so much, and there is so much more left to each story.

One of the major problems I have with these comparisons is that not everyone with an eating disorder gains weight in the process of recovery. Some people lose weight, some people maintain weight and some people gain weight. Everyone and every body is different, and there is not one “normal.” Not only that, but not everyone starts recovery after being incredibly thin. You don’t have to be any specific weight to have an eating disorder, and that’s something that’s not discussed as often as it should be. There are several different types of eating disorders, and they all impact people of all different ages, sexes, races, sexual orientations, body types, weights and so on.

Another problem I have with these before and after photos is the fact that weight-restored does not mean healthy or recovered. I will be honest right now, I am weight-restored, but I am far from recovered. I have gained a certain amount of weight since I started the process of recovery, and while I am within a “healthy” range, it means nothing about my eating disorder. It shows that I’m eating and that somehow I am starting to gain weight. That doesn’t mean that I’m healed. Eating disorders are not about appearance, they are a mental illness. There are thoughts associated with eating disorders that do not always have to be acted upon to still be diagnosed.

I visited my nutritionist a week ago, and while she told me I could maintain my weight and no longer had to gain any more, when I told her about my thoughts, she told me I would be a candidate for an inpatient program because those thoughts were unhealthy. So yeah, my weight is up, but my thoughts are still bad and I am still sick. My weight has no correlation to how bad my eating disorder is at all.

I am not saying to not share before and after pictures, because that’s a personal choice. There was actually a movement on Instagram in the body positive community about boycotting the “before,” essentially saying that the before picture doesn’t matter and that you are valid even if your before and after bodies look the same. I think the movement was great and it’s so important to validate anyone with an eating disorder, especially when it comes to weight. Additionally, before and after pictures do nothing for anyone with an eating disorder. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth, at least for me. Seeing those pictures actually scared me and made me prolong asking for help. I was so scared to gain weight, and most times I wanted to be the girl on the “before” side — an emaciated, lifeless girl just wasting away. Recovery is not just about weight. Weight gain is honestly just a side effect of it.

Here’s the thing though, I think that before and after pictures can be amazing! It just depends on what you’re comparing. I’d love to see before and after pictures of faces, where I can vividly see the difference between a pair of lifeless eyes and a pair of eyes that are bright and smiling. Show me before and after pictures of grades, and how once your mind isn’t consumed by the thoughts of the eating disorder that it’s so much easier to actually do school work. Or before and after pictures of blood tests or other medical changes. I’d love to see the benefits of eating disorder recovery without having it focus on weight. Here is a before and after I experienced that doesn’t focus on weight:

While I am still not recovered, I’m a long way from where I started. I started the recovery process at the end of December of 2016. It is now August of 2017 and a lot of things have improved for the better. When I started treatment in January, I had a short list of “fear foods.” For those of you who don’t know, a “fear food” is basically a food you’re scared to eat, whether it’s because of texture, calorie content, memories associated with it, etc. One of mine was ice cream.

One day in February, my sister asked me to accompany her to Coldstone Creamery. She didn’t know I had an eating disorder at the time, so I didn’t know a way to deny her and I ended up going. That’s my “before” picture in this scenario. I didn’t finish it. Actually, the picture I took shows the last bite I actually took, then I put it in the freezer for a month until I could say it was freezer burned and I could throw it away without anyone questioning me. As soon as I put it in the freezer, I ran upstairs to my room and cried my eyes out, to the point where I was heaving.

Fast forward to May. Nothing specific changed, except that I was consistently seeing a therapist and nutritionist. I talked through things, explained how I was feeling and was honest about everything. And guess what? One day I wanted ice cream. It was just a craving I was having. And guess what? I got ice cream! I drove myself to Coldstone, bought myself some and ate it! Every last drop. No tears. Nothing. I was so happy. My only regret is that I got the smallest size, since I still wanted more once I finished. That’s my “after” picture.

In three months I went from literally crying at the thought of ice cream to eating it and wanting more. That’s progress. That’s something that my weight can’t tell you. My weight can’t tell you whether or not I have a healthy relationship with food. My weight can’t tell you if I’m eating. My weight tells you nothing except how much I weigh (which, honestly, is a pointless measurement). My before and after is real, it’s something that’s measured in something besides numbers. It shows the real difference in recovery. It’s not as scary as the inevitable “I’m going to gain weight” thoughts, but it’s still true. My before and after is of an ice cream not even a quarter of the way finished, to one completely sucked dry. That’s recovery to me.

It’s now August, and let me tell you, I’ve eaten a lot more ice cream these past few months than I thought I would. I thought it might be a one time thing and then I’d be done, but it wasn’t. I had ice cream three times this past week, and I’m so thankful for every bite. There was a time that I couldn’t even look at someone else eating ice cream without wanting to cry, but now I am living. Recovery is more than my weight and my appearance. I am an entire person inside too. Don’t be discouraged by before and after pictures. Don’t be discouraged because your weight isn’t moving. Don’t be discouraged. Remember every small step that has been a part of your recovery and embrace them. Each one matters.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Lead image via contributor 

Originally published: September 20, 2017
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