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Why We're Disappointed Demi Lovato Shared 'Before and After' Recovery Pictures

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Haley Quinn, The Mighty’s mental health staff member, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor’s note: As per guidelines about reporting on eating disorders, we didn’t include Demi Lovato’s “before and after” photo in this piece. 

On Wednesday, Demi Lovato shared a fan-made image on her Instagram story that depicted a “then” and “now” body transformation, captioned with the phrase: “Recovery is possible.” An older photo shows a thinner Lovato, while a recent photo shows what she looks like now. Even though Demi has been candid about her struggles with bulimia, as someone who has considered herself a mental health advocate, these “typical” before and after photos can actually be problematic for those struggling with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction or eating disorders.

If we want to send accurate and sensible messages about what struggling with an eating disorder (ED) or what ED recovery looks like, “before and after” photos can’t convey the whole story — and in fact, sometimes provide fuel for those who are still struggling. In Eating Disorder AU‘s guidelines for responsible media coverage, they advise avoiding “before and after” images, stating that “research proves coverage dramatizing dangerous thinness can provoke a dangerous ‘race to the bottom’ among other who are struggling.”

Jennilee Bradley, a Mighty contributor, wrote about this in her piece “The Eating Disorder Before and After Pictures We Should Be Sharing“:

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.

Photos dramatizing thinness in “before” photos can also cause others who are struggling to feel as though their struggle is less valid. The truth is, eating disorders span an incredibly wide spectrum of symptoms and specific diagnoses that affect all different body shapes and sizes, and recovery from whatever eating disorder someone may be dealing with does not always mean a change in physical appearance. Likewise, someone doesn’t have to be “sickly thin” to be sick and struggling. Mighty contributor Tatiana Wilson wrote it was hard for her to accept that she was “allowed” to recover when she was never “on death’s doorstep.” If people are waiting to look like a “before” picture before reaching out for help, by then, it may be too late.

Another reason “before and after” photos don’t necessarily prove recovery is possible — as the photo Lovato shared suggests — is that focusing on weight fluctuation and physical appearance overlooks an incredibly important component: the mental health and well-being of those struggling. Demi speaks openly in her newly released documentary, “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” about how she hasn’t “fully conquered” her eating disorder, and that her recent breakup with longtime boyfriend Wilder Valderrama caused her to relapse into old behaviors. There’s nothing shameful about that, but this does show that just because someone says they’re “recovered” or “healthy” on social media — or just because someone looks “recovered” — doesn’t mean they’re struggle-free. We cannot forget that eating disorders, at their core, are mental illnesses that greatly impact ones emotional and mental well-being. 

So Demi, we appreciate all the work you do, but be careful re-posting pictures that could potentially do more harm that good. Recovering from an eating disorder is about much more than weight and appearance, and you can show us recovery is possible in ways that don’t reduce the process to a photo. We’re proud of you — not just because of how much you weigh now, but because of the work you’ve done to better your relationship with food, and with yourself. In the end, that’s the stuff that 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.

Screenshot via Demi Lovato Instagram

Originally published: October 19, 2017
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