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17 'Selfie-Free' Photos That Show What Eating Disorders Really Look Like

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

We often see eating disorders represented in the media by bodies — with both those currently struggling and those in recovery continually defined by their physical appearance.

But eating disorders are so much more than what someone looks like — they have complex causes and motivations that go beyond reaching a “perfect” beauty ideal. A person’s shape or size does not determine whether or not they are struggling — just as recovery is not wholly defined by being weight-restored and looking “well.”

Although there’s nothing wrong with taking selfies and posting pictures of your body, this year for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we wanted to talk about eating disorders in a different way. Because for someone who has never struggled with their relationship with food, exercise or their body, it can be difficult to understand what an eating disorder is really like. And for someone who is struggling, it can be just as difficult to explain.

That’s why we asked our community to submit art and images that explain the mental and emotional aspects of eating disorders — without focusing on “before and after” pictures.

Here is what they shared with us:

1. When an eating disorder holds you hostage.

woman trapped by ropes with tape over her mouth

“This was part of my suicide prevention week photography project in 2017. I interviewed several people about how they’d picture their mental illness and then I reenacted eight mental illnesses. This was ‘bulimarexia.’” — Megan Donovan

2. When parts of your physical body are challenged by your mind.

woman pulling at her insides

“This image speaks to the parts of me that are often being challenged by my eating disorders.” — Kay LeBlanc

3. What people see on the outside versus what’s going on on the inside.

mask with words on both the inside and outside

Artwork submitted by Molly Rizzuto

4. The intrusive, cyclical thoughts.

drawing of woman trying to eat an apple with swirls all around her

“Because this feeling and perception of self often drives disordered behavior. ‘This feeling’ is often associated with failure, being too much, frustration, and judgement. ‘Cyclical Mind Warp’ depicts the thoughts and judgments that can plague someone struggling with eating disorder behavior.” — Elisa Alvarado

5. The feeling of shame you’ve carried with you for as long as you can remember.

A woman standing next to pizza and other food items

“‘My First Big Lie’ is a watercolor painting I did today. It is a story of me eating a cake my mom had for herself in the refrigerator and I ate almost all of it. She told my dad what I had done when he got home from work. I knew I was in trouble and I tried to hide in the basement. He asked me about it and said, ‘Did you eat all of the chocolate cake?’ I had brown marking on my fingers and he asked if that was the chocolate cake. I said, ‘No, it is brown shoe polish.’ I was about 8 years old at the time and still remember this clearly.” — Cathy Jeffers

6. When clothes become your enemy.

womans closet with clothing

“Having ‘nothing’ to wear because I hate the way I look in everything I own, buying things I like in my current size or the smaller size I want to be. Then never taking the tags off because they don’t fit or because I refuse to wear the bigger size.” — Katie Christensen

7. How recovery can feel both hard and beautiful at the same time.

woman surrounded by flowers and face disappearing

Artwork submitted by Katelin Bamford

8. When you can’t tell where you begin and the ED ends.

drawing with woman who is a puppet

“I drew these photos while on a psychiatric ward for suicide watch, and my eating disorder thoughts were stronger than they had been for a long time. They capture the loss of control I experienced and the driving force/personality/voice behind every decision I made at those times.” — Rosie Bogumil

9. Feeling trapped in your mind and disordered thoughts.

page of someones sketchbook with woman trapped behind bars

“The problem often starts in the mind not the body.” — Becky M.

10. How an eating disorder can warp your perception of time.

hand holding watch in hand

“It Takes Time” submitted by Reina Mora

11. Obsessive food rituals that serve as a sense of control.

woman counting out grains of rice

“This was a performance piece I conducted while studying fine art. It highlights the obsession and control anorexia withholds. For five days I sat aligning rice so they didn’t touch, rice being the food staple highlighting struggle, greed and guilt. Anorexia is so much more than the strive to be thin. By accepting help willingly I still hold that tiny bit of control that a section would diminish.” — Amelia Baron

12. Recovery means nourishing yourself in all aspects of your life, not just food.

a woman feeding herself flowers on a spoon

“Feeding Love and Hope” by Reina Mora

13. The cloud of negative thoughts that follows you around.

a person with thoughts bubbles around it filled with words that make them feel like a failure

“This drawing is of a person who has an eating disorder and many of the thoughts that go with it. I know from personal experience all the negative thoughts that can fill your head. So often we see people with eating disorders represented as dangerously thin, but there are those of us who have an eating disorder, food issues or disordered eating who are overweight. You feel like a failure because not only are you overweight and feeling unattractive, but you feel like a failure at an eating disorder because you are still overweight. This was, and at some level, still is me. I have struggled with my self-esteem for as long as I can remember. Things are better now but not 100 percent. I will still use behaviors from time to time. It can be so hard, but I know if I keep working at it and working on myself, I will get there. It just takes time and some really good support.” — Julia K.

14. The chaos of your emotions when you’re struggling with ED.

painting of woman struggling from eating disorder

“These are a series of paintings I did when I was in the midst of my struggle with anorexia. I feel like they portray the cold, the loneliness and all in all just utterly miserable place I found myself stuck in at the time. Even more so than pictures of me at my lowest weight. The painting in the middle is a visual representation of the complete mental chaos happening inside my head. A chaos I did not understand in the slightest, nor did I have the words for it. A chaos that far surpassed any of the directly visible effects of my eating disorder. Most importantly, this chaos only got worse once I started looking better, something that people have a hard time understanding. That’s why art was such an outlet at the time. Just looking at this makes me so happy that I’ve been well on my way to recovery for a while now. Eating disorders are miserable in all shapes and sizes.”  — Laura V.

15. The isolation.

expressionistic drawing of woman

“This is a representation of feeling trapped within myself and trapped within my own isolation.” — Christina Rodriguez

16. The lifelong journey that is recovery.

collage of someone expressing what their eating disorder is like

“I drew, painted and collaged this piece I call ‘The Road to Recovery’ for my RD. I have been working at finding recovery from my ED for three years, and am finally in a place where I feel liberated from my ED. This was therapeutic for me and a coping mechanism I have used during my recovery. I have learned that this journey is an everyday battle and I continue to keep battling, but I know that I am stronger than my ED. I use quotes that have spoken to me throughout this process and describe the journey through all its ups and downs, twists and turns, and ins and out. Remember to take everything one day at a time, that healing is not linear and you are enough! — Annie Clarkin

17. The hidden side of healing.

row of supplements

“This is the hidden side of my eating disorder. These are all different vitamins and supplements that help my body when various levels are low because of my eating disorder.” — Kateri Collins

A special thanks to everyone who submitted their artwork! 

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.

Originally published: February 27, 2018
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