You know sometimes you’ll read an article and it will stick with you for a while? You’ll mull it over and might think about it again when you have some time to yourself.
The other day I came across this article written by The Mighty that was republished on The Butterfly Foundation’s Facebook page. And it really got me thinking.
It was entitled: “Please consider this before posting that ‘before and after’ eating disorder photo”. You can read it here.
I’ve seen plenty of these types of before and after photos. They are, generally, the antithesis to what we’re usually presented with: the before and after weightloss photo.
That in itself is pretty refreshing. We’re so used to scrolling through social media and seeing articles and posts about an “incredible and astounding weightloss journey”. See Jenny? Jenny lost twenty kilos and went down four dress sizes. Jenny now smiles seventeen times a day. Yay for Jenny.
We rarely see the flip side of the coin. Where the person in the before photo is equally as miserable with their weight or their body, but is grossly underweight and/or severely mentally unstable. We rarely see an after photo in which the person has gained weight but has also gained their life back.
I believe the transformation that occurs during recovery is an important story to tell. Those images do help to tell the story and challenge the notions we have around weight gain being negative or linked to poor health. Weight gain can save lives, which is the case for many women and men who are recovering from an eating disorder. Weight gain is vital for the functioning of their internal organs. It’s critical for their survival.
However, the images do not, and can not, tell the full story. Which is a notion The Mighty touched on in their article.
“There is no photo that can depict what you truly feel on the inside — and this is the main flaw with depicting eating disorders on social media. It perpetuates the belief that it is a purely physical disease…” the article reads.
Photos can, in this case, only depict the physical transformation that occurs during the recovery process. These transformation photos can be a source of pride for the recovering person, demostrating how far they’ve come and how much they’ve developed through the recovery process.
However, there are a few problems with these types of before an after photos and it’s important to talk about them.
Before and after eating disorder photos can be highly triggering for people who are still struggling with the disease. It can cause the sufferer to compare themselves to the before photo and believe that because they don’t look like that person in the image, they mustn’t be “sick enough”. They may start to believe there’s nothing wrong with them and attempt to convince themselves that they don’t need help.
This happens despite the fact that the individual is over-exercising, restricting and experiencing the physical and mental symptoms of an eating disorder. A trap and a lie I found myself in many times. The sufferer may also compare themselves to the ‘after’ photo, thinking they will never look ‘that good’ so why even try?
This is of course, not the fault of the individual posting their image, but rather an unintended consequence. Nobody aims to cause someone else harm and pain in this circumstance.
Before and after photos can also detract from the fact that eating disorders are mental illnesses that have significant and lasting impacts on a person’s physical and mental health. Some sufferers may have stomach and bowel problems for the rest of their lives. Some may never be able to have children. Some may have lost family and friends because of the person they became when they were at their lowest.
These are consequences we can not see in a side by side image. We can’t feel their brittle bones. We can’t hear their repitilan heart beat. We can’t touch their freezing skin. We can’t hear them cry in the middle of the night because their anxiety is crippling them and distrubing their sleep.
But does that mean those before and after photos have no place? I don’t think it does. I think these images depict a part of the journey that is relevant and real. I think they can be a source of pride for the person in recovery and act as a motivator for them to continue.I think they can also be a source of inspiration for people who have just started their own recovery journey. They can give parents and friends of sufferers hope that one day their loved one will be healthy again. That it is possible to recover.
I have posted two before and after eating disorder images to social media. I don’t post them often because I would rather tell my story than show my story. But do I regret them? No, I don’t. Those images, and the captions that accompanied them, were authentic and were important for me to share at the time. They may be important for me to share again at some stage in the future- to demonstrate where I’ve come from and what I am now.
But they are certainly not the whole story and there needs to be an accompanying explanation about what recovery means and why it’s important.