Eating Disorder Comparison Photos: Boycott the "Before"
By Lexie Louise--I deleted my “then” vs. “now” eating disorder recovery photos from social media recently. Why? Well, because I am seeing I am so much more than just a comparison photo.
If you don't know what these photos are, people in recovery take a photo from when they were struggling with their eating disorder and put it next to a photo of them now to spread awareness of eating disorders. The “before” photo depicts them at a very low weight, while the “after” photo shows a healthier weight.
The thing is, though, all these photos represent is physical change. One misconception around eating disorders stems from the thought, “You need to look underweight or look deathly ill to be struggling.” And while specific eating disorders can drastically affect one’s weight, one can struggle at any weight – underweight, overweight, and any and every weight and size in between.
You do not need to “look the part” to struggle. Your struggles are valid and real no matter your physical appearance or gravitational pull on this earth.
As someone in recovery and as someone who blogs about their recovery and has even posted these photos themselves, I have grown to no longer agree with these photos. I do understand why we share them, though. We post them to remind ourselves that we never want to be that sick again. We post them for those who don’t see the mental anguish and torture those of us with eating disorders face internally.
The thing is, we have nothing to prove. I think our intentions are good; however, we also need to look at other perspectives and consider how we are affecting others.
Posting these comparison photos is enabling the idea that you can tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance. It is also enabling the competition among those struggling with thoughts like, “Well, I’m not sick enough to get help because I don’t look like that,” or “I don’t deserve help when others are struggling more,” etc.
These photos can be dangerous. We are preaching that you can’t always see those who are struggling; yet, we share these photos that depict that very thing. While I believe those posting the photos have only good intentions and aim to raise awareness of eating disorders, by giving in to society's pressure and outsiders’ needs to see progress in visual and external forms, we reinforce the idea that we can visually tell who has an eating disorder.
I also would like to mention that those in the recovery community who post these photos accompany them with incredibly moving captions. The captions I agree with. Captions may be short and concise, so they only show a very small window into that person’s life. However, I can hear the struggle in their word choice. I feel their pain because I can relate to their words. And I feel this sense of relief when I read how far they have come in their own recovery. I feel proud of how far they have come.
These emotions are evoked solely from the story – not their photos.
To be completely honest, I do at times feel genuine shock if I see a “before” photo on social media – particularly if it is graphically showing how ill the person was. And that feeling of shock is another part of the problem.
Shock is a very quick and temporary feeling.
Others could argue the emotion of shock could cause them to help the person and create change – which could mean leaving that person a supportive comment or sending a supportive message. On the other hand, that moment of sympathy is something I strongly feel is creating even more stigma.
It then becomes this game of validation.
“Well, I posted this comparison photo of myself and now the 'likes' and 'comments' are pouring in. I feel validated. I feel heard. I feel understood. I feel like I'm making a difference.”
That feeling also does not last forever.
If we truly want to be validated, heard, and understood, and we are comfortable sharing our stories, we must create lasting impact. We can explain our battles by using words and emotions and sharing our stories. We deserve to be heard and validated and respected, no matter what our lowest weights or sizes were/are. Our illnesses are real, no matter what. We do not have to prove anything to anyone.
I want anyone out there in recovery to know this: someone else’s sickest weight or size is not something you have to compete with. Your illness is valid no matter if an eating disorder has taken a severe physical toll on your body or not.
Overall, though we are praised for sharing these photos and may be creating short term change, we are feeding into the misconceptions of eating disorders and sadly not making room to create real, long term change.
So let’s fight back.
I encourage you to responsibly share your recovery story this NEDAwareness Week if you feel comfortable doing so. I also encourage you to factor in other people – those in recovery and those whom we are trying to educate – when you share posts this year.
And I encourage you to use the photo pictured below as your “before” photo if you want to support the #BoycottTheBefore campaign.
We are so much more than comparison photos.
We are strong, resilient warriors and we will go against the grain and continue to fight to be seen and heard – even if that means not receiving instant validation. Like recovery, change takes time; it is a journey but it is possible.