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The Problem with “Before and After” Photos in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Laura Porter--If you’ve seen mainstream reporting on eating disorders recovery, you’ve probably seen the all-too-common “before and after” pictures. Typically, the images are shown side-by-side in a manner uncomfortably similar to ads for Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers.

Unfortunately, I know these very well, and I have seen them too many times to count. I was once asked to submit a “before and after” set of images to a news outlet for an interview. They said that they would only feature my story if I agreed to send them the images—I refused. I refused because I know that eating disorders don’t “look” a certain way. Regardless of the behaviors associated with someone’s eating disorder, we’re all looking to escape.

Eating disorders are really good at telling us that we’re “not sick enough.” If we continue to show these images, it can fuel the messages our eating disorders tell us: “I’m not that thin,” “I don’t look that sick,” “I obviously am not sick enough to need treatment or support.” We can’t continue to focus on the surface-level consequences of eating disorders—it portrays a false reality.

Eating disorders manifest in different ways: various shapes, sizes and behaviors. Weight and appearance cannot speak to the reality of living with an eating disorder, the mental anguish it can have on our lives and the tormenting despair and hopelessness.

These types of images aren’t rampant in news pieces about other illnesses. When we read articles on Alzheimer's, we don’t see pictures that try to sensationalize the tragedy of the disease—that would be seen as distasteful, right? I also haven’t often seen articles featuring cancer survivors with images of those persons undergoing chemotherapy next to photos of them in remission.

So why do we do this for mental illnesses? It’s not just eating disorders. If you look up articles about alcoholism or addiction, there are sometimes “before and after” photos of people who have attained recovery, and there are almost always images of drugs, pills or alcohol. But it seems that people in recovery from eating disorders, in particular, become spectacles—our stories become secondary to the images alongside them.

Eating disorders are deadly illnesses. We shouldn’t need to sensationalize eating disorders in order to convince people to take them seriously. I challenge all of us to think critically about how these images portray eating disorders, and to continue to work toward a culture of greater understanding of these illnesses—beyond the superficial.

About the blogger: Laura Porter is a senior at The George Washington University majoring in political communication. After taking three semesters off of school for her own mental health struggles, Laura became passionate about advocating for increased awareness of mental illness among college students, specifically eating disorder awareness. Laura served as the president and founder of the organization Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge at GW (SPEAK GW) for two years and is a proud former communications intern at Active Minds Inc.

Also by Laura:

5 Things I've Learned in Recovery (As Told Through Broad City GIFs)

5 Ways to Advocate and Promote Awareness on your Campus

Taking Up Space: An Interview with Beck Cooper

Never Stop Fighting for Recovery

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