It’s February 26, meaning today starts National Eating Disorder Awareness week. Being a person with an eating disorder, every year I’ve felt the need to write something about spreading awareness and let people in my life know that these illnesses are serious. I don’t share many personal things online (at least I think I don’t…) but this is one area where I’m usually pretty forthcoming.
There are a lot of ways people try to spread awareness about the prevalence, impact, and reality of eating disorders. Something I’ve seen toooons of times is the “Before & After photo” set. To some unaffected by an ED, or close to someone with an ED, this can be seen as inspiring. However, the Before & After photos are inherently problematic, and actually reinforce stigmatic thinking about EDs and mental illnesses.
For those who don’t know, people posting about recovery during NEDA week will typically put up a “Before” photo of them at their “lowest, sickest, worst, skinniest” etc., and then an “after” photo of them now, at a”healthy” weight.
I have issues with these side-by-side comparison photos for two main reasons.
ONE: The BEFORE Photo
The Before photo SOLELY reinforces the MISINFORMED stigma that eating disorders are about being skinny and sickly, and in order to be “sick” one must be thin.
No. People with eating disorders can lose weight. They can gain weight. Their weight can never change, and the illness can be just as dangerous across the board. Often, people who don’t have the physical component of anorexia are the most at risk because their physical appearance doesn’t portray their mental state and visibly show how much help they need.
Furthermore, eating disorders are mental illnesses with physical components. The physical component is what’s often “desired” and the mental effects and depressive thoughts are resented. Amongst people with EDs, the market competition is cutthroat, and Before photos are the valued currency. Even those fighting for and claiming “recovery” more often than not have a strong tie to their illness and equally strong desire to continue to highlight it as part of their identity. Sometimes it feels scary to live “healthily” so the illness lives on in the healthy body, sneaking back in ways like sharing the Before photos.
Ironically, most people who make NEDA week posts and show photos are trying to END the stigma and incorrect beliefs around eating disorders. But, the Before photo only highlights the physical manifestation of the illness, and isn’t the way to draw attention to the mental aspects. Contrary to the popular “a picture is worth a thousand words” adage, our words and recovery stories speak louder, clearer, and stronger than a photo.
TWO: The AFTER Photo
Some after photos are wonderful. Really, truly, wonderful. For example, you can look at this awesome series, titled “#MyAfter” on My Body Boop, featuring my completely inspiring, brilliant, generous, gorgeous, smile-y friend Nicole.
Some After photos are very harmful. Some are not truly After photos. Some are “during” the ED photos. They don’t highlight physical health and mental stability. They still show physical illness yet preach about self-care, improvement, and recovery.
These are SO dangerous and I cannot stress that enough. (Hence the boldness and underline…)
If that’s confusing, we can take me, Holland, as an example. I admit that I’ve done a “Before & After” photo post. Actually, I’ve done this twice, and deeply regret it, and apologize to anybody I may have hurt, negatively affected, or invalidated. In the Before one, I was visibly ill, and in the after, not really recovered. In the After, still not at a healthy weight, still not eating normally, but pretending I was because I was better than in the Before photo.
Who does that help? If I’m propagating a false image of recovery and health, I am FURTHER pushing the belief that one can be recovered from an ED at an unhealthy weight. (This has been proven false medically many times. Anyone who says otherwise is still very ill.)
We post NEDA week things to draw awareness to the disease, and yes, #fightthestigma against mental health issues. But if we post sick photos, whether that be Before, After, or both, WE ARE REINFORCING THE STIGMATIC THINKING. Not combating it. We are NOT serving the public and NOT helping those who do need real information about what an ED is and how dangerous they are. We are doing this to please ourselves — our eating disorders.
What to Do Instead?!
Here’s what I’ll be doing this year. Just a photo of me happy. Maybe with Max, maybe with the cats, maybe with my family. I don’t know yet because I haven’t really thought about it.
I’m NOT 100% recovered and healthy and therefore will NOT be saying so. I will say I’m working hard. I will say I’m enjoying life. I will say I’ve made a lot of progress and want to make more still. I will say that the work is soooo much more than worth it. And, of course, I’ll be sharing this post.
If you’re a person who’s struggling with the Before and After photos, I urge you to think about your motivation behind doing so. See if there’s a way you can validate your own troubles and recovery efforts without serving your ED, whether that be with photos, numbers, or other ways that reinforce the misconceptions people have about eating disorders. I promise, there are ways.
Delete the photos. Start with your words.