We are accustomed to seeing before and after photos – in weight loss commercials, on personal Facebook/Instagram posts, and pages advertising the next miracle drug/diet/magic fat-shrinking wrap. Most of these involve a before body that is “less desirable” in many ways (“fatter,” less fit, larger, etc) juxtaposed to the “better” body picture in which the person is always smiling. This is so common in the media that it’s easy to glance over and not realize what effects it may have on us. While I could go on about this more, I am instead focusing on a different sort of body comparison: before and after eating disorder recovery posts. This is especially important to talk about considering the numerous posts I’ve seen during NEDA week.
Full disclosure, I was one of these people a few years back. I felt that if I could post a picture of my lowest weight and where I was then it would prove my recovery and validate my struggle. I now realize this isn’t the case, and I would like to encourage others to reconsider the perceived benefits that come from these posts.
I do not feel adding in examples will do good for anyone, so I will instead describe the typical images you may come across. On the left is typically a clearly malnourished and emaciated person, sometimes one who looks more like a skeleton than a human being. The right will show the same person but with added pounds and a “normal weight.” There will be smiles, much like with the weight-loss versions, and a caption that explains their recovery and how much better they feel at the new weight.
I am in no way trying to bash those who make posts like these (remember, I did this too!), just give a little insight on why I believe they can be harmful. A quick rundown on how this can be problematic:
- Promotes the belief that eating disorders and recovery are both defined by weight. I have run into this countless times before. Many people are not very well informed on eating disorders in general. There are many myths about the correlation between BMI/weight and how they relate to eating disorders. One is that you need to be underweight to suffer from an eating disorder. Considering just one eating disorder diagnosis has a weight requirement, this simply isn’t the case. Naturally, this thinking leads to weight restoration being proof of recovery. If you’ve gained back the weight, you must be cured! Personally, I have struggled at a pretty large range of sizes/weights. My sickest period in thoughts, behaviors, and overall state of mind weren’t at my smallest. I actually haven’t been underweight for a majority of my eating disorder. You simply cannot judge how well someone with an ED is doing by looking at how their body has changed.
- Comparison, comparison, comparison. If there’s one thing eating disorders are great at, it’s comparing in nearly everything. The before and afters open up additional dialogue for the ED to run with. Was I smaller than them? Why did I have to gain so much more? Who is the sickest? The answers to these questions may lead thoughts into a pretty dangerous situation.
- Too much focus on the physical side of these mental disorders. Quite obviously, changing eating habits, exercise, and use of behaviors all tend to have an effect on the body. Often times this is a visible marker for the eating disorder. While it must be noted that this is the case, adding more emphasis is not helpful. Having “sick v recovered” photos out there magnifies the outward signs of EDs, while we should be focusing on psychological warfare that those struggling experience. This reduces a multifaceted illness to a superficial view.
- The before as a goal instead of a cautionary tale. Some viewing these images will flip the entire meaning of them around. They will idolize the “before” as something to work towards. The hopes of a smaller body become possible, as long as they follow disordered eating and mirror the opposite of how the transformation occurred.
There is a movement that I absolutely love and support called Boycott the Before. This week, #BoycottTheBefore, is meant to change what eating disordered recovery is seen as: a mental change, not just the physical one (that may or may not be present!). I love that their aim isn’t to shame anyone who posts transformation photos, but simply educate how they don’t show the full picture. (Side note: I really support and have posted a transformation that was just of my face before and after recovery because you could tell I was miserable based on my expression, bags under my eyes, etc.) I think it’s so important to emphasize all aspects of eating disorder recovery. The mental and emotional healing that takes place is for the most part way more important than the physical side of things.
If you are in recovery, I challenge you to consider posting something this week to show that there is so much more to recovery than weight!