Before I begin to assess this issue, I think it is important to state that I am a firm advocate of debating and conversing.
Far too often in our modern age, I notice a stubborn refusal by individuals to consider a point of view which does not align with their own. I think that if each side in an argument/discussion/debate insists on sticking rigidly to the viewpoint they entered the room with then there is no hope of progress or change. For more on this, please check out one of my previous posts entitled: The Dying Art of Conversation/Where Now for Rage.
What am I asking for?
I am asking that the Eating Disorder recovery community give due consideration to both sides of the argument in this debate. I am not hoping for a consensus but I just ask that you hear me out and that you hear one another out.
Please contribute to this discussion by adding your thoughts in the comments section at the end.
My own personal ED history and use of ‘before and after’ pics.
I have had an eating disorder for over two decades and now consider myself to be in recovery. I am an advocate of recovery and I believe firmly that one bad day in recovery is worth a hundred days stuck in the bowels of the eating disorder.
As with many people with eating disorders, I have taken on every aspect of eating disorders in the past (restriction, binging, purging, overexercise etc). As with many people with EDs, my weight was pretty ‘normal’ for the first 10+ years of my time with the ED. Normal in this context just means that I sat firmly within the ‘healthy’ BMI range. I do now think BMI actually stands for Bullshit Monitor of Individuals. For the final 10 years of the ED, I became emaciated. At no point in those 20 years was I free of the ED but treatment here in the UK became intensive only once my weight dropped. (Another bugbear of mine is that services wait till people become emaciated before intervention).
I was just as likely to die when I was classified as bulimic as I was when I was classified as anorexic. Both destroyed my mind and left me incapable of leading a normal, healthy life.
Eating Disorders are MENTAL not PHYSICAL illnesses. But the PHYSICAL representation is oftentimes the thing which shocks people into acting and reacting. It’s a sad truth but it’s the truth, at least here in the UK. When you look unwell, sympathy is elicited and extra care is given. I noticed a massive difference in the way I was treated when I was underweight compared to when I was a normal weight. It is the normal human reaction to act based on what we see more so than what we hear. That is not to say that I purposely became underweight. Having an eating disorder for me was and to some extent remains a way of managing the depression and the more my depression worsened/worsens, the more I struggle(d) with all aspects of food.
When I first started this blog, I think I posted pictures of myself at various stages of my time in the ED (varying weights) but I took it down in time because I just didn’t feel comfortable with having those pictures of me online. I once posted something on Instagram as a reminder to myself of how far I had come and they did include some pictures of me in a physically bad way. I did this for myself at a time when I was struggling in my own recovery. I was struggling with depression and could not appreciate how much I had achieved in terms of stopping restriction, purging and in terms of putting on weight. I wanted to celebrate my achievement and pictures helped me achieve this. I didn’t need to put it online but I did and I own it.
I do follow some people on social media who regularly post ‘before and after’ pictures and then use it to talk about the change in their life since recovery. I also follow some who are against such pictures and tell or ask others not to post such pictures.
Of late, I have come to rethink this issue because I have seen some people in the ED recovery community insist that others not post such pictures whilst at the same time reading posts from others claiming their right to post whatever they want because it is part of their story.
So let’s consider both camps.
Against ‘before and after’ pics
- It promotes the idea that EDs are disorders of the body not of the mind.
- It promotes the idea that EDs are all about weight
- Weight restoration or being an average weight or higher does not mean you are recovered or are in recovery so the pictures themselves do not convey whether actual recovery has taken place.
- It makes those who do not reach low weights feel less valid in their eating disorder/not sick enough.
- Increases the negative body image some have of themselves because showing low weights increases self judgement and envy.
- Encourages harmful comparisons within the ED community (like how low did your weight go. Oh, is that it? Mine went way lower, until I was at death’s door and this picture is the proof. Like my ED was way more serious than yours.)
- It does nothing more than feed those who are looking for the shock value effect (media – Daily Mail more specifically)
- Makes it seem that life without an ED is fantastic.
- If it feels so wrong to discuss numbers in the recovery community, then why do images of people at low weights feel okay when it essentially has the same effect?
Life without an ED is not fantastic. It just is. It has a different texture and flavour. It is richer but it is still painful at times. My life is better without the ED but some days it feels harder because when the depression comes, I do not have my ‘trusted (but destructive) steed’ by my side to help rouse me from the coma of depression. I will always choose to be in recovery over being in the ED but life is still tough. It was tough then for different reasons.
There is a lot of competition within the ED community. Both amongst those who are in the illness and those who are out or recovered. Competition to see who can have the most followers, the most people say yes or ‘like’ to what we think, competition to see who was sicker, competition to see who had the toughest route to recovering or recovery. I will call a spade a spade. But this competition is not present amongst all in these communities. Sometimes people have good intentions in posting ‘before and after’ pics.
Pro ‘before and after’ pics
- For some people, weight gain has been an extremely difficult part of their recovery and one which they wish to highlight.
- People have the right to share their story and convey it in whatever way they see fit.
- It helps others who are in a similar position (of being at a low weight with an ED) see that it is possible to let go of the need to remain at a low weight.
- It helps others to see that it is possible to live and thrive at a higher weight
The role of ‘before and after’ pics in my own recovery
Before I started recovering last year, I followed very few people with EDs on social media. I found it extremely damaging to watch people who claimed they were in recovery yet still remained at alarmingly low weights. I eventually stopped following anyone on social media with an active eating disorder (not in serious recovery). I did not know about those on social media who had recovered and were now promoting the message of recovery.
When I decided to incorporate social media into my recovery, I came across the accounts of two women that I had followed for a short time in the days when the ED had its strongest grip on me. I think there must have been about a 2 or 3 year gap. When I saw how much progress these women had made from emaciation to weight restoration and beyond, it inspired me to let go of my fear of weight gain. I felt that if these women could rise from where they had been and were now learning to embrace life at a higher weight, then maybe I could do the same. One of them in particular who still posts before and after pics, said on one of her posts that no one cared what we weighed. Her written words stuck with me and helped me get on board with the inevitability of weight gain in recovery. I would also still be in recovery without seeing such pictures but I do think they gave me a bit of a mental shove in the right direction.
BUT, a word of caution. I was already beginning to embrace the idea of recovery before coming across these accounts. If I wasn’t then these pictures may not have made a blind bit of difference to me.
To a sick mind, all things will feed the sickness. One’s ability to tolerate these pictures may say more about the state of mind of the person seeing these images than it does about the benefits or negatives of the image itself.
To a well mind or one in search of wellness, then some of those things that may in the past have been harmful may no longer be. This again is a matter for debate. My word is not the final word. Nor do I want it to be.
I think that if more people speak for or against the use of ‘before and after’ pics in the ED recovery community then it might help those who are still unsure decide which way to go.
On the other hand, I think that for those of us who are in recovery or recovered then we need to be aware of the harm that some of these images can cause to minds which are still fragile or healing from the damage of eating disorders.
What we should ask ourselves before posting ‘before and after’ pics
- What message am I trying to convey by using these pictures of me at a healthy and unhealthy weight?
- Can I convey this message in a way which is less likely to cause harm to fragile minds?
- What message am I giving to those for whom low weight was never an issue by posting these images?
- What message am I putting out in the media and the public space by using these images?
- Am I more likely to hurt or to heal by using these images?
As for me, I will confess that even after all of this, I am not sure what I would do. I have only twice used such images, one of which I took down. Weight gain has been a massive part of my recovery and I guess for me, I needed to know that there were others who had been in a similar situation to me who had now moved beyond that state.
That said, the other key ingredient in my recovery were those who documented their recovery online as well as those who are now recovered and continue to make videos about recovery such as Elisa Oras. Her book helped me on my journey. I have never once seen an image of her underweight yet her message still spoke to me for some reason.
I do feel that one of the main things that ‘before and after’ pictures do is promote the idea that an ED is only serious if one reaches a low weight and I know that this is not necessarily the case. Unfortunately, the body adapts to emaciation and makes changes to sustain life. Low potassium levels and suicidal thoughts were just as life endangering or perhaps more at times, than the fact of emaciation for me. Bulimia kills and so does anorexia.
Whilst I do not plan to post any more ‘before/after pictures (because that is not my calling and that is not what I choose to use to convey my message at this moment in time), I respect the right of others to do so and would ask simply that they think about whether what is gained from these pictures outweighs what is lost by others. I would also ask that they be reflective and honest when posting such pics.
What I will not do however is hide pictures of or burn or get rid of such pictures because that for me is about 10 years worth of pictures which document my life, not my ED but my life with family, friends and even on TV (Countdown)* I will not hide who I was but I prefer not to use it as the primary means of conveying my message about the harm cause by eating disorders.
Finally, if someone’s posts are negatively affecting your recovery, do as I did at one time and click the ‘Unfollow’ button. That’s what it’s there for.
* I will in a future post speak about how appearing on Countdown helped me begin the long and bloody difficult but worth it, road to recovering.