Through my therapeutic work with clients with eating disorders, I am regularly interfacing with social media. I have spent countless sessions speaking with clients about Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and all the myriad variations. I have often found myself wondering, “why is so much time and space, even therapeutically, being devoted to this? Is this really necessary?”
And, the unfortunate reality is that, yes, it is necessary.
Mental health, and eating disorders in particular, have developed particular pockets throughout the internet where people have found solace, comfort, and space to share themselves and their stories. Which is wonderful! I cannot overstate enough how critical it is that we've finally reached a point in history where mental health awareness is gaining traction.
That said, though, problematic content continues to flood the social media sphere, and this is often the content brought into my office.
If I had a nickel for every before-and-after transformation photo that I've seen in my lifetime, I'd be a rich person. And, if I had a nickel for every time a client shared that a before-and-after transformation photo had highlighted for them how invalid their own eating disorder is and/or was, I'd be an even richer person.
And, yet, even with the numerous posts and movements speaking to the negative impact of these photos, they continue to crop up. A brief scan of the #edrecovery, #edwarrior, and #eatingdisorders tags, and tags of similar ilk clearly show that this content is out there, and worse still, that the content is being validated, passed around, and lauded as “inspirational.”
To be clear, recovering from an eating disorder? HELL YES, that is the STUFF of inspiration!!
So why do I take issue with before-and-afters? Here are three reasons why I believe that they're problematic:
1. Sharing photos of yourself at a low weight, with an NG tube, and/or that visibly display your compromised physical state may be intensely triggering to other viewers with an eating disorder.
Many users on Instagram and other social media platforms who are open about their eating disorders tend toward following users with similar content. Thus, when before-and-after transformation photos are shared, they're often being shared to, and seen by, other individuals with similar concerns around food, shape, and weight. It might be challenging for people to focus on the healthy photo in the photo set, especially if the person is in a vulnerable place in their ED. It may say to them, “you are not sick enough because you were not this sick;” it may say to them, “your experience is not legitimate or valid because it never came to this point.”
Additionally, followers without an ED or adequate knowledge about EDs may glean from your content that EDs are usually characterized by low weight and significant weight loss, and that recovery includes weight gain, which is not the case for many individuals with EDs.
2. Not all eating disorders are visible.
Over the years, when teaching and providing peer supervision, I've polled students and other colleagues, asking, “What comes to mind when you hear “eating disorder?” Unsurprisingly, most have responded with some variation of “young, frighteningly thin white girl,” as this is the prevailing narrative within the larger culture.
Though there's certainly a percentage of individuals with eating disorders who are underweight (~10%), the larger majority of people with eating disorders are not. Before-and-after photos further perpetuate the stigma and misunderstanding that eating disorders are largely physical in nature and that all people with eating disorders are thin and/or underweight, effectively erasing the majority of sufferers from the narrative.
Fat people can, and do, develop EDs, and many suffer in silence due to such misunderstanding. In fact, many people in larger bodies with EDs opt not to speak up, seek help, and/or share their own stories due to the regular invalidation incurred at the hands of our culture.
It's important to keep in mind that any person, regardless of size, race, gender, etc., can develop an eating disorder. Because it is a mental illness and not only physiologically characterized.
3. Eating disorders are mental illnesses.
Though eating disorders are manifested physically, the majority of symptoms are psychological and emotional, often persisting well after physical symptoms stop. Before-and-after photos present an oversimplified visual of an ED (basically, weight loss and weight gain are the hallmark symptoms of disorder and recovery, respectively) and invalidate the reality of the diagnosis – that it is not just about food, weight, body size, and/or shape and often has a wide swath of underlying causal and perpetuating factors.
Eating disorders are legitimate, life-threatening psychiatric illnesses. It's crucial that EDs are explained, discussed, and displayed in this way, rather than in the often superficial ways that our media has chosen to, and in the ways that before-and-after transformation photos do.
IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING POSTING AN EATING DISORDER “RECOVERY” TRANSFORMATION PHOTO, I URGE YOU TO PLEASE CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
Who will benefit from these photos?
What is the purpose of posting these photos?
If I were in a vulnerable place eating disorder-wise, how would I feel if I saw these photos?
Are there other ways that I can celebrate my recovery and my progress?
Though social media has become an ingrained component of so many of our lives, it's essential to examine content and to seek out AND to post only that which feels truly authentic, soul-nourishing, and safe. Posting before-and-after photos may initially feel positive, but thinking about audience, being thoughtful, and being mindful of perpetuating stigma are incredibly important considerations. My rule of thumb is always, “post only what you yourself would want to, and be okay, to see.”
So often, eating disorders are isolating, leaving us disconnected and dissociated. Through awareness, through posting genuine content, through being more than just a body, you are creating positive, inclusive, and thoughtful space.
You are curating space that you want to, and are okay to, see.