Before and After Photos: To Post or Not To Post?

Posted by on Mar 3, 2015

I stumbled upon a before and after picture this morning while mindlessly browsing Facebook.

I couldn’t look away. The girl (who I know from treatment) was severely underweight in the photo. I was simultaneously horrified and captivated.

For a moment, I was transported back into the eating disorder mindset. I remembered the “good” feeling of seeing the number on the scale drop. I remembered how “accomplished” I felt watching myself shrink.

Eventually, I was able to talk myself down from it. I reminded myself that although losing weight did make me feel “good” and “accomplished,” the good feelings stopped there. My life now is so much fuller. In recovery, when I feel “good” or “accomplished” — as well as joyful, or proud, or hopeful, or any other emotion — I know these feelings are real.

Posting “sick pics” or before and after pictures is a contentious issue in the recovery world. Some people believe that these images are “triggering” to people who struggle with eating disorders and body image, and therefore should not be shared.

Others say that it’s the responsibility of the person viewing the photos to cope with their own reactions. The world isn’t going to shelter you from “triggers,” so don’t expect social media to do so either. Plus, this side argues, those who post these photos are not doing anything egregious. They are celebrating their progress. And why shouldn’t they?

I’m definitely going to get some criticism for saying this, but (*deep breath*) that’s okay… I strongly disagree with posting before and after photos on social media.

Before and After photos aren’t helpful

There are several reasons why I will never show a picture of myself at my lowest weight, nor disclose what that lowest weight was.

First, as I suggested above, these images unnecessarily trigger people who still struggle with these issues. True, I’m not responsible for the way other people feel. And true, no matter how careful I am, I’ll never be able to avoid offending or hurting people 100% of the time.

But why go out of the way to do something that will almost certainly cause someone internal strife? It takes a lot of practice with self-talk and coping skills to rescue yourself from a bad trigger. Does what I gain from posting this image outweigh the potential harm done to others?

Eating disorders aren’t just about weight

Second, these pictures reinforce the idea that all people with eating disorders are underweight. Proud2BMe blogger Amanda Jones discusses this in a great post about before and after pictures. She reminds us a person’s weight is not necessarily indicative of whether he is sick with an eating disorder. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes — from underweight, to average weight, to overweight. In fact, the most common eating disorder has nothing to do with weight loss at all.

before and after photoIn fact, even those of us who have struggled with anorexia know that this illness (like all eating disorders) is more about a mindset than it is about a particular weight.

Here’s an example: On the left is me at 17 struggling with an eating disorder; on the right is me today, recovering from that eating disorder. Was I underweight in that first picture? No. Was I sick with an eating disorder? Yes.

Which one of us is posting this photo?

Most importantly, though, there is something sinister at play for me when it comes to these before and after images. (AND PLEASE NOTE: What I’m about to say does NOT mean that this is true for everyone.)

I know that it is the unhealthy side of me that wants to glory in these photos.

I actually struggle a lot with the temptation to share my before and after pictures. But when I am honest with myself about why, I realize it’s my eating disorder talking. It wants to celebrate those “accomplishments” and be told how awful it looked (which, to the ED, would be “good”). Sometimes my eating disorder even encourages me to find other people’s before and after pics and compare how sick they got to how sick I got — as if this, too, would be some sort of accomplishment.

For me, I know I need to resist the temptation to post before and after photos as a way of fighting back against that unhealthy voice.

Can these photos ever serve a purpose?

I’m not saying there’s no place whatsoever for before and after images or talk of specific weights. I believe that the general public needs to be made more aware of eating disorder realities, and sometimes the brutal details help to open eyes. I myself recently told a reporter what my bottom BMI was, though I cautioned her to use that information sensitively.

And if there’s ever a doubt about a photo you’re using, then there is a compromise that I think is fair to everyone: issue a trigger warning as a courtesy to those who still need to be very gentle with their recoveries.

I know this is a contentious issue. I’m not writing this to be argumentative, and I’m certainly not writing it to shame or reprimand anyone who posts these pictures.

I’m writing this because I have an opinion on the matter and a voice to share that opinion and… well, frankly that’s enough reason.

This practice doesn’t benefit anyone — not me, and not anyone else who struggles with this. There are other ways for us to celebrate our recoveries and our progress.

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