A few weeks ago, Demi Lovato shared a powerful side-by-side photo on her Instagram. One photo was taken while the 25-year-old singer was in the depths of her eating disorder; the other, more recently, while in recovery. Her message was simple: “Recovery is possible.” But to those struggling with an eating disorder, it’s a complicated one.
Search any of the numerous eating disorder recovery-themed hashtags on Instagram—#edrecovery, #edwarrior, and #bopo being just a few—and you’ll be flooded with thousands of side-by-side photos similar to Lovato’s. But her message, while presumably well-intentioned, ignited an impassioned dialogue within the eating disorder recovery community regarding the use of these common before-and-after photos, and what purpose they really serve.
On one hand, as an eating disorder survivor, I believe graphic transformation photos are often unhelpful and potentially harmful to those actively battling an eating disorder. Given the competitive and comparison-driven behaviors these illnesses often breed, seeing someone with the classic physical symptoms of an eating disorder can reinforce the misconception that someone with an eating disorder must look sick in order for their illness to be considered valid.
Graphic before-and-after photos can be harmful to those battling eating disorders.
Before-and-after photos can also perpetuate the false and oversimplified idea that by reaching a healthy weight, anyone with an eating disorder is cured. From my own experience, I know that appearance can be entirely misleading, and that my health and quality of life were equally poor while I was actively engaged in eating disorder symptoms—regardless of whether I happened to be at my highest or lowest weight.
I can remember moments during the throes of my struggle when I would have seen someone with an emaciated body and convinced myself that, because I might not have looked that way at that time, I wasn’t sick enough or thin enough to deserve help. So I did what many people unfortunately do: I rejected help and got sicker. At the same time, there were—and still are—times when I’ll catch a glimpse of a fellow survivor’s transformation, particularly one that transcends the physical, and be reminded that recovery is both possible and worthwhile.
There were moments when I’d see someone emaciated and convince myself that I wasn’t thin enough to deserve help.
Ultimately, as an advocate, it would be hypocritical for me to encourage conversation about eating disorders—the deadliest mental illness, but one that’s rarely discussed outside of closed doors and hushed tones—and then criticize the way someone chooses to tell their story. By demanding censorship of anyone’s personal story, we’re implying that only certain parts of our struggles are allowed to see the light of day, thereby inadvertently reinforcing the stigma that we’re working so hard to stamp out.
By demanding censorship of anyone’s story, we’re reinforcing the very stigma that we’re trying stamp out.
I actually believe that if everyone who has struggled with an eating disorder dared to share photos of themselves at their darkest, it could potentially help others see that eating disorders, like most illnesses, exist on a broad spectrum—and that both sickness and health look different on everyone. The truth is that for a large portion of the 30 million Americans who struggle with eating disorders, there’s no physical difference between the “before” and the “after,” and those stories need to be told, too.
Most of all, it is my firm belief that we all have the right to tell our story honestly and at our own discretion, because—just as there’s an element of choice involved with eating disorder behaviors and taking steps toward recovery—it’s also a choice to engage with certain types of online content. And while it’s important to be sensitive to others’ vulnerabilities, it’s just as crucial to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
In our series “On the Table,” we explore the various ways eating disorders and body image-related issues can impact a person in daily life, through the lens of our social media editor, who has experienced these struggles firsthand.