The Problem with “Before and After” Photos
Whether we want to admit it or not, social media is a big part of our everyday lives. At best, it helps keep us connected and up-to-date on the latest trends. But, as we’re increasingly aware, social media can also pose significant risks. Different trends come with popular social media sites like Instagram and Facebook; one of these trends is “before and after” photos of those in eating disorder recovery. While some may think these photos show progress or success, recovery actually can’t be fully captured in a photograph.
In this blog, we will explain the problems with “before and after” recovery photos on social media and how we should think beyond appearances when understanding eating disorders and the process of healing from them.
The Issues with “Before and After” Pictures
They can trigger body comparison.
People often post life changes or successes on social media, including milestones such as getting a new job, getting engaged, or buying a house. Another popular post in our diet culture is “before-and-after” photos of weight loss. “Transformation” pictures like this often receive enthusiastic compliments and praise.
In online recovery spaces, some people recovering from eating disorders also share their body changes, perhaps to celebrate their healing or show others that recovery is possible and there is hope to recover. However, sharing such a picture may come with unintended consequences, as these “before and after” photos can be incredibly triggering to those in recovery.
The layout of “before and after” photos suggests that one photo—one body—is more desirable than the other. The photos imply that one body is bad, and one body is good. Whether the photos are showing weight loss or weight gain, the post reinforces the hyperfocus on weight already so present in our culture. These photos can trigger comparison, as people with eating disorders may think they are not “sick enough” if they do not look like the “before” photo. Many seeing this image may think that’s how someone with an eating disorder should look and it may lead them to feel they are not “sick enough” to get treatment. The “before and after” photo may send a message that a specific body size is “sicker” and therefore more worthy of help than another. However, anyone with an eating disorder deserves care and support.
They reinforce a stereotypical view of eating disorders.
In our culture, an eating disorder is usually shown as the stereotype of a young white female with anorexia. In reality, eating disorders include a range of diagnoses that can affect everyone and anyone. Restrictive anorexia is just one of many types.
Many of those with an eating disorder won’t have a dramatic “before or after” photo. These photos oversimplify the eating disorder experience and suggest that it can be summed up in a photograph. People of all different body sizes can have an eating disorder, and thinner doesn’t necessarily mean sicker. These photos not only oversimplify the diversity of bodies that experience eating disorders but also promote an incomplete view of recovery. Like illness, health and recovery exist across all body sizes. Again, these “before and after” photos show a very narrow view of what eating disorders and recovery look like.
They don’t show the whole picture.
Eating disorders are not all about gaining or losing weight. The pictures suggest that this is only a weight disorder, which is not true. Eating disorders are mental disorders, but these “before and after” photos don’t show the mental aspect. They don’t explain the preoccupations, thoughts, feelings, or obsessions that are all experienced with the disorder. These photos give a narrow view of only focusing on physical weight, rather than the person’s mental health. But not everyone with an eating disorder experiences significant weight gain or weight loss in illness or recovery.
These photos also give the impression that by gaining weight you are recovered. A photo will never show the experience of someone’s recovery. A photo will also never show the complex thoughts and feelings that those in recovery experience.
Thanks to mental health advocate Lexie Manion, there is a movement that offers an alternative to the “before and after” photo trend. #BoycottTheBefore is a campaign she started to challenge the “before” photo of eating disorder recovery comparisons. Instead of showing a photo of a visibly sick body in the “before” spot, she included a black graphic with white text saying “I am so much more than a ‘before’ photo.” The photo accompanied a single photo of herself in the “after” spot.
Explaining that “before and after” photos can be triggering and damaging for someone in recovery, Lexie provides insight on how there isn’t a specific “look” to eating disorders or a specific “healthy” size. She explains that the photos only show physical changes and reinforce the stereotype that you must be underweight to have an eating disorder—when actually anybody of any size can have an eating disorder.
Lexie encourages others to responsibly share their photos and think of those who are still struggling with disordered thoughts and beliefs. In an Instagram post about this movement, she says, “We are strong, resilient warriors, and we will go against the grain and continue to fight to be seen and heard – even if that means not receiving instant validation. Like recovery, change takes time; it is a journey but it is possible.”
No matter how it looks, everyone’s individual experience and feelings with their eating disorder are valid. Reminding those that there is hope and recovery is a step in the right direction, but we need to be mindful of how we do it. Our journeys, thoughts, and feelings can’t be summed up in one image. We are all so much more than a photo.