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Lithium Before-and-after photos aren’t good for eating disorder advocacy

Oct. 19, 2021
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At the apex of my eating disorder, I spent hours a day on pro-ana Instagram. For those of you who have been lucky enough never to visit, that’s a community of users promoting eating disorders as a lifestyle. Isolated by a recent move to small-town Maine and struggling for a few years already, I dove into a shallow, self-gratifying pool of images that showed me what my body could be like. Some photos, of bodies that were bigger than the one I lived with, made me feel special. Others, posted by people who were skinnier than me or possessed some other physical characteristic I coveted, served as “thinspiration.” Either way, the name of the game was comparison, and with that comparison came the desire to win. Even as the members of the pro-ana community commented “support” and “advice,” we rooted for the girl in the picture to salivate at the thought of food, to gain weight, to recover. To fail. 

We are taught to pit our bodies against each other. The diet industrial complex, fitness and fashion industries, health professionals, educational institutions, and our well-meaning but frank grandmothers tell us that we should dedicate a large portion of our lives to making our bodies better. And, inevitably, better means thinner. No matter what capricious idealization of the body is “trendy” at the moment, the standard always returns to size extra-small: Louise Brooks, Grace Kelly, Twiggy, the heroin-chic models of the ‘90s, the Brandy Melville Girl. Even the body-positivity movement, created by and for (notably queer, Black) fat people, has been whitewashed and steamrolled into an ideology that forbids the critique of fatphobia and eating disorder culture. 

One of the ways that we put our bodies in opposition to each other is by believing that before-and-after photos do anything but harm. A mainstay of both fitness and ED recovery pages, before-and-after photos saturate the internet with “thinspiration” fodder, and tie recovery to weight gain. Most of all, before-and-after pictures reinforce the idea that sick and healthy bodies have to look a certain way. For the “typical” anorexic—a lot of the time, the young white woman like me who has access to and money for rehabilitative care—recovery can look a lot like a sedentary lifestyle and a huge calorie surplus. But this definition is not one-size-fits-all. Although I can’t deny that many eating disorder survivors are thin as a function of their illness, pushing the narrative that somebody with an eating disorder has to be thin delegitimizes the physical toll that eating disorders have on any size of body and convinces people with eating disorders that they don’t need help if they do not fit a stereotype. 

To those who feel the urge to underline their recovery with a before-and-after photo: I know firsthand how hard it is to gain weight in recovery, physiologically and mentally. I know the strange apathy of a stomach that has learned to suppress hunger cues, the nauseating stench of a fear food, and the feverish, sweaty sleep of a metabolism in overdrive. I, and countless others, are here for your success. We are proud of you for doing what you convinced yourself was impossible. We are so proud of you for tackling your relationship with food and your body, even if we don’t know what your body used to look like. 

For a long time, I reified my eating disorder by assigning it numbers. It was never enough that I was thin, that I was dying, that I was in a rehabilitation program; the ways that I measured my illness were visual and numerical. My worth, even as I recovered, was inextricably linked to the warnings of the scale and the heart monitor as proof that I needed help. It took me a long time to curb the urge to show others a photo of me when I was dying to shock them into sympathy and understanding. But shock value is not an indicator of sickness. I do not need to prove that I have an eating disorder, and neither do you. 

At the end of last year, pop singer Halsey came under fire for posting a photo of herself on Instagram from a time when she was struggling with an eating disorder. The caption of the post, now deleted, read: “TW: ED, get help.” Aside from her misunderstanding of how to properly approach triggering content, Halsey made another blunder: equating what she labeled as her lowest point to the way that her body looked. Although, in Halsey’s case, the “after” picture wasn’t presented right next to the before, the image served the same function as a device of comparison and a reinforcement of what a sick body has to look like. 

However, this subtlety is what makes Halsey’s case more complicated. As “trigger warning” has become a buzzword and social media meme, the meaning behind it has shifted. What began as a plea for social media users to acknowledge others’ trauma and offer accommodation has, in some spaces, become a way to police bodies. As I’ve encountered TikTok comments that demand that thin people who have in no way mentioned eating disorders provide trigger warnings for images of their bodies, I’ve come to a realization. For some, this may be a tough pill to swallow: nobody can promote an eating disorder simply by existing. The pro-ED community that dominated my adolescent Instagram wasn’t villainous because it was full of skinny people, but because its members told me how to cut calories out of a McDonald’s happy meal and how to make it look like I had polished off a plate of food at the family dinner table. Neither thin nor fat bodies promote unhealthy habits by occupying space in the world. Before-and-after photos, whether celebrating weight loss or weight gain, apply a harmful moral imperative to a body’s appearance. Body neutrality, on the other hand, celebrates the body for what it can accomplish instead of how it looks.

The way that we see thin bodies is yet another product of diet culture and our internal rage against it. In the same way that magazines and TV and runway shows tell us that being fat is a sin, these same types of media imply that our revolution has to pit us against the people who are smaller than us. Thin people on TikTok are not the root of fatphobia, though they may perpetuate it on a case-to-case basis by claiming that thin privilege doesn’t exist or that their bodies don’t offer a social advantage. However, their guilt is not a function of how they look, but of the actions they take (or don’t) to address the unequal position they occupy. Thin privilege still exists—but its existence does not justify the censorship of bodies that are just trying to move through an insanely difficult world. 

Not everybody with an eating disorder, or in recovery from one, has to be a public advocate. But if you platform yourself under the guise of recovery advocacy and post a before-and-after photo, you are doing harm. Recovery should be focused on mental and physical transformation of health, not of appearance. Similarly, if you tell somebody that their body needs a trigger warning, especially entirely out of the context of ED discourse, you are telling them that their body needs to be altered for your comfort. Responsible advocacy for eating disorder recovery entails total commitment to body neutrality. Buying into the competition between incongruous bodies—this is the race that we need to stop in its tracks if we want to dismantle the system that forces us to run.