First of all, I see no benefits at all in the concept of before and after photos to promote weight loss because of the tangled web they weave in diet culture. It signifies that someone is better in the “after” photo or somehow more worthy. It perpetuates diet culture and the belief that we should have control over our bodies and work to look a certain way to be more desirable. It’s harmful to people who live in bodies similar to the before photo. It’s harmful to people who live in bodies that look nothing like either photo. It makes us believe that the way our body looks is a reflection of our effort or our worth. It erroneously equates health to being smaller or losing weight when it often couldn’t be farther from the truth. It externalizes the focus of the positive benefits of a healthy lifestyle and often suggests weight loss will bring happiness.
Now I often see before and after photos in the recovery community as well, and while I’m a little more divided in my opinion on them, I largely believe they’re also not constructive.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that many people can look back on their old photos and reflect on how far they’ve come, but broadcasting your “sick self” can not only be harmful to people actively seeking recovery but to people still deeply entrenched in their eating disorder. In both cases it can be hard to not to compare your story to others and to deal with the subsequent triggering thoughts that often result.
For one, from my personal experience, as well as what I know from others, is that it can be very hard to escape the idea that you’re “not sick enough”. Seeing photos of emaciated patients at their lowest weights fuels the internal competition telling you that if you don’t look like them you’re not worthy or don’t need treatment. Eating disorders are by nature competitive, whether they’re driven by a desire for control or rooted in body image, these photos can further the comparison game from either perspective. I think body representation is vital. Seeing bodies of all abilities, races, genders, and sizes on social media and in marketing is a great thing, but when they’re so often contrasted with pictures of suffering some people can’t help but take it as an assault to their competitive urges. Urges that are hard to wrestle with no matter what stage of your recovery. There’s a reason we don’t discuss numbers and triggering behaviours in the groups I go to, because they are primarily that – triggering. Someone else’s lowest weight or worst behaviours have nothing to do with your own. The gory details are not necessary in telling your story.
I think they can be positive in reminding us that self-love (or even self-acceptance) might be possible after all, no matter what your body looks like, but I think these benefits stand alone without having to reveal the “before” photo. Body acceptance and self-love can have surprisingly little to do with external appearance. It can be wonderful to see people embracing their healthier selves and feeling happy and confident, however if you are unable to embrace your own weight gain at first or you struggle to love every stretch mark (as you often see advocated for on social media), this contrast can sometimes feel like a thorn in your side. It’s not as easy as looking through rose coloured glasses and if you aren’t able to look at your own transformation photos with pride like others seem to be doing, it can feel like you’re less successful. I think it really comes down to the innate positives and negatives of social media and social comparison. Being constantly exposed to how others journeys appear allows us to contrast them to our own and feel inferior, whether it’s in suffering or in recovery.
I also tend to think that in sharing this aspect of recovery it takes something that is far beyond a physical illness and focuses on the external. This contributes to the skewed beliefs people have about eating disorders. Malnutrition happens at any weight. Suffering happens at any weight. Before and after photos tend to fit into a specific mould that aligns with outdated systems like the BMI (i.e. slim = healthy) and it perpetuates the belief that the severity your illness can be determined by how much you weigh. Likewise I think it focuses too much on the “weight restoration” aspect of recovery instead of on the internal mental recovery. People can be “normal“ weights and still very much struggling. People can be ANY weight and still very much struggling. Yes your weight is likely to change but it might not, and the way it does change won’t look the same from person to person. The more important change is the internal one. Everything you have fought through and worked towards that you can’t see. That work is hard at any weight. That work is worth it, and necessary at any “starting” weight.
For those of us who post transformation photos it can feel validating. We might even feel the need to disclose what we’ve been through, but do we really need to share the triggering details? To me I just think it has more potential to harm than help. I understand that the photos can indeed be encouraging and potentially give a sense of hope to some, but more often than not it seems to do the opposite. Sharing triggering details about disordered behaviours might have a place in your recovery journey but it shouldn’t have to do with other people. Unfortunately, I understand that it’s hard to avoid this kind of thing on social media so content (CW) and trigger (TW) warnings can be helpful. I’m not asking for censorship at all, I just wanted to share my perspective on the issue and remind both parties sharing and browsing online to do what’s best for themselves.