Applause worthy, commendable, inspirational are all words that can be used to describe before and after photos of anyone who has overcome an Eating Disorder (ED). These photos can be well intentioned and can attempt to offer support but in reality they can have detrimental effects for those viewing them. These influencers fail to truly understand that they are posting photos to people who may be in a very vulnerable and fragile place and their photos are nothing more than triggers to another downward spiral of pain and suffering.
When someone is going through an ED like Anorexia Nervosa, their thoughts are very distorted due to being malnourished and being very under weight. They view the world through a very small, subjective lens. The filtered and often dishonest world of social media preys on low self-esteem and causes people to make unhelpful and very damaging comparisons between themselves and those whom they are viewing on the screen. Rational thinking does not happen when passively scrolling through endless pictures of extremely thin people and this allows social manipulation to continue to distort the mind of those experiencing an ED. These constant reels serve to affirm the belief to suffers, into what they think ‘healthy’ looks and feels like and so the toxic cycle of constant comparisons continues whilst their self-worth further diminishes.
There are many unforeseen problems that can be caused by these photos. Firstly, those experiencing an ED often believe they have to be thinner than the person in the photo, which leads to further food restricting. Also bear in mind that posters often show photos of themselves at their absolute thinnest, which means that some followers can use these ‘well-intentioned’ photos as a source of ‘thinspiration’. It also enables the idea that one has to be ultra thin or skinny in order to have an ED and this is simply not true and undermines the pain and suffering of others who did not see themselves represented by these photos. These photos focus on the physical self and how your healthier weight is the only thing that constitutes being healthy whilst simultaneously ignoring the more complex and internal mental struggle of an ED. Lastly they give the false sense that recovery means you gain weight and then you’re good to go but the reality couldn’t be any further from that.
In my practice, I have heard many patients use images of social media to diminish the severity of their illness. They use these photos to convince themselves and others, and to enable the illness to continue. “I am not sick enough to get help. I don’t look thin enough. That person on social media was thinner than me when they were sick so I don’t need help. I’ll get help when I get thinner that her.” are some of the many comments I have heard from patients. Their minds are already fragile and these before and after photos of weight loss can have truly devastating effects for people with an ED. Therapy is a challenging process that rebuilds a person and their self-worth gradually but being subject to these photos lays another barrier in front of these very vulnerable people as well as everything else they have to contend with.
When I opened up my own private practice, well-intentioned people suggested that I put up photos of when I was Anorexic and present day photos where you will see me fully recovered. Although this may have given my business an initial boost, it would have undermined all of my beliefs and principles regarding EDs and would have caused more pain and suffering to those whom I was and am still working with. I knew deep in my own soul that those very pictures could drive a young girl or boy into eating disorder behaviour, or at least could have contributed to it. You can be a proud survivor and be an inspiration to others by telling your story whilst at the same time not sharing before and after pictures of your ED. Those photos may boost your own self-esteem but this naivety isn’t serving anyone else but you.
However, there are many benefits of influencers sharing their struggles with ED’s in a constructive and prudent way. Listening to someone else helps us to feel less alone, less isolated, more connected and understood and most of all gives hope. By hearing about other people’s light at the end of the tunnel, sufferers can envision themselves some day of being in a better place. I myself have shared my own story on social media and in local papers and it has given the strength to people to begin their own recovery journey, be that with me as their therapist or elsewhere. The difference is that I am not naïve; I have been there and know the trigger points. These photos are raw visual representations that will be embedded into the mind of a person with an ED. I know the damage they can cause and will not post these dramatic, eye-catching photos, which may gain me more followers but will just lead to more obsessive behaviour and heartache for all.
Although the social media industry has many positives, it is also a place that capitalises on our vulnerabilities and body insecurities. We think by clicking on the ‘follow’ button that these influencers are helping us, that we have a ready-made support group but in fact it is quite the opposite. Be mindful of who you follow and be aware that many influencers have hidden agendas, be it personal, financial or perhaps they are just naive. Follow responsible influencers or simply focus on Health and Happiness. Having a positive body image is not about getting up every day and loving every single part of your body, it’s about getting up everyday and getting on with your life and your dreams. Simply put it is living your best life and being the best version of you that you can be.
Instead of being obsessed with a healthy body, focus on what and who brings you Joy.