Otherwise known as: the picture of yourself when you were at your lowest, or near lowest, weight often times placed adjacent to an “after” picture, or your recovered-self. As a part of advocating for increased awareness during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I actually posted the before-after photos to honeyhearted’s FaceBook page. The decision to post the photos was not made instantly; first of all, it placed me in a vulnerable position where I knew that friends or family who still weren’t aware of my past with anorexia were going to be exposed to a version of my self they had never seen before. Secondly, I had to consider WHY I was posting the photos apart from it being NEDA week.
Positive versus negative attention
Eating disorders tend to be centered a great deal around attention-seeking behavior. I’ll speak from a personal example so that I am not generalizing this. When I first began restricting and noticing the instant weight loss, I also noticed that everyone around me started showing their concern. Besides one person, who I began using my behaviors as a way to regain their attention. Manipulative? Yes. Rational at the time? My eating disorder told me it was. This is always something I have to keep in mind even after I am recovered: what is the purpose behind me sharing my story, and is it attention-seeking?
So, yes, it was attention-seeking. However, it was for a purpose outside of myself. My photos and my story were just the outlet to call attention to recovery, rather than calling attention to my past disordered self. When I would post photos in the past of my clearly malnourished face and body, it was for my anorexia to hear exactly what would keep it stuck in the cycle. “You need help.” “You’re just bones now.” Hearing statements like these from my friends and family weren’t wake-up calls at the time to me; it was negative attention that reinforced my eating disorder rather than motivate me to recover.
When I post a before picture now, it is to motivate people outside of myself by seeing what positive versus negative attention looks like. And let me tell you: it feels incredible.
Sharing the story and decreasing stigma
What is your first thought when you see someone malnourished walking down the street? The thing about photos or being “in real life” next to someone with an eating disorder is that their appearance doesn’t give half the story of what is really going on. This is where the ignorant statements such as, “just go eat a burger” are said. Or statements such as, “well she doesn’t LOOK like she has anorexia” continue to impact society’s view of what is an eating disorder, what it should look like, and “logical” solutions for them (I hope you sense the sarcasm there).
By sharing my story alongside my photos, I was able to open the window into just a little bit more of what I was actually experiencing. Half the battle of an eating disorder is the emotional struggle that restricting or engaging behaviors allows you to numb out. These are battles that aren’t seen by the public eye because all they see is either your evident weight-loss (and unhelpful pity) or lack of weight-loss (and confusion). Your story shares more to the public than your body and appearance ever could.
Eating disorders by nature tend to be private disorders. By being private, this of course allows for continued behavior engagement and to continue remaining stuck in its rules. By making my story public, it not only created a sense of accountability, but also gave me a sense of ownership over my eating disorder. “This is what I am doing to myself and my life, and I am aware of it.” Saying these words out loud, or even typing them, is initially emotionally overwhelming. However, the more the story is shared, and the more these words are said and owned, my rational and healthy mind became louder.
When we take ownership over something, it places us in the driver’s seat (or in control) over the situation. For a while I always blamed my eating disorder on my family, or on my thin identity, or my need for control. Which of course all of these things DID play a role into the development of my eating disorder and triggered it. Yet, by placing blame on ONLY these things, I was failing to realize that at the end of the day, it was still me that was refusing to eat. By taking ownership over my actions, I then had an increased ability to change them.
A constant reminder
By posting my before and after photos and my story, I was also doing something positive for myself. Was it necessarily easy to look through old photos? No. Was it enjoyable to be able to place myself back in very distinct moments that those photos portrayed and to feel all of those same emotions all over again? No, of course not. However, what it did do for me was remind myself that the girl in the before photos is a girl I never want to become again. They reveal the differences not only in weight, but in my smile. From forced to real, from using every ounce of energy I had left in my body to feeling like my smile and laugh could go on for eternity. Of course I have my days where I am anxious or where I am triggered. Sometimes these days can feel overwhelming or make me feel like I’m portraying a phony recovery. And then I look back on these photos again, and it’s made instantly clear for me how far I’ve come, and how certain I am that I will never go back.