Recently I’ve been seeing a number of before and after photos of women on social media, but in reverse — where the before looks like an after and the after looks like a before, at least compared to what we’re used to seeing in advertisements for weight-loss programs or products. These images are often posted by women who admit to having struggled with an eating disorder. The posts are meant to be body-positive and to showcase progress in recovery, to celebrate that they’ve learned to love their “after,” flaws and all, and to inspire others that they too can break free of their eating disorder and love their healthy, recovered “after.” For those of you who have seen these posts, this is nothing new.
But here’s something you might not have considered. I’ve found myself wondering lately if these “after’s” are really body-positive. Let’s look at some pros & cons.
Are these reverse before and after’s broadening the definition of beauty by increasing acceptance of larger bodies & those that deviate from the thin-ideal? Yep. Pro.
Do these images promote the idea of embracing our imperfections and really loving ourselves unapologetically without conditions? Yes. Absolutely. Pro.
But. . .
By posting & applauding images like these, are we still focusing on our appearance above all else? Well, yeah, sort of. Con. Let’s talk about all of the other wonderful “after’s” in eating disorder recovery. A well-nourished, eating disorder behavior-free body yields incredible improvements in so many of our body’s functions — our bones are stronger and we have fewer aches and pains, our hair, nails, skin undergo repair, our oral & digestive health improves, our brain isn’t so starved so that mental “fog” lifts, and our hearts aren’t under so much stress — we aren’t so preoccupied with food and imprisoned by fear, shame, and rigidity, our mood stabilizes, we develop more meaningful relationships with others, we may perform better academically or at work, we are able to discover our true passions and interests outside of food and exercise, and so much more.
Aren’t these images inspiring to those suffering from eating disorders? Like, “You can love your body too. Trust me. I did it. Stay strong!” This one is a little tougher to dissect. You could argue both sides. Some might find these reverse before and after’s inspiring. I, for one, do not. So for me, con. And I know several other women in recovery that feel the same. I see these images as a dangerous catalyst for comparison. Every body is different, and recovery looks different on everyone too. Someone who is struggling, someone in a very black-and-white, this-or-that place, might see it this way: “That body, and only that body, is what a recovered body looks like.” But what if their recovered body looks different? I can tell you where that can lead: fear, doubt, distress, and shame. Furthermore, posts like this seem to promote the idea that eating disorder recovery has a clear-cut, wrapped-up-in-a-pretty-bow ending. Like “Hey, I made it. I’m recovered!” Though some might relate, the majority of those in eating disorder recovery do not. Eating disorder recovery is often a long, zig-zaggy path, and for many it’s a life-long struggle — even if all that remains is a nagging voice that pops up every now and again to remind you that you’re not good enough, thin enough, or eating “healthy” enough.
I will admit that captions along with these posts and images can shift the take-away message to some degree, but sometimes an image says more than words do. This certainly isn’t a black-and-white issue. How we interpret these reverse before and after photos has a lot to do with where we’ve been and our own relationship with our bodies. I’m curious. What do you think? Are these posts body-positive or not-so-much?
By Jessica L. Betts, MS, RD, LD