My entire adolescence belonged to the devil. While others were exploring their interests, figuring out their likes and dislikes, discovering they preferred science over art or that they were better at soccer than basketball, my identity was rooted in my eating disorder.
My eating disorder was my identity. It’s how I defined myself. Apart from it, I didn’t know what I loved or hated. While other kids – and then teenagers, and then young men and women – were building their identities and figuring out who they were, I was building a wall around myself, one disordered thought and behavior at a time.
And when I began recovery, I was terrified to lose that part of myself…because it was all I had. As much pain as my disorder caused me, as many relationships as it destroyed, as many years of joy as it took from me, it was weirdly comforting. I was safe in my self-destruction. It was too easy to not truly live.
Even after inpatient treatment, I still looked at old photos of myself from the worst points in my disorder. They were my guilty pleasure. They were soothing. Looking at them – along with “before” pictures friends and strangers had posted on the Internet while sharing their own stories – almost gave me a special high. Even though many of my behaviors and thoughts had subsided and I was a stronger and happier person, my new life had many uncertainties and anxieties and I missed my eating disorder. It was a noose disguised as a security blanket. Those pictures connected me to the twisted comfort of the worst times of my life.
I knew I had to stop.
This past week, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, sparked thousands of incredibly inspiring body-positive and recovery-themed posts on every social media platform imaginable. Brave men and women, both friends and strangers, shared their stories and celebrated their amazing journeys with recovery.
But one thing troubled me: the number of “before” pictures I saw on these posts.
You probably know the type of post I’m referring to. Someone posts two photos of himself or herself – one was taken during the hardest times of their disorder, and one is a more recent photo, showing a “healthier” and happier individual.
I do not want to shame anyone for having the strength and bravery to share their personal struggles. I do not want to blame anyone for the anxieties of others. But although perhaps posted with the best of intentions, these “before” pictures are dangerous.
They’re selling the exact message that NEDA Week is working against – that weight and appearance is the best measure of your health and happiness.
They reduce the severity of an eating disorder down to one’s weight and size. They simplify one’s illness down to a physique in a single photo, and often perpetuate the stereotype that skinnier equals sicker.
They enforce the competitive mindset that often accompanies an eating disorder. Those who haven’t yet sought help may feel like their disorder isn’t “bad enough” to warrant treatment because their body doesn’t resemble someone’s “before” picture. In fact, that “before” picture might become his or her new goal. Someone who is already in the recovery process might feel triggered as well. Old thoughts may return, accompanied by old behaviors.
By posting our “before” pictures, instead of focusing on how far we’ve come, we focus on how sick we were. We’re afraid to let go of our sick selves.
But letting go is important.
I know it’s hard. But we have to.
It took me a long time to delete those old photos of myself – but it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
It was a monumental step away from my disorder and toward a Sarah who likes playing softball more than running, would rather read The Fountainhead than Wintergirls, and knows she loves tomatoes because she just does, rather than because of the nutritional content or what her disorder is telling her.
I invite every one of my sisters and brothers on this recovery journey with me to try to let go of the “before,” and instead truly celebrate the “after.”
Another great article on this topic can be found here.