Eating Disorder Awareness Week: a spotlight on Before and After pictures

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness week. From March 1st to the 7th, your feed will likely be flooded with posts that aim to discourage harmful behaviour, look into the cultural and social reasons why these disorders arise and tell inspiring stories of recovery.

And a lot of before and after photos.

Ranae Von Meding, an LGBTQ+ parenting and eating disorder activist took to Instagram recently to explain why putting up a before and after photo might not be as helpful as you think.

‘Ahead of #eatingdisorderawarenessweek I’m asking you not to share your before and after pictures. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be proud/happy/relieved with how far you have come. But sharing photos with weight loss/gain just feeds into this narrative that eating disorders are about the weight.’

Von Meding has been suffering from an eating disorder from the age of 16 as well as type 1 diabetes which developed later. She has been a dedicated and outspoken champion of combatting disordered eating, flagging issues with representation, triggering campaigns and offers insight to outsiders about the mental component of this disorder that is often seen as physical.

‘Most of the time these photos are of people seriously underweight... which further reinforces the stereotype of what ED’s look like eg. Anorexia. There is a huge range of eating disorders and they don’t all look like that. Lastly these photos can be triggering as HELL to those who aren’t in recovery or have just started on that journey.

‘You can be malnourished at any weight.

‘Eating Disorders are psychiatric illnesses. One of the ways they manifest is through the physical spectrum...but that’s not the cause. They are too complex and simplifying it down to being about food or weight is NOT helpful.’

Von Meding hosts a podcast called ‘Disordered’ which discusses our relationship with food and her first-hand experience with an eating disorder. As a mother she has lots of advice for creating a positive relationship between your child and their food and dives deep into the complexities of body positivity.

Woman Standing in Front of Brown Wood Plank

Eating disorders are still a prominent problem in Irish society. BodyWhys.ie, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, had frightening statistics to share this Eating Disorder Awareness Week;

  • The prevalence eating disorders increased over the study period from 3.5% for the 2000–2006 period to 7.8% for the 2013–2018 period.
  • Eating disorders are most prevalent in females in the 15-40 age group, where up to 0.5% may develop anorexia and up to 2% may develop bulimia.
  • An estimated 20.8% of anorexia nervosa patients and 23% of bulimia nervosa patients do not recover or improve, but develop a long term or chronic form of the eating disorder.

Greyscale Photography of Woman Wearing Long-sleeved Top

But where is the root of this problem? Why does the disordered eating landscape look so bleak when we have more information than ever about signs and symptoms of eating disorders?

A 2012 study of Irish adolescents (1,841 girls, 1,190 boys) found that greater maturity in girls was associated with increased eating concerns, a higher drive for thinness and higher levels of body dissatisfaction. For boys, greater maturity was associated with lower body dissatisfaction and lower scores in the drive for thinness. Early maturing girls and late maturing boys show elevated levels of disordered eating.

According to the Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study of 2014, for children aged 12-17 years, peers, the media and self-perception are the most frequently cited influencing factors on body image. Numerous other factors listed by children include clothes, sports players, parents, other people, and how one feels after eating and exercising.

Young Asian female looking at reflection

77% of Irish adolescents ranked body image as being important to them. 57% of the young people surveyed expressed some level of satisfaction with their body image, which means 43% were dissatisfied. Negative body image is considerably more prevalent among girls than boys. When asked about what influences their body image, comparison with others ranks as the most negative influence on girls’ body image and bullying as the most negative influence on boys’ body image.

The odds of using extreme weight-control behaviours (such as vomiting or using laxatives) are 3 times higher in the highest frequency readers of magazine articles about dieting and weight-loss compared with those who did not read such magazines. In a study with 51 female patients with eating disorders, 33% of reported engaging in at least one non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) behaviour during their life-time. A study involving 365 women with eating disorders (ED) and 170 obese women found that 19.1% of ED patients engaged in at least one act of NSSI during their life-time

Man in Black Zip Up Hoodie Sitting on Purple Sofa

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Jane Smith, the chief executive of Anorexia and Bulimia Care, explained further why the use of before and after photos an actually cause more harm, rather than send the hopeful message that posters intend.

‘It’s triggering for those with eating disorders seeing ‘before’ photos as it makes them compare their own body, weight or shape, often feeling that they themselves aren’t low enough or poorly enough.’

‘It’s also demoralising for people struggling to make the journey of recovery as it looks as if it’s instantly achievable and actually, it’s a very long up and down journey with a lot of support (and treatment) needed.’

‘A healthier body shape or weight doesn’t show that mental recovery has taken place and we know that the mind takes at least six months to restore after bodily recovery has taken place. Exteriors don’t reflect interior cognition and eating disorders are complex mental health conditions with physical symptoms.’

Grayscale Photo of Person Standing on Seashore

The use of images of with severely emaciated bodies in the media when discussing eating disorders is not helpful, for either those suffering from disordered eating, or for the general public hoping to learn more. It presents only one representation of what eating disorders can look like and it can be easily romanticised by those struggling to overcome such disorders. Those sharing the images can feel they are validating their disorder and the severity of the problem, but often it can have an unintended negative knock on effect, despite the best of intentions. 

Fiona Murphy is a freelance writer, specialising in book-related content, fiction and poetry. She can be found drinking tea, craving tapas or attempting to finish her never-ending-novel.

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