Every year when eating disorders awareness week rolls round, social media is flooded with ‘transformation’ pictures. Rake thin girls with tubes up their noses, collarbones, rib bones, spine bones, the infamous ‘thigh gap’. Beside them, a close up of what they look like today; weight restored, bright eyes and glowing faces and a caption summarising their journey. And every year, for each transformation picture, there is a post pointing out that actually, transformation pictures aren’t all that helpful. That actually, transformation pictures fuel stigma and graphic ‘before’ photos and descriptions of people at their worst can be downright triggering.
It’s a fair point, and one I don’t think can be limited to just eating disorders.
Progress posts are uplifting to read- it is nice seeing how far people have come, the things they’ve managed to achieve, how they’ve grown and changed and learned how to live with and manage their conditions. I love seeing people I’ve followed for years acknowledge where they were before, and how things are different or have improved or gotten easier- it kind of makes your day. And I like making progress posts too. I like reflecting on where I was this time last year, or two or three years ago, and comparing myself to where I am now. I like stumbling across old photos or diary entries and seeing how they differ to ones from today. More than anything, I think it’s important to do it, because so often we get swept up in the whole business of learning to live with our illnesses that we don’t actually notice things changing as they happen. Often, it’s only when we look back that we can actually appreciate how far we’ve come.
But I think progress posts/photos can be hard to get right. I think progress posts/photos can at times come across as ‘boastful’. I think progress posts/photos can sometimes be triggering. And I think progress posts/photos can sometimes be a means of self justification, or of trying to ‘prove’ you were ill in the first place.
In order to show how far you’ve come, it is necessary to paint a picture of where you were before- but I don’t think that picture necessarily has to include every stitch you’ve had, pill you’ve swallowed, calorie you’ve skipped or counted or purged, how many hours you spent exercising or how many meals you purged a day or how many pounds you lost in a week, how many times you’ve been sectioned or hospitalised or arrested or been tube fed or handcuffed to a hospital bed or in intensive care. Equally, I don’t think photos of protruding bones or empty pill packets or pools of blood or train tracks or cannulas are entirely necessary to make your point.
Listing things off, spelling it all out in all its intimate detail can kind of, maybe, sometimes sound like boasting, like you’re ‘proud’ of it- after all, most people generally gloss over the things they’re ashamed or embarrassed about, or found difficult or traumatic. Being as specific as to cite the number of stitches in your arm, or the amount of calories you lived off each week, or to graphically describe distressing situations can be triggering for the people you’re sharing your progress with. And I think sometimes when we post progress pictures, we’re not only looking for recognition of how far we’ve come, but we’re seeking validtation from others that we were sick, that we did have something to get better from. In a way, I think progress posts and photos can be an attempt- whether consciously or subconciously- to ‘prove’ to others how bad we really had it.
And this is where I think the online recovery community feeds in. There’s a strange sense of competition online, a warped need to appear ‘sick’, and often that translates into sharing our lowest moments, the dark parts of the illness, the horrible things we’ve done or been through as a result of them, in order to seek validation of our struggles. Those that outright post lowest weights or calories consumed or stitches needed or tablets taken are usually criticised for being ‘triggering’…And so enters the ‘progress picture’- a subtle way of making those facts known, under the guise of positivity. In the case of eating disorders, body shots usually showing a lowest weight to weight restored. In the case of other conditions, fresh cuts or bright red scars, cannulas, train tracks or boxes of paracetamol, next to healed scars, a bright smile. Photos are usually accompanied by the token triggering caption: an in depth description of how things were before, including numbers (pills/weight/calories/BMI/admissions/attempts/stitches), run ins with police or hospital staff or family members or members of the public, ambulances, hospital trips. At the end, a brief summary of how things are now: better.
All of a sudden, the progress picture ceases to be about celebrating and recognising recovery, or how far we’ve come, and instead feeds into the notion that we have something to prove. Rather than being something positive, our attempts to mark progress can be construed as triggering, boastful and self justifying- “look at me, I really was sick!” And in a strange way, posting progress can be a way of clinging onto our illnesses.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like I say, recognising progress is a huge part of ‘recovery’, and usually, it’s only when we do sit back and think about where we were a few weeks, months or years ago that we can see how things have changed. Plus, I know myself that sometimes I need and want validation. I want someone to help me recognise that yeah, things were hard, and while they’re still not perfect, I’ve come helluva long way. I know that sometimes, when I reflect on the past and how things were, that there’s part of me that misses it, that in some strange, twisted way, wishes things were still as they were.
I just think we gotta be careful. I just think we shouldn’t have to justify to ourselves or anyone else how sick we were. I just think when we’re sharing our progress with others we need to ask ourselves “is including this number, this detail really going to help someone? Could it trigger someone? Is this number, this detail, this photo necessary? Will I still be able to get my point across, still be able to tell others just how much I struggled and how I felt without including this number, this detail, this graphic picture?” When you put it like that…