FAQ Friday: Are Weight Transformation Images Liberating or Triggering?
by Dr. Colleen Reichmann, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
"Are the weight transformation images a good thing or are they negative for the recovery community?”
This is an important topic, because of the recent swift growth of the online pro-recovery and body positive community. The notorious “Transformation Tuesday” pictures that have historically reeked of diet culture (i.e. images of individuals pre and post-weight loss) have been commandeered by our beautiful community.
If you search #transformationtuesday on social media today, you will still find a slew of weight-loss before and after pictures. However, dotted among these pictures will be the occasional weight-gain picture- typically an individual pre and post-weight restoration during recovery from an eating disorder.
Recently another hashtag started trending - one that is more specific to the recovery community- #gainingweightiscool. A search of this hashtag will almost exclusively yield these before and after weight restoration pictures of individuals in recovery from eating disorders.
Additionally, some of the most loved body positive and recovery accounts routinely post these transformation pictures. These accounts are widely followed, and hence have the potential to deeply impact the community as a whole.
So while I am typically against black and white responses, I do tend to believe there are more negatives to these transformational images than positives. Let me explain:
These images focus on just that - images. They put a face to eating disorders. This encourages us to do what we are all subconsciously primed to do anyway - focus on someone’s appearance as a gauge to estimate how sick they are or once were. The vast majority of individuals suffering from eating disorders are not underweight-indeed many individuals with anorexia may not ever appear drastically underweight. Hence the dangerous myth that eating disorders are all about weight loss is not something that we want to perpetuate via social media.
Additionally, more simply, they encourage us to focus on the outside. We are all SO used to focusing on the outside anyway, and recovery from an eating disorder usually involves a fight to recognize that worth stems from the inside. So putting focus on visual depictions of the illness seems like a step backwards.
They ramp up competitive eating disorder voices. This is a no-brainer. These pictures are triggering for many individuals struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder. Though the message may be that #gainingweightiscool, the stark visual image of sickness leaves the door open for the eating disorder voices, saying things like, “I’m not sick enough,” or “I never got sick enough,” to creep, ever so sneakily, back in.
An important note is that some well-known body positive activists will post disclaimers on their transformation pictures to address this very point. For example, some will post pictures featuring the pre-weight restoration and post-weight restoration with a notation at the bottom to the tune of: *YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LOOK LIKE I DID FOR YOUR STRUGGLE TO BE VALID. EATING DISORDERS COME IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES*
Disclaimers like these might, however, have the drawback of speaking to rational thought, and the “I’m not sick enough” thinking is anything but rational. Rather, it’s ED thinking. For some, this notation may not be enough to break through the thoughts that come along with the triggering images once they begin. The “I’m not sick enough” thoughts can still be pervasive even after one has been well-educated about the fact those suffering come in all shapes and sizes.
They perpetuate societal misunderstanding. Society (and sometimes doctors, insurance companies, etc.) already seems to have a tough enough time grasping the fact that eating disorders have no face. ED’s affect people of all different genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, ages, and YES- body types. They Do. Not. Discriminate. And yet, the vast, vast majority of articles and educational pieces for the mass media are written about one type of eating disordered individual - the young Caucasian female with Anorexia Nervosa. Articles for the commercialized media are more often than not accompanied by images of emaciation.
Why? Because this sells. Anorexia is easily sensationalized in the media because of our current societal obsession with the thin ideal.
Those of us involved in recovery awareness and activism cannot necessarily help what a women's magazine chooses to focus on. But we can help what our social media community chooses to promote. By posting these transformation pictures, we are adding to the societal idea (as well as the eating disordered thought) that anorexia is Everybody’s Favorite Eating Disorder, and that people who are not underweight are not sick. In doing so, we are also perpetuating the tendency to overlook those suffering from other forms of this illness like Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia Nervosa, Other-Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED), and Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
They fight stigma. It cannot be denied that these transformation pictures buck the trend-among a slew of weight-loss idealization pictures, it can be so refreshing to see someone celebrating weight gain! It is a great reminder that weight loss is not always the goal, and that “healthy” can mean different things for different people.
They allow people to own their stories. The pictures can be liberating to post. Our society sends an overwhelming message that mental illness is something to hide or be ashamed of. These pictures are an attention-grabbing, incredibly courageous way of saying, “Hey! I went through something. I’m STILL going through it. And you know what? I’m not ashamed. I’m a brave warrior and I’m fighting every day.”
Also, sometimes when one goes through something as trying and difficult as an eating disorder, there is a pull to show people just how much suffering occurred. A pull to shout, “Hey! I went through hell and back, see?” After staying silent and numb for so long, (as people tend to when suffering from their eating disorder), sometimes there is that irresistible pull to break free, tell one’s story, and in turn, set it free. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
And furthermore, not everyone considers their social media account to be part of a social justice movement. Some people simply want to document their journey, and posting their pictures is 100% their right in doing so (although sometimes the pictures depicting severe emaciation do get reported and removed by Instagram).
They start a conversation. If the pictures are public (and even if they aren’t) they start a conversation. They start a conversation among strangers, family and friends. They force people to confront their own biases about weight gain and health. The pictures are a visual declaration that weight gain can be positive, beautiful, and life-saving. They are a pictorial screw-you to the diet culture script- the idea that weight loss is ALWAYS the goal and that skinnier is ALWAYS healthier no matter what. These pictures have the potential to open people’s eyes and minds to the idea that all bodies are good bodies, and that health can fit every size.
There are both positives and negatives to these transformation pictures, but my final thought would be to proceed with caution. You never know who could be triggered by the image.
Your journey is yours to own, so of course it is within your right to post your photos and empower yourself and your recovery. I would simply suggest that you be deeply thoughtful about what your reason is for posting the pictures before doing so. Consider not putting too much emphasis on them, and instead focusing on your inner strength, your mind, your newfound ability to deal with tough emotions, and your fresh starts in relationships.
Eating disorder recovery involves so, so much more than the outside.
And, as a final note to the well-known body positive accounts: please use the images sparingly. You are all doing such amazing, impactful work. Your message is SO important, and you have the potential to influence so many. So while your journey may have involved weight gain, there are an infinite amount of other variables involved that make you YOU. Be sure to shine a STRONG light on those as well.
About the Author:
Dr. Colleen Reichmann is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing in Virginia Beach. She works in a group practice, and is a staff psychologist at the College of William and Mary. She is an eating disorders and women's issues specialist She is an advocate for feminism, body positivity, health at every size, and FULL recovery. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, or send her an email.
*The views expressed in this posting are based on this writer’s professional knowledge, training, and experience in accord with current and relevant psychological literature and practice. These views do not indicate that a professional relationship has been established with any recipients. Readers should consult with their primary medical professionals for specific feedback about any and all questions.