When I started recovering from anorexia nervosa, I was convinced that my eating disorder revolved solely around my body. I thought that if I just focused on body acceptance that my problems would be solved.
Early in my recovery, I became immersed in the eating disorder recovery and body acceptance communities on Instagram.
One trend I frequently saw was other people in recovery posting drastic side-by-side full body transformation photos. On one side, there would be a sad, emaciated person, and on the other side there would be the same person looking happy and more nourished. The photos would say something like “suffering” on one side and “thriving” on the other. The captions would explain how awful the person felt in the “emaciated” photo and how their life was completely changed now that they were weight restored.
Another trend that I saw regularly on my feed was individuals having accounts that pretty much solely focused on posting photos of their bodies in either underwear or bikinis. The captions would say things like how now that they’ve started sharing these kinds of photos, their lives have drastically changed and they’ve been able to find freedom.
The problem with both of these trends is that they reinforce the idea that eating disorders are solely about food and weight, when in actuality, they go much deeper than this. In fact, for some people, eating disorders aren’t about weight at all. In addition, some people’s bodies never change either during their eating disorder or during recovery. While weight restoration is a major accomplishment that should be celebrated, weight restoration doesn’t equal recovery and doesn’t equal mental progress.
Another issue is that due to the shock value of these photos, they often receive more attention and likes than posts that are just text or that aren’t a body photo. This creates a cycle of reinforcement where people can feel that they need to post these kinds of photos in order to reach an audience and make an impact. People who are struggling can feed off of this validation and convince themselves that they’re making these posts for the right reasons, even if deep down they’re only making the posts to fit in or to gain notoriety.
After seeing these trends, I decided to post similar photos of myself.
While being vulnerable by sharing photos of my natural recovery body did help me start to combat some of my eating disorder thought patterns, it also created another form of hyperfocus on my body. Even though this was a seemingly healthier form of obsession since it wasn’t focused on self-hate, obsession is obsession, and obsession isn’t healthy. I felt pressure to constantly post these kinds of photos as a way to convince others that I was doing well and to maintain an inspiring presence, even when I wasn’t doing so great mentally.
When I posted side-by-side full body recovery transformation photos, my captions would typically explain how on the one side, my life was always terrible, and on the other side, my life was always amazing. The reality is that while my life did drastically improve once I became weight restored, that was only a tiny fraction of the improvement that I’ve now found through full recovery. By posting these photos, I was also inadvertently ostracizing other people in recovery who didn’t have drastic body transformations. By saying that my life changed when my body changed, I was likely making some eating disorder sufferers feel like their struggles were invalid if their bodies didn’t change in recovery.
Plus, by placing such a focus on my body during my recovery, I was selling myself short. While body image and weight did play a significant role in the development of my eating disorder, other root causes such as trauma, anxiety, depression, and emotional dysregulation played a much larger role. When I focused solely on my body and finding body acceptance, I skirted over these deeper issues that were perpetuating my struggles and actually inhibited myself from finding full recovery sooner. I also convinced myself that since I had a deeper level of body acceptance than when I started recovery, I didn’t have much more work to do.
I was very wrong.
When my therapy sessions shifted from focusing on my body to focusing on the underlying issues, that’s when the true, deep healing began. I learned that while food and weight did contribute to creating my eating disorder thought patterns and urges, the underlying issues I was facing contributed even more. In addition, I realized that by constantly obsessing over my body under the guise of body positivity and body acceptance, I was actually doing myself a disservice. This hyperfocus made my urges even higher because instead of realizing that I’m more than a body, I was just reducing myself to aesthetics in a different way.
This isn’t to say that occasionally posting unretouched photos in undies or a bikini in the name of body positivity or body acceptance is inherently bad. I also think that occasionally posting face transformation photos, such as seeing how the light and color in someone’s face and eyes change in recovery, can be beneficial because it doesn’t focus on body size — it instead focuses on how much brighter someone can look when they’re focusing on nourishing their body mindfully instead of engaging in eating disorder behaviors. However, I do take issue with when an account’s soul focus is posting these kinds of photos. It reinforces the stereotype that eating disorders are about vanity and appearance, when in reality they are deadly mental illnesses that affect 20 million Americans in their lifetime. Plus, these kinds of photos innately spark comparison. Even if a body photo isn’t retouched or overly posed, it can still make someone feel like they aren’t enough or that they need to post the same kinds of photos in order to truly progress in recovery.
While I do occasionally post body acceptance photos, I’ve realized that I have so much more to offer to the world than just accepting my body. My body is only a small part of who I am, and my body simply houses my soul. There are so many more valuable things that I can offer to the world and myself than simply accepting my body.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of finding body acceptance and body positivity or achieving weight restoration. However, I challenge you to go beyond your appearance in eating disorder recovery. Instead of just focusing on body image and accepting how you look, focus on the deeper issues and on mental transformation.
Today, challenge yourself to be more than a body and to find new ways to define yourself instead of just trading one form of body obsession for another.