Leading eating disorders charities have warned people in recovery not to share “before and after” images of themselves after Demi Lovato posted such an image online.
The singer, who has previously spoken about her struggles with anorexia and bulimia, posted two side-by-side photos to her Instagram stories on Wednesday.
In the first, the 25-year-old looked noticeably thin, while the second was a more recent image. Alongside the photos, Demi told her 61.5 million followers that “recovery is possible”.
But charities have told HuffPost UK that even when these photos are shared with the best of intentions, they have the potential to be “very harmful”.
They pointed out that any images of men and women in the throws of an eating disorder could be triggering for those at risk, while photos of “emaciated body parts” can fuel misconceptions about eating disorders.
Jane Smith, chief executive of Anorexia and Bulimia Care, explained why “before and after” photos could harm those currently struggling with an eating disorder.
“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,” she told HuffPost UK.
“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.”
She pointed out that such images can also reinforce myths that “health and happiness is about your size and weight, all be it a healthier weight”.
“A healthy looking weight might mask other destructive tendencies going on, such as purging,” she said.
“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.”
A spokesperson from eating disorders charity Beat also told HuffPost UK they do not support the “use of images of severely emaciated bodies” in the media when discussing eating disorders.
“The media doesn’t cause eating disorders, but the media can strongly influence attitudes, beliefs and actions,” they said.
“Beat is particularly concerned about the typical use of images of severely emaciated bodies to routinely portray eating disorders in print and broadcast media.
“People interviewed for their life stories also frequently feel under pressure to supply pictures of themselves at their lowest weight in order to show how ill they were.”
They added that such images - in whatever form they appear - do not help build a positive understanding of eating disorders in the general public.
“They perpetuate the mistaken view that eating disorders are only about extreme thinness. More importantly, such images are potentially very harmful to people struggling to overcome anorexia in particular,” they said.
“Images, especially photographs of certain emaciated body parts, are triggering – ribcages, stomachs, collar bones, sternums and spines.”
The spokesperson said parents frequently contact Beat, detailing their distress at finding their children with “a cache or hoard of press or magazine articles about eating disorders that their child was using for inspiration or encouragement”.
“We know that eating disorders can still be misunderstood by the general public and that the stereotypical views that prevail can be harmful,” they said.
Instead of posting old photos, Smith said blogging about your experience of recovery from an eating disorder, with a focus on what helped you in recovery, is a good way to support others.
“Anorexia and Bulimia Care runs a long established befriending service inviting those who have a lived experience of eating disorders (and have achieved lasting recovery) to be trained to support people who are trying to recover,” she added.
“This is a weekly supportive role for six months or more. We know how successful this is for both sides.
“Those who are in a good stage of recovery or well recovered can also contact their local NHS eating disorder service as they welcome those with lived experience to hear the ‘patient voice’ and learn from it as well as participate in research.”
Similarly Beat suggests people in recovery from eating disorders can show support for those currently struggling by engaging in “sensitive and compassionate” discussion about the mental illness.
The charity recommends:
:: Raising awareness of the complexity of the issues, causes and risks, and challenging the stigma associated with mental health issues.
:: Bringing discussion of eating disorders into the public arena to challenge the idea that it is a trivial subject.
:: Calling for better treatment and more research into eating disorders.
:: Disseminating contact information to enable people to seek help at the earliest stage.
:: Offering advice for people directly affected, their families and others at risk.
:: Promoting the message of hope that eating disorders can be beaten with the right treatment and support.
For more information and support on eating disorders contact the organisations listed below.
HuffPost UK has contacted Demi Lovato’s team in relation to Beat’s advice and is awaiting response.
Useful websites and helplines: