It’s Prom Season: How to Deal with Photo-Centric Events in Eating Disorder Recovery

I was never exactly excited to have my picture taken between the ages of 14 and 18. But few occasions during my teenage years provoked more stress and general resentment for the invention of the camera than senior prom. It was the spring of 2002 and my first boyfriend had unceremoniously dumped me that New Year’s Day, so I was attending the event solo, wasn’t thrilled about my dress, had been on the receiving end of a pretty unfortunate haircut—and I was just embarking on my first attempt at eating disorder recovery. I felt uncomfortable, anxious, and triggered by every click and flash as family and friends scrambled to document the moment.

Young people today arguably have it even worse: everyone has a camera in their pocket or purse, and any picture taken can be immediately shared via various social media platforms. This can make any teen feel self-conscious about their appearance (which is, after all, a hallmark of teenagehood), but it can be doubly difficult for those in eating disorder recovery.

Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies available to help young people in recovery handle the stressors of prom generally—picking a dress, body comparison, tough social dynamics, unfamiliar food, etc—and also overcome some of the unpleasant feelings they may have about having their picture taken at this and other majorly photographed events. Knowing how to prepare for the potentially overwhelming experience can go a long way in making it through the night with confidence, humor, and an authentic smile.

Understanding why prom in particular can be so triggering

Pictures are a major part of the anxiety equation when it comes to prom, and today’s teens likely feel this stress more than any generation before them because of social media. “Twenty years ago, a photo was taken and not seen by more than maybe five others and then put in a box and looked at years later,” says Equip Therapy Lead Lainy Clark. “Now, the immediacy of photos and the fact that they’re displayed for hundreds, if not thousands, of others to see and comment on, carries a lot of weight. For those navigating recovery, who are usually hyper-sensitive about their body and others’ judgements, this can cause them to live their prom night in a state of fear and self-criticism.”

According to Clark, the constant photo-taking of the night exacerbates another major source of prom season stress: the outfit. “Prom and other events that involve a dress or something not normally worn to school can be anxiety-inducing. While someone can wear sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt most days to hide or feel more comfortable in their body, they can’t do that so easily on prom night. Finding an outfit for prom is an exciting event for most young people, but for those navigating recovery, it can be really challenging to find something they’re comfortable in.”

For a person in recovery, the combination of wearing something they don’t feel comfortable in and having their photo taken constantly can “really increase the volume on the eating disorder’s self-critic station,” according to Clark.

Equip’s Director of Lived Experience, JD Ouellette, has firsthand experience with this situation, because her daughter attended senior prom while enrolled in an eating disorder recovery program. While the event was a success and a big step in her healing, it took a lot of effort and support from her friends and family.

“I cannot think of many more triggering events for someone with an eating disorder than one that typically reVolves around dressing in way that reveals lots of the body, knowing everyone is evaluating and judging—even if in a positive way—how everyone else looks, going out to a fancy dinner beforehand, and, of course, partaking in a night-long photo shoot,” Ouellette says.” I think prom in general is a fraught event for many high schoolers and an eating disorder will cause every insecurity and self-doubt to be magnified exponentially.”

How to prepare for the potential triggers of prom photos

While there’s no one surefire method for maneuvering through prom unbothered by the inevitable posing, posting, and poring over of photos, there’s a lot families can do to prepare for the event and maintain a healthy mindset. Here are some of the top tips from Equip experts:

Practice as much as possible

“Prepare your coping skills ahead of time,” advises Equip Director of Admissions Nicole Mathews. “it's best to practice coping skills when you aren't in a triggered state. If your brain is used to jumping right into finding a new diet to follow after seeing a picture of yourself, for example, you have to work to rewire that auto-response towards something that will move you forward in your recovery. Start practicing as early as you can before the event so when you’re in that stressful state, it's easier to access these newer skills.”

One strategy Mathews suggests is thought-stopping with neutral statements. “When you see a picture of yourself and your auto-response is to think something negative about your appearance, try saying a neutral statement to yourself,” she explains. “For example, ‘my body helps me move so I can dance with my friends.’ Neutral thoughts can be easier than positive, especially if you have a long history of negative thoughts about your appearance.”

Similarly, Ouellete advises talking through the whole night in advance. “Make a plan for all the bad things that could happen as well as the good ones,” she says. “Maybe you make a list of your favorite coping skills and put them on your phone in case something happens. Think about building in a couple of ‘escape breaks’ where you and a close friend find somewhere to sit and breathe and decompress for a few minutes. Definitely make an exit plan for if it all just becomes too much. I am a huge fan of role plays in advance of events like this. Is there a frenemy who is prone to passive-aggressive comments? Script your comeback in advance and practice it.” Teens can do this alone or role-play with family members, depending on what feels most comfortable to them.

Invest time in finding an outfit that feels comfortable

Landing on the right outfit can look different for everyone. If mall trips or online shopping prove too stressful or pricey, Ouellette recommends thrifting or borrowing clothes from a friend. If you do go to a store, carefully consider how you approach the issue of sizing, which can be notoriously inconsistent and triggering for many.

One piece of shopping advice I always share is to consider having the person with the eating disorder point to items and you choose the sizes and have them first try on the size that is likely to be too large. You can even cover size tags with painter's tape while you're shopping.This worked well for us,” Ouellette says.

Clark echoes the sentiment, adding that it can also be helpful to do dress rehearsals at home leading up to the event. “Buy the outfit early and try it on often,” she says. “Look in the mirror and identify the positive things you see.” She recommends young people work with their therapist and peer mentor to address internal criticisms and see themselves as brave and resilient in their prom outfit. By getting all these negative thoughts out of the way early, it makes it easier for them to feel confident and enjoy the night.

Stay connected to your feelings

“My biggest tip is to do an internal check-in,” says Equip Peer Mentor Isabella Dean. “Check in with yourself before looking in the mirror, before leaving your room, and before being bombarded by the well-meaning people in your life. Ask yourself: ‘How do I feel?’ ‘How do I want to feel going into this event?’ ‘What can I focus on that brings me joy?’ Get clear on how you're truly feeling, and most importantly, how you want to move forward into the event. By doing this, you're affirming your own resiliency and ability to handle whatever the event brings.”

Decide ahead of time how—and when—you want to handle looking at photos

“Let people take the pictures, but decide how you want to handle actually seeing the pictures,” Dean says. “For me, I usually opt not to look at the pictures until after the event, when it's become a fond memory that I want to relive. This reduces the urge to body-check in the moment, and also reduces the amount of eating disorder or body distress ‘noise’ that could take away from my enjoyment of the event.”

Remember that saying “no” is always an option

“It’s okay to decline having your photo taken by others,” Clark says. “In this day and age when your photo can end up anywhere, it’s understandable and acceptable to want to avoid the trigger of seeing a photo of yourself that someone else posted. It can also be a really good idea to avoid social media during the days after the big event. If social media often causes you to compare yourself to others or feel negatively about what you chose to wear and how your body looked, don't get on those platforms. There’s not much anyone is actually missing out on.”

While it’s also a perfectly valid option to skip out on prom altogether, Clark encourages families to explore the pros and cons together. “There is likely a tendency to not go to these events due to the discomfort it may bring up—and it may be something you regret later,” Clark says. “Instead, what if you were to lean into the discomfort and look at it as an opportunity for growth? The growth may not come without some pain and tears, but, at the end of the night or in the next year or after 10 years, you may be able to look back on that old picture and see the sparkle in your eyes, the smile on your face, and the joy in your heart, and remember that is what matters.”

Michelle Konstantinovsky
Equip Contributing Editor
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