“Before and after” body transformation photos used to be relegated to late-night infomercials or old magazine fad diet ads, but now you can’t click on IG or FB without seeing the dramatic comparison pics from your old friend selling those shakes and skinny wraps or those fitness buffs showing you that you can get a “bikini body” too!
Though it’s tempting to scroll through these dramatic and persuasive images while longing for the days when our bodies will look like those “afters” with thousands of likes and perfectly happy lives, we want to add a word of caution. Your body is not a “before” or an “after,” and neither is that woman’s changing body being shared online. You’re on a journey of a million befores and afters and a snapshot just can’t capture that beautiful reality. Sometimes those simplified, glorified comparison images actually distract people from positive health choices and experiences by turning the focus to appearance at the expense of fitness.
Let me be clear: lots of individuals post occasional transformation photos without selling any too-good-to-be-true products or being overly preoccupied with looks as opposed to fitness. This post isn’t about that. Lots of people work hard to change their lifestyles and get stronger and healthier, and simply want to share their results and what worked for them when those results show up physically. We would never discourage fitness goals or sharing fitness successes. At the same time, we also must be aware of our culture’s tendency to conflate “fitness” with “ideal body shape and size,” which ideals have changed over time and will continue to change constantly based on what makes money. (For one clear example, a protruding, rounded behind was nowhere to be seen in fitness media before just the last few years, and now it is inescapable.)
This post also is not about the young women posting before and after photos that subvert the standard idea of fat/sad-to-thin/happy, and instead show themselves at the height of an eating disorder “before” and (hopefully) in a healthier mental and physical state “after.”
Here’s what this post is about:
Too many salespeople and companies use before and after photos to package hope and sell it in the form of weight loss products, plans and services that may or may not aid anyone on their journey to health. (See this great post for more on how weight loss and hope for love, success and happiness are often linked for women.)
Too many people use before and after photos to warp health and fitness into the sexy “after” shot that doesn’t tell the whole story of how that photo came to be (too often with Photoshop, filters, great lighting, just the right poses, or even through dangerous starvation and dehydration).
Too many people follow accounts full of incredible before and after photos to work up the motivation to lose weight or get in shape, only to fall short of the appearance milestones and body ideals in those transformation shots they thought they could attain. This very often leads people to give up on their goals altogether and turn to unhealthy ways of coping with that shame.
We know transformation photos are super fun to look at. They give us a momentary thrill by attempting to show off what hard work and dedication to fitness and health look like in a snapshot. In their aspirational way, they give us a temporary high of motivation to improve our fitness, but for many people, “improving fitness” really just means “getting my body to look like hers.” Incredible “after” photos paired with the latest, greatest food/exercise plans often work as fitspo that encourages people to engage in exercise and eating habits that prioritize altering the looks of their bodies above all else. It might sound harmless, but for many people earnestly seeking to feel positively toward their bodies and improve their fitness, it isn’t.
Our culture’s fixation on defining and advertising fitness through before and after photos serves salespeople and companies very well, but it doesn’t do the rest of us much good in terms of body image or sustained progress toward real health and fitness goals. One of the major reasons why these transformation photos often distract and discourage people from healthy behaviors is that the before and after photo trend reinforces the notion that visible results are the only way to illustrate fitness success. They whisper to us that if we don’t see results like the “after” photos on the screen, we aren’t succeeding at health and fitness. This is an affront to actual health and fitness! Did you know most women give up on exercise routines because they interpret their efforts as failing when they don’t reach the appearance-related milestones they hoped they would? When their cellulite doesn’t leave or their love handles don’t disappear or their abs or thighs don’t tighten up, they give up on working out and eating a healthy, balanced diet. They often turn to unhealthy means of achieving those body goals at any cost, or even turn to a more sedentary lifestyle and binge eating to cope. Both alternatives are the worst.
Pay attention to how you feel when you scroll through “inspirational” images like before and after pics posted by companies online, or when you look through your own transformation photos. You might run up against Teddy Roosevelt’s hard truth: comparison is the thief of joy. Comparing what you looked like when you were thinner or younger or prettier to your current state rarely induces genuine feelings of joy and gladness. You’re left either wishing you’d have loved yourself when you looked “better” or wondering why you’ve “let yourself go” in one way or another. And the reverse is also true: Comparing what you looked like when you were heavier or less muscular to your current state rarely induces genuine feelings of joy and gladness. Because you will start to wonder how you ever “let yourself go” or you’ll take an inventory of the things you still need to improve to look better, or compare yourself to someone else’s transformation photos and come up short. What if your “after” looks like someone else’s supposedly depressing and unfortunate “before”?! (That happens all the time!) All that comparison leads to feelings of shame and low self-esteem, and we just can’t have any more of that.
Before and after photos also tend to reinforce the assumption that you can document your life based on what your body looks like, but you can’t really illustrate your health, fitness, progress, or happiness just through the appearance of your body. The look of your body really does not always illustrate healthy eating and exercise behaviors in the ways before and after photos glorify and promise – it’s just not the way our bodies work. Many people run marathons, complete triathlons, have healthy, balanced eating habits, and perfect blood pressure, blood sugar, resting heart rate and cardiovascular health — and STILL don’t have a body you would ever see in a fitness magazine or even featured in a typical “after” photo. Alternatively, lots of people go to unhealthy extremes like disordered eating, over-exercising, using unsafe diet pills, steroids, and cosmetic surgery to achieve the look of health and then show up in fitness magazines and appear as “after” bodies in ads and posts with millions of followers. (Ask many former bikini fitness competitors and they’ll tell you the dangerous extremes many resort to.) Let’s not forget that these transformation photos are SO easily manipulated and manipulative! Check out the#30secondtransformation hashtag to see people taking “progress” photos 30 seconds apart to prove how easy it is to pose in ways that appear to reflect major weight loss and muscle tone. Anyone can add easy filters and photo altering apps to create a truly unreal “after.”
Additionally, those “after” photos don’t accurately reflect positive body image, self-esteem, mental well-being or happiness. Some people in transformation photos are much happier in their “after” photos, but many people aren’t any happier or feeling any more positively toward their bodies “after” — especially if their lives now revolve around restriction, deprivation and obsession with food and exercise. As much as we want to believe “before” photos always represent depression and lack of self-control while “after” photos always represent perfect self-control, happiness, desirability, and endless confidence, those are myths. Extremely common, money-making, hope-generating myths.
Take me (Lexie, co-director of Beauty Redefined) for example. At my thinnest, I spent a lot of time working out alone, ate a steady diet of celery and cucumbers, and then randomly binged on Taco Bell in my car when I realized how starving I was or when I didn’t feel like my body looked how I wanted it to. I felt a lot of shame toward my body and felt really bad about the fact that I’d lost weight and still didn’t feel confident and ready to rock a swimsuit with pride. I was also worried that I was unlovable because I didn’t fit the ideals sold to us incessantly as the key to a happy love life. Flash forward to today. I had a baby almost seven months ago, and I weigh more than I have in a while. I’m also the happiest I’ve been in many years. I eat a balanced diet and I walk with my baby and run stairs at Lindsay’s condo (and recently beat my personal record !). I never eat Taco Bell alone in my car out of discouragement. I feel less shame toward my body than I ever felt at my thinnest. I’m in an absolutely awesome relationship with my husband that loves me as much as ever, and I think my body is pretty awesome for surviving my worst fears – pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation!
I am the walking contradiction to what before and after pics often try to claim, and so are you. You are not a before and after photo, whether you love what shows up in the photo or you don’t. Your life and your health are so much more than what any photo could claim to capture. You are on a life-long journey in this one body and your weight gain and weight loss and muscle gain and muscle loss are just that – weight fluctuations and muscle fluctuations. We should all strive to take the best care of our bodies we can, and be mindful of how we feel as we make our individual health choices. The truth that will transform your life is this: your body is an instrument, not an ornament.
When we can get out of our own heads and stop thinking of ourselves and our lives and our progress in terms of how it appears to others or compares to other snapshots in our lives, we can better focus on how we actually feel and what our bodies can actually do. Please believe that it really is possible to reach fitness milestones and accomplish amazing health goals without those feats making a visible (or visible enough) difference in our bodies to show up in an ideal “after” photo. Those self-objectifying thoughts and behaviors that keep us fixated on how our bodies appear actually water down our sacrifices and strengthening experiences to just what we can *see*. When we are really mindful of what health choices mean and feel like in our lives, trying to prove or demonstrate that hard work and dedication with a simple photo of your body is really doing a disservice to what you are actually accomplishing.
What if instead of thinking of ourselves in static, reductive terms of “before” or “after,” we thought of ourselves as in between those two points: during. Any photo you take of yourself right now is just a “during” shot. You are “during” (and enduring) a journey of a million befores and afters. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit and experience, not an ornament simply to be admired. Try to shift your thinking by remembering that the instruments and tools we use to create and accomplish things are valuable for much more than what they look like — they’re valuable for what they allow us to *do.* Our bodies should be no different. No matter where you are on your journey in this body, no matter whose “before” or “after” photos your resemble right now, please know that you are worthy of love and worthy of taking good care of your mind and body right now. As we see more than a “before body” or “after body” in ourselves, we can be more.
For a more in-depth look at the ways women’s perceptions of health have been distorted to focus on appearance, as well as exercises and tools to reshape those perceptions and behaviors, check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Program.
Illustrations commissioned for Beauty Redefined by the fantastic Michelle Christensen.