For years the before and after photo has been used to sell some sort of product or service, usually a weight loss related one. It also is a way for people to keep track of, and show, their weight loss progress. ‘Before’ usually features a heavier person who looks unhappy, whereas the after is a thinner, smiling, sometimes more done up, perhaps wearing less clothes version of the first.
What does this image say?
That by changing our outside appearance we will become happier, confident and perhaps more desirable? Lately ‘healthy’ and ‘thin’ have become one in the same.
Photos though are a very small snapshot of life that nowadays can be manipulated to exemplify whatever feeling the editor chooses. It’s no longer as simple as taking a photo, developing it and ta-da!, there is a moment captured. Now we have filters, photoshop, and digital cameras that allow us to take hundreds of photos until we get it juuuuusssttt right.
We see what people want us to see. That does not always mean it is showing the whole truth.
Because thin and healthy have become synonymous things have gone beyond the simple before and after photo alone. Now personalized captions are added that discuss how much ‘healthier’ a person feels, their confidence, energy, self esteem and transformation.
Let’s play a little game:
Here are some photos of moi. They aren’t the perfect ‘before and after’ photos, but they will work. Can you pick out which ones I’m ‘healthiest’ in? Which ones do I look happiest? Most confident? Most energetic?
Here's the truth behind each of these photos:
- 2010: I was happy, but I was FAR from healthy. I was living off processed carbs. Example diet during this part of my life: PB&J's (the cheapest of all those ingredients we could find), Top Ramen, oatmeal, maybe an apple and a couple eggs, topped off with Tim Tams and wine. I started to have chronic yeast infection and guess what? I thought I was so freaking FAT. I hated my body. My sleep schedule was whack, but I was having a grand old time.
- 2014: I was healthy by all usual measures. Food, exercise, yoga, sleep...I checked all the boxes. But I may have checked them a little too enthusiastically. I feared carbs and rest days. I had a lot of hormonal imbalances that I was having difficulty healing including secondary amenorrhea and no libido. This is a few months post bikini competition and my energy had dropped WAY down. I was starting to feel apathetic toward all my former interest and my body was changing rapidly. I was losing my 'perfect' body, gaining weight and losing muscle that was totally freaking me out. I was starting to gain belly fat...(what belly? right?!) About a month later I was in a deep depression and my health went down the drain.
- 2015: I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life and I now lead a healthier life than ever. I have dealt with my perfectionism and fear around food and macronutrients, and still eat a wholesome healthy diet of whole foods. I let my body rest, I get adequate sleep, I practice self care. I move my body for fun and not because I despise it. I've gotten my menstrual cycle, libido and my laugh back...albeit things aren't always hunky dory as I deal with residual self worth stuff and I still have some health challenges.
I could have captioned those in a million different way. You would never have known what was really going on, and there are many things I still have left out.
I definitely support creating healthy habits and lifestyle, as well as nourishing ourselves through food and movement. I also understand that sometimes we gain weight because of a health issue like hormonal imbalances or depression. Let’s be honest though that has never been what the before and after photo is about.
When we caption photos like this with ‘how far we’ve come’ what does that say? Perhaps it is meant in terms of forming new eating habits and adding in some movement, BUT when these words are displayed next to two photos of a woman in her bikini it makes the message a bit confusing.
Perhaps the transformation DID actually do all these great things for a person outside the obvious weight loss part. The fact is though it’s being displayed as truth based on the fact that the person in the photo is thinner.
The very basic message this sends is:
Before = heavier, depressed, low self esteem, no confidence, lazy, slob
After = thin, strong, muscular, healthy, happy, confident, successful, disciplined
I did this when I got super fit. I had a ‘transformation’ before and after photo. I will not pretend I haven’t fallen into the trap. I did start to take nutrition seriously for health related reasons, but exercise...that was pure vanity. If you asked me why I started exercising a few years ago my honest answer would have been, “because I was sick and tired of being disgusted by myself when I looked in the mirror.” I would go to the gym every day because I wanted a new body. I was doing it because I hated what I saw, I put my value in my body and I didn’t like who I had become. Eventually I did grow to love exercise but only once I was strong and seeing my body change.
Is our weight how we define our happiness, our confidence and our health? Is fitting into certain clothes and into what society views as beautiful our motivation?
Is there a way to show our wonderful progress in health and wellness without only showing it through how thin we look in a picture? Instead why don’t we show a photo of us DOING something that makes us feel strong or energetic. Show me through your life and your actions, not your bikini or a body selfie.
It’s great that the ‘fix’s’ and programs out there are helping people learn to love movement, cooking, eating whole foods and self care….but they are still promoting the idea that our bodies define those things. If we look like the 'before,' we need to look like the 'after' because that is where confidence, energy, strength and health lie.
If it’s not just about the weight we lose but the person we become, then why is the proof a before and after body shot?
The ideas that we have to deprive ourselves, that we can only feel comfortable in our skin once we meet ______ weight loss goal, the desperation to lose that 10lbs to be happy are not what health is about.
We can love our body and still exercise and eat healthy. We can be happy with our body weight even if it is outside society's standard of beauty, we can be healthy and not look super fit. We can eat healthy, move our body and rest because we LOVE ourselves not because we are trying to lose weight.
No matter what the caption, before and after photos featuring weight loss are still sending the message that thinner = happier, healthier, confident, worthy.
Get over the before and after, think outside the photo.