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On before-and-after weight loss photos
What do body transformation pictures do to us when we see them?
Note: Contains discussion of weight/weight loss-related numbers and disordered eating.
Five years ago, I posted to my Instagram a before-and-after photo of myself. The before image was a candid and unposed shot of me from the side. I took the after picture years later in the gym post-workout, so my arms were pumped with muscle and I stood in an intentionally flattering posture.
“-65 pounds from the college days,” I wrote in my caption, adding that exercise was crucial for my mental well-being. That’s no lie, but I felt compelled to mention my brain so the post would uplift something other than looks — on Instagram, of all places.
The image earned the most likes of anything I’ve ever posted. It seems that the most celebrated things the everyday, non-influencer woman will announce in her life are an engagement/wedding, a pregnancy/birth, or weight loss.
I consider how I talk, think, and act as someone who was once fat and now isn’t. I dig into the motivations behind everything I do with, for, and about my body; I dissociated from and ignored it for so many years that I’m compelled now to consider it constantly. Sometimes that feels obsessive. Sometimes it feels necessary.
I know why I posted the before-and-after. I was proud of myself, I wanted to share my joy, and of course, I wanted validation and those sweet, sweet likes. But I now consider something else: What do before-and-after photos do to the people seeing them?
People have been writing for years about the potential harm behind before-and-after images of weight loss. A sample:
“…one person’s before is another person’s current, and for every person feeling ‘inspired, there’s at least one person feeling like crap […] the truth about weight loss before and after pictures is that they’re hurtful, shaming, and frankly, don’t tell you a damn thing.”
“Ultimately, whatever you *think* you’re saying when you post a before and after weight loss picture, what you’re *actually* saying is that you believe the body you have now holds greater value than the body you had previously — a body similar to that which thousands of other people still have.”
“…what bothers me is the idea behind the majority of these photos: that comparing yourself is an OK thing to do, and that whatever came after is inevitably better than what was before. It’s the idea that whatever you looked like before was not good enough, and, to that end, you were not good enough, either […] No matter how much better you feel about yourself at your new weight, and no matter how great you objectively look, there’s no point shitting on what you used to be.”
I’ve ruminated on that last example, on the idea that a before-and-after photo necessarily suggests that I was not good enough and I’m now better, or that I’m shitting on how I was.
I look at my before picture and see a woman in the throes of the lowest point of a binge eating disorder, a woman who smothered her emotions with food and alcohol, a woman who was punishing and abusing herself. I don’t think that version of myself deserves “shitting on.” I think she deserves compassion.
Do I look at my before picture and think she wasn’t good enough to be loved? Respected? Left alone about my body? I don’t — in fact, when I was bigger I often felt infuriated and despondent that people treated me as if I were undeserving of such treatment. I knew I was.
My after picture is not one of a wholly better woman. I believe I’m better now (by my own standards) in a few specific ways: I don’t routinely binge to the point of anguish. I attempt to confront and understand my emotions. I’ve found that exercise helps calm the roiling seas of my mind.
But I’m also the same in many ways. Changing your body doesn’t automatically make you kinder, more thoughtful, or a better friend or partner. In some ways I’ve been and still am worse: I’ve been consumed by vanity. I’ve been fanatical about food and exercise. I’ve felt smug and self-righteous. I’ve traded old bodily anxieties for new ones.
I am not an entirely better person because I lost weight. Some things in my life are better because I did, and I did because some things in my life got better.
I can post my before-and-after photo knowing all this. An Instagram image, though, cannot tell the whole story.
In an episode of their podcast “Maintenance Phase,” writers and hosts Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon discuss Oprah Winfrey’s infamous “Wagon of Fat” episode of her talk show, when she wheeled out 67 pounds of animal fat to illustrate the weight she’d lost from being on a 400-calorie-per-day Optifast diet. (Truly one of the most reckless diets I can think of.) The hosts play an exchange Oprah has with Johnny Carson at some point after she’d lost that weight:
“I happened to look at some tapes the other day of the first time I was on this show,” Oprah tells Johnny. “Why didn’t you tell me? I looked like Shamu!”
Johnny asks: “I bet some people said they liked you better the other way [heavier]. Does that happen?”
“Yeah, they have said that, but they’re lying,” Oprah responds. “I was always one of those people who said. ‘Oh, I carried my weight well. I look back at pictures…I carried it exactly where it was.”
You’ll pardon me, but: Oprah is shitting all over herself.
Aubrey then responds to the clip:
“Part of what landed so hard is watching someone who was fatter so aggressively divorce their current self from their past self. She’s divorcing herself from her previous fat self, but she’s kind of also divorcing herself from fat people. She’s buying into all of this logic that’s like, ‘Oh, if people tell you they’re carrying it well, they’re lying. If they tell you that they like the way you look, they’re lying.’”
Oprah’s words in that clip strike me as exactly the kind of disparagement of one’s older self that I think people expect formerly fat people to do. I remember commercials for diet programs in which the subject sneered at their before image and said, “I can’t believe that was me!” before punting their former self out of frame, or throwing the old picture into a garbage can.
This kind of behavior typifies the “after” experience for many people. Aubrey Gordon has also written of how when a person loses weight they “disappear into the sunlight of thinness.” I won’t pretend that’s not how it feels. When you lose weight, people treat you better. Things are easier. Privileges abound. It’s a twisted and unfair reality that shocked me to my marrow when I experienced it. While you’re busy frolicking in that sunlight, you might find yourself forgetting that the old you was a human, too. It’s easy to be unkind to your fatter self when everyone around you was always teaching you how.
Still — I can’t recall a time when I’ve spoken about the older version of myself like that, and I didn’t in my Instagram post. But I wonder how the photo itself could make this twisted and unfair reality even worse. While I don’t think a before-and-after picture necessarily suggests I’m belittling myself, the question becomes: If you’re a person who was my size or bigger looking at my before-and-after photo, do you feel I’m belittling you?
Difficult as it might be to grapple with the notion that my post could have been a downer, I can’t be surprised. Among the suite of slow-acting poisons that are social media apps, Instagram in particular is the “worst app for young people’s mental health,” especially “fitspiration” images.
It’s clearer to me now that before-and-afters indeed don’t “tell you a damn thing,” or that they at least only tell a very limited story. Exercise nutrition coach Rachel MacPherson says: “We compare ourselves to someone else’s body and to their success without any real experience with what they did to get there, and whether or not it was healthy or sustainable. Even if those images come with a long caption explaining that person’s journey, that’s not enough.”
Even if I’d strained the caption character limit on my post to explain that it took me years to change my body and mind through non-punishing exercise I actually like, a way of eating that works for me, sleep hygiene, and maybe genetics; that I didn’t go on a starvation diet; that so much of what I’ve done hinges on addressing disordered eating habits in therapy; that I have access to resources enabling me to maintain my lifestyle and it’s not so easy for everyone — none of that speaks as loudly as an image.
Without the necessary nuance, context, and examination that social media does not afford, a comparison photo zinging across a timeline can lead people to make all kinds of assumptions that hurt me (I don’t want them to think I appetite-suppressant lollipopped my way into weight loss) and them, too (I don’t want them to think they need to use appetite-suppressant lollipops to lose weight).
We don’t know the full stories behind any before-and-after photos, but some of these photos may represent stories that are more negative than others. Some are posted by people who lost weight through dangerous or unsustainable means, or by people who now believe (or who maybe always believed) that their before, as well as all the people who look like that before, are wrong or bad, that anyone who looks like that before should do as they’ve done.
The negativity and potential for harm behind before-and-afters, then, exists on a spectrum. When we don’t know the full story, though, how can any of us tell the difference?
While I agree that before-and-after photos probably don’t “tell you a damn thing,” I’ve had trouble in the past contending with the idea that these photos are any more potentially harmful than others. I’ve gotten petulant in my head, like: “Does this mean we’re inadvertently shaming the ‘before’ hairstyle when we like someone’s salon transformation?! When someone posts a before-and-after of their newly-clear skin, we don’t seem to believe they’re suggesting that they ‘weren’t good enough’ when they had acne! They’re just sharing that they appreciate their current state. Isn’t my before-and-after post just me sharing that I appreciate my current state? Isn’t it the same?”
I’ve had to remind myself: The legacy of pernicious messaging around weight transformations is more profound — or at least, I’d argue, more visible — than that of other kinds of before-and-afters.
There’s an entire category of American television created around bodily transformations: Oprah with her wagon; TV shows about turning someone into a “Swan,” often through liposuction, or a “Loser” (who is, of course, a winner), always with a big reveal of the “new” them. “Extreme Weight Loss.” “Revenge Body.” “Celebrity Fit Club.” “I Used to Be Fat.” We’ve grown up with the constant suggestion that when it comes to our bodies, before is always what we want to get away from. Many of us are sore from a lifetime of exposure to this kind of thinking and before-and-afters prod at our wounds.
What I wasn’t keeping in mind when I made that post was that the older version of me probably would have felt dejected had she seen a photo like mine. I know that because I’ve still felt that way when looking at before-and-after photos now.
There’s a physique athlete named Ashley Kaltwasser on Instagram — she’s a bodybuilder who frequently wins at the highest levels of the sport in the “bikini” category, meaning her career revolves around attaining a tiny, chiseled package of shredded abs, a 23-inch waist, and gravity-defying glutes — a bonkers-fit beach babe, basically. I recognize that Ashley’s body has nothing to do with mine. Her history, motivations, and resources are worlds away. She gets paid to be a bonkers-fit beach babe. I get paid to feel simultaneously panicked and fatigued in front of a screen all day.
These competitors don’t walk around all year at their “stage lean” physiques, because the maintenance of such physiques is, they’ll say themselves, incredibly taxing. This isn’t regular-person or even Instagram-model fitness we’re talking about — these people develop a physique where muscles are evident and sculpted by way of relentless, targeted, expert-led training and elimination of body fat.
For that reason, they’re heavier and softer in their off-seasons. Ashley once posted a before-and-after picture of one of her “journey to competition” transformations, where in the before image she said she weighed 142 pounds, just a few pounds less than I weigh. In the stage-ready after image, she weighed 119. I saw myself in the before image, which she said prompted people to say she’d “let herself go,” even though she did not say that about herself.
Ashley’s “let herself go” body looks like mine. I saw in that photo the lengths to which I have not gone, that I could go from looking like me to looking like her, even though I would have to have an entirely different set of circumstances and motivations to even come close. I do not typically feel like shit about my body these days, but the image totally deflated me for a moment. I don’t consider this Ashley’s fault, intention, or problem. This is just how Instagram is.
When I read Ashely’s caption (even if it doesn’t hit as hard as the image) my rational mind returns. She says both versions of her body “are great” but her sport requires her to look a certain way. I can see that her before-and-after story is unique to her — she values her after body partially for its ability to earn her a living, and she got it through means that I’d bet she of all people would admit are not readily available to everyone. Her story just doesn’t have anything to do with me, so why would I feel deflated?
But I did. Just as I too can insist that my own before-and-after pictures represent only my specific situation, people will still make it about themselves and their feelings, just as I have. In the before-and-after and thinness-obsessed culture we live in, how could we not?
Ideally we’d be able to live in our rational minds when we see before-and-after photos. We’d remember that the images don’t necessarily say anything about fatness or fitness in general. I’d like to think that when any of us sees one, we can consider all that we don’t know, all the things the post has to do with that aren’t us and whether our bodies are OK.
Of course, that’s really not how we operate. As someone who does have compassion for every version of my body I’ve ever had, I’m trying to avoid hurting other people in other bodies. I don’t want other people to feel how I’ve felt about before-and-after images, even if it’s only for a second, even if it’s not entirely rational. I wouldn’t post one again now.