I’m finally writing about something I’ve felt compelled to write about for a while now. I started and stopped and started again, not sure how to approach this topic while also knowing I really wanted to talk about it. So here goes nothing: Read and relate and let’s start a conversation!
As you can probably guess by the title, this is all about something I love to hate: Before & After Pictures on social media. But I’ve been just as guilty of the next person of getting sucked into social media and the black hole of the internet. I’ve viewed more than my fair share of pictures of complete strangers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s quite a few that come from “health” or “foodie” accounts. Health coaches, life coaches, multi-level marketing gurus, yogis, nutritionists, body builders, and more. And perhaps also unsurprisingly, dietitians are (for the most part) absent from this group.
Why? Well, I can only speculate for others but for myself it comes down to a few reasons:
- I don’t have that many photos of myself and can rarely find a full body shot, much less one that’s perfectly posed to compare to a second photo
- My weight has been in a holding pattern of 5-6 pounds for about the last decade of my life
- If I wanted to measure meaningful changes in my health, I’d look much deeper than skin-deep
I don’t say any of these things to sound boastful or condescending. I can’t unlearn everything I’ve gained through my education and experience as a dietitian; I know that outer appearances have little to do with the overall picture of health. And I can’t be faulted for maintaining a consistent weight without a large gain or loss. A picture of me from ten years ago simply looks very similar to a picture of me now (hopefully with slightly better wardrobe choices).
Does this mean I have nothing to highlight about what I’ve achieved health-wise?
Does this mean I haven’t had to work hard or face internal struggles with body issues?
Does this mean I’m not as body confident because I’m not striking a pose in my active wear?
Does this mean I don’t know as much about nutrition or health as someone who has a Before & After?
Of course not.
And this last one is where I really struggle. Being in the business of health, it undoubtedly helps to look healthy. You wouldn’t trust a mechanic who’s car breaks down every other day, would you? So anyone working in the health industry to sell a service or product has something to gain by maximizing how healthy they look. You can earn an endorsement, no matter how subtle, because you look the part. I really struggle with the fact that someone with absolutely no background in health or nutrition is deemed as a credible source of information simply because they found what worked for them, photographed it, and shared it on a platform that reaches millions of people.
On the surface this seems harmless, right? So what, they’re a smart marketer? Think again. Social media is a breeding ground for comparison, dissatisfaction, and thought patterns that contribute to anxieties about our health and appearance. These thoughts can be less-than-beneficial at best and downright damaging or dangerous at their worst. It’s interesting to me that some of these profiles who claim to have struggled with this are consciously or unconsciously doing something to perpetuate the cycle.
I’ll pause here to say something important: In no way, shape, or form does this mean there isn’t a time and a place for Before & After shots. I strongly advocate for keeping motivating reminders around when actively working towards a goal, whatever that may be. They can be a great tool to track progress, but they shouldn’t be the ONLY tool. And in no way do my comments about Before & After shots negate or undermine any of the hard work that went into that goal. That’s not that this post is intended for. But I do take issue with them when they’re used as a seal of approval that someone is qualified to provide health and nutrition advice to others.
In the nutrition world there’s been a sweep of body-positivity recently and I sincerely hope it continues to grow. There’s plenty of reasons why many of us are no longer measuring health based on simple numbers. Just look at the areas that are currently hot research topics: gut health and the microbiome, the gut-brain connection, diet and mental health, exercise and mental health, exercise and longevity, sleep and longevity, effects of stress and inflammation in disease, epigenetics and nutrigenomics…just to name a few. Aside from bags under your eyes from sleep deprivation, it’s simply not possible to document these markers of health through a physical assessment alone. Healthy people can be all sizes, just like unhealthy people can be all sizes.
And any dietitian worth their weight (pun unintended) will tell you: it’s not about the end-result. It’s the journey and the changes that get you there. A truly healthy, balanced, sustainable lifestyle doesn’t end after 21 days, or 90 days, or one year. But fad diets do and when they do, you can bet there will be another one rolling in to take it’s place and convince you that you need to be fixed.
By segmenting life into a time of “before” and “after” you close off a huge segment of your life. Before college? Before wedding? Before kids? Putting that time stamp on yourself doesn’t show the twists and turns in the journey of life that brought you to that point. And why are we so eager to compare our current selves to the version that existed years ago? We aren’t the same people – we’ve changed and grown and learned so much that it’s simply not a fair comparison to make.
No one falls out of the clear blue sky to land at age 18, newly graduated from high school and ready to kick off their “before college” strategically angled full body shot. Life doesn’t begin there. Just like it doesn’t end when you mimic the same stance and lighting to showcase your “after working my tail off for 8 months” accomplishment.
And it is just that: making significant, noticeable changes to your outward appearance is a huge accomplishment. I can’t overstate that. If losing weight or building muscle were easy, no one would pay a second glance to something anyone could accomplish with the snap of a finger. But those images don’t tell the whole story – we only see the outer shell and see nothing of internal battles waged at the same time.
So my question is: How was that “After” really achieved? Did it take months (potentially years) of slow habit changes, reinventing a lifestyle, and recommitting to the same goals over and over? Or was it a short-term fix, cutting corners and relying on fads, trends, or products that have no evidence of being a long-term solution? And don’t get me started on the after-after shot, which is rarely or never seen. Without a date, there’s no guarantee that what we see online is current. If it isn’t, there’s no telling what’s happened in the time since that ultimate goal weight was photographed and documented. Yo-yo dieting is a real thing, and weight regain has been shown to carry more risk that simply maintaining a higher-than-normal weight but staying consistently heavy.
There’s so much more I could say about this but I’ll close it down here with a small request. The next time you see a Before & After shot as the selling piece for a product or service, dig deeper. Throw that Critical Thinking hat on and ask questions. There’s nothing wrong with congratulating someone or admiring their hard work, but if they’ve got something to sell that’s likely not what they’re after.
And I want to hear from you! What do you think?