The Trouble with Before and After Pictures

Before After

There was a dust-up on the popular effyourbeautystandards instagram when a mod allowed someone to post “before and after” pictures of her weight loss.  People tried to explain that the idea of celebrating having a smaller body, especially with a “before and after” shot, is problematic in a body positive space. They also pointed out that before and after pictures seem to be very much the beauty standards that the community purports to want to eff.  I agree with the sentiment and I’m glad that people pointed it out (you can see the post here if you would like, trigger warning for, you know, weight loss pictures, and possibly NSFW for underwear and partial nipple.)

effyourbeautystandards decided to defend the choice and leave the picture up (and it looks like they deleted some of the comments around it, including one where the mod, in an incredibly problematic post, accused someone who was speaking out against the use of before and after pictures in a body positive space, of being against working out.)  It’s their instagram and they are allowed to include whatever they want on it. I will say that it certainly discourages me from being interested in participating, and it’s one of the reasons that I create and moderate spaces that are body positive based on my specifications – which includes absolutely no weight loss talk, which includes – obviously, I would think – before and after weight loss pictures. I find these pictures problematic for a number of reasons:

First, they are designed to create a situation where we judge bodies as good and bad or, at the very least, better and worse.  I don’t believe that anything good comes out of this, and it reinforces the idea that, especially for women, manipulation of our body size is to be of primary importance as an “accomplishment” – that until we’ve accomplished thinness, we are works in progress.

Second, they are often used in money making schemes to “help” me identify my body as bad/worse, and show me that it could be good/better if I just bought whatever they are selling. That, as my friend CJ Legare says, is trying to steal my self-esteem and sell it back to me at a profit. And that’s not something I’m going to allow to happen.

In those money making contexts, I can’t help but notice that the person in the before shot always looks miserable and in the after shot they look so happy.  The message seeming to be that anyone who looks like that cannot/should not be happy and that happiness is/should be reserved for those whose bodies are “right and good”. The worst for me is when the before picture is of someone in their sweat pants, eating on the couch before their shower; and the after picture is them standing in the sun, bronzed, sucking in until they are on the verge of fainting, fully made up, dressed up and smiling like they won the lottery. Also, let’s not forget that they can be fake as hell with or without photo re-touching.

People are allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies.  They are allowed to choose body size manipulation as a goal. They are allowed to buy into the idea that their body would be somehow “better” if it was different and they are allowed to take pictures of their body over time and make comparisons. That doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate to post those pictures in every community, which is why apparently you can post them in effyourbeautystandards, but you can’t post them in the body positive communities that I moderate.

One of the things that commenters on effyourbeautystandards pointed out was that the person could simply have posted the “after” picture by itself and celebrated her body as it is now without the need to compare it to her body at some past date.  I think that’s an excellent idea, and I think it’s worth considering the possibility that there’s no such thing as “before” and “after,” there’s only “during.”

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25 thoughts on “The Trouble with Before and After Pictures

  1. I’m with Akire. I may just write down that quote from your friend CJ Legare and put it on post-it notes to remind myself of how insidious these profit-making industries are.

  2. I *hate* before-and-after, except as an exercise in “find the differences between these two pictures”. Usually it includes better lighting, a less-sour expression, better makeup/photoshopping, better-fitting clothes, different angle…

    But mostly what bothers me is the unspoken plea to join the person in making whatever change. Sometimes it’s for profit, which is ugly; but sometimes it’s because the person felt like something was so wrong with them that there was no choice but to change their body and is looking for affirmation that they’re a good enough person now. And that just makes me sad.

  3. Yes! Life happens in the “during.” Also, I understand that in a commercial context, many “after” shots are taken first and the “before” shot when the inevitable weight regain happens.

    1. There was an entertaining piece by a guy about making before and after pictures– I can’t remember if he did this commercially or he was just doing his bit to encourage appropriate cynicism.

      He’s a moderate bodybuilder. Takes the after picture, with smile and good posture.

      Drinks a bunch of milk (possibly also soda) to get his belly to bloat. Slumps. Looks sad. Takes before picture.

  4. I…how can I say it…in the before picture half her nipple is showing. Is noone errr bothered by THAT?

    Others than that, you are right with everything you say. I especially liked the phrase with buying my self-esteem back. Spot on!

  5. I once had a coworker tell me that my sister and I should post a before and after picture with me as the before and her as the after to see if people noticed it was two different people. Now, I’m totally ok with the fact that my sister is thin and I’m fat. I know that other people see that, and I don’t care. What I’m not ok with is being told that my sister is somehow better than I am because of that. I practically dragged the coworker into another room, where I let her know exactly how mad that made me, and she apologized. Even so, it still bothers me that probably a majority of people see us that way.

    If I were to post a real before and after picture of me, the before would be skinny, depressed, self-harming me and the after would be fat, confident, happy me.

  6. There is nothing body positive about effyourbeautystandards. And they don’t “eff” anything by enforcing the sorry ass status quo.

  7. I was one of the people who called out the post for being problematic. I’m glad I took screenshots, since it was me she accused of having a problem with ‘people loving their bodies through working out.’ UGH.

  8. Wasn’t there just a thing within the past week about how some website stole a woman’s photos without her consent and used them as “before” and “after” pics, when it reality the photo they were using as the “inspiring after” was one the woman has used to illustrate how ill she had been when her eating disorder was out of control? *Sigh*

      1. Yes, thank you for finding it! I have made it a point not to look at the photos but I’m just they are trigger-horrific.

        1. That was just awful.

          It lead to another link to a story about a woman who lost 170 pounds, so Shape magazine wanted to profile her. But when she sent in her “after” picture of herself wearing a bikini, and showing off the loose skin that happens when a body loses that much mass in a short time, the magazine asked her to send a new one, with a shirt, covering up her loose skin. Because, you know, “after” is supposed to look idealized, and not make anyone say, “Wait, there’s more to weight loss than just instant beauty and social acceptance? Uhhhh, maybe I’ll just stick with my taught skin over my comfy fat.”

          Meanwhile, that woman had the confidence in her own body to wear that bikini and show that photo to the world! Yaaaay! She refused the request to cover up, and even gave up the profile in the magazine, because she was more interested in telling the truth about weight loss than in feeding the diet-industry’s fantasy narrative. I just wanted to cheer, “You go, girl!”

          1. I saw that too. It helped confirm for me that weight loss – especially losing the amount of weight I’d “need” to lose to have a “healthy” BMI – just isn’t worth it.

  9. TW: ED, mental illness

    Thank you thank you thank you! I LOATHE “transformation photos” and this narrative that tells me I’m a failure because I’m now happier, healthier, stronger, fitter and larger than what would have been an “ideal” transformation photo of a body shaped by under-eating, over-exercising, frequent binge drinking, and untreated severe depression.

  10. Thank you for your moderation, Ragen! I was on my pain pill, and that was just a silly mess. Please go ahead and delete my ramblings.

    The points I would like to make are two:

    1) There seems to be some debate on that site as to whether it is really a “before and after” posting, or just two “during” photos taken at the same time and from slightly different angles, posted together without labels. Either way, it just goes to show the pervasiveness and negative connotations of the whole “before and after” thing. People see two pictures of a headless body next to each other, and even without labels, they go right there.

    2) Which is better, before or after? Frankly, that’s completely subjective and different people have different standards of beauty, which again makes such public comparisons problematic.

    I think the original poster just wanted to post a “This is me, right now, and I like the way I look” picture, and it blew up.

    So, lesson learned – label your pictures carefully, and focus on the “I like how I look right now.” Loving yourself as you are is the best inspiration.

  11. TW: Internalized fat hate, mental illness, and general outrage

    The saddest “before” picture I’ve ever seen is in that stack of 2015 Woman’s World magazines I still haven’t found the time to put into a spreadsheet.* The featured dieter talks about how she was clinically depressed, harried by her hectic life, having trouble staying on her meds, and oh yes fat. But life got better because she reached out to her friends for help and affirmation, found a medication regime that worked, and consequently began to experience a less disorganized and hectic life cuz she got CONTROL of her badness which you can tell cuz she’s THINNNN.

    The “before” picture is of her taking part in a marathon after her meds started working and her daily routine started to fall into place. But the marathon didn’t count cuz fat.

    *If I ever get around to it, the post will be called “The Greatest Diet Ever!!!! (Of The Week).” WW puts out 52 issues per year; every single one has the greatest diet ever in it, the one that’s sure to–well, you can fill in the blanks! I wanted to dig into that claim.

  12. Thanks for this Ragen. I saw that too and hid the post. I found it really disappointing and it has stopped me wanting to participate with the page.

  13. I love this article so very much! I love that you said it is all “during”- that is so very, very true. Your friend’s quote is something I am going to write down and keep. It is also so very true! Your posts always bring me new wisdom. Thank you!

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