I’ve recently come across a comment in a fitness community on Facebook; it was a comment from a girl who shared her feelings that seeing before and after photos of people on the internet made her anxious and negatively affected her mental health.
She wrote something that resonated with me, and that, I believe, will resonate with many of you as well. She wrote that when people share their before and after photos, it’s usually perceived as if the “before me” was unhappy, “fat” and ugly, whereas the “new me” is lean, toned and pretty. The “new me” is the one that is celebrated by others.
Quite logically, it makes the impression that the before version of that person wasn’t good enough because of their weight/appearance.
And such an emphasis on the weight and the appearance, makes it seem like we can only be happy and loved and feel beautiful if our scale shows a lower number than it did a few days ago.
Why celebrating weight loss is dangerous
Sharing before and after body-transformation pictures can be toxic.
The reason why is that it can send a message that there’s a certain type of body that’s worth being celebrated more than another type of body.
It sends the message that the “after” body is not only better but that it also means that the person is now so much happier than they were before. Losing weight simply equals happiness. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We tend to compare ourselves and our bodies to those in the “after” photos.
I understand that for many of you, it may not seem like such a big deal, and you may object that everyone is responsible for themselves and their actions. That’s fair.
But what if you’re a teenager who feels really insecure about your body, and the message you receive from seeing that photo is that “If you lose weight, you can also feel beautiful.”
What if you’re an adult who struggles with body image, and seeing such a photo triggers negative thoughts towards your body and yourself even more?
The tricky part about celebrating weight loss is this – if someone works hard, if someone is dedicated to changing something, improving their physique or their health in some way, and they lose weight, of course, people feel proud of their accomplishment and proud of reaching their goal. And they should be, we shouldn’t take that away from them.
At the same time, though, by celebrating their weight loss, complimenting them on how great they look being x pounds lighter; doesn’t that put too much focus on the appearance and weight, and doesn’t that subliminally says “Okay, so you look so much better now than you did before, which basically means that you are better than you were before?”
The role of social media, influencers, and online fitness coaches
Lose weight fast in just 30 days.
A secret trick to fast weight loss.
New diet made this celebrity 20 pounds lighter.
I’m sure you’ve seen, heard, or read headlines like these multiple times throughout your life.
Not only are these “lose weight fast” bullshits potentially harmful to our physical health, but they can also do a lot of damage to our mental health, our body image and our eating habits.
So many people get inspired by these transformation pictures, and so many of them decide to go on such a journey themselves. But instead of being clear on WHY they really want to make this change, and preferably getting help from a certified personal trainer and a nutritional therapist, they follow these weight loss plans or workout plans promising quick results.
It’s understandable – it’s usually less expensive and accessible.
But it can lead to people trying to lose weight or change their bodies for the wrong reasons.
I’m someone who’s been dealing with binge eating for years, and I have a long history of eating disorders. I also know that anytime I’d decide to go on a diet or if I made a weight loss my ultimate goal, it wouldn’t end well.
Weight loss, in my mind, is the ultimate trigger for binge eating and starving yourself as a way to compensate for the binges, all accompanied by feelings of self-loath and low to no self-worth.
So, I try to avoid any kind of “temptation” to follow a crazy diet just because this before/after photo proves these great results or because this person following this particular plan looks this great.
Being on both sides of the EDs – having it and then recovering from it – I’m aware of the fact that this happens and can happen to so many people who approach weight loss as a means to happiness and self-worth.
If you follow a crazy diet plan promising you quick results, it’s usually based on the cost of cutting your calorie intake significantly rather than gradually; often restricting certain food types altogether. And even though you may lose weight pretty quickly, the consequences can be long-term.
Appearance doesn’t matter. Does it?
As much as I’d like to say that I think appearance doesn’t matter, it would be a lie. It does in some way to all of us. And I think it’s natural that we want to feel good, look good, and we want others to think we’re looking good.
But I also think that if appearance/looking a certain way is our only motivation in life/in things we do, than it’s a very, very weak one.
People who share photos of their weight transformation, fitness coaches and dietitians sharing photos of their clients, all show only one side of the transformation. The more important one, the one that happens within cannot be captured with photos or videos. And it’s the one we should be focusing on the most.
One of the dangers of celebrating someone’s weight loss is that you don’t know what mindset that person is in. What is their history with food, exercise, and body image? What was their inner motivation for losing weight or getting lean?
Maybe it’s someone with nearly unshakable self-confidence and no history of negative body image and eating disorders, and your compliment does no harm at all.
But maybe it’s somebody who is self-conscious, someone with a very fragile body image, someone with a negative relationship towards themselves, or maybe even a person with disordered eating or eating disorder.
Maybe they wanted to lose weight for health reasons, and they didn’t follow any crazy diets; but what if they were? What if they wanted to lose as much weight as quickly as possible, sticking to crazy diets because they believed that if they weighed less, they’d feel prettier and worth loving?
Looking your best physically doesn’t always reflect how you’re feeling mentally, and vice versa.
Therefore, I think there’s a very thin and dangerous and nearly-impossible-to-distinguish line between complimenting someone on their achievement and giving someone reassurance that weight loss is a way to being accepted and liked and worth celebrating.
When I was at my lowest weight, according to general belief, I must have been my happiest, living my best life. Paradoxically, I felt like shit.
What I think we should do is to take the focus off the appearance itself and put it on something more meaningful, such as our physical and mental health. Our health is complex, and it’s so much more than a number on a scale.
Being super skinny doesn’t equal healthy or happy, and not being super skinny doesn’t mean being unhappy or unworthy.