Why “before and after” images are problematic

Why “before and after” images are problematic

If you’ve looked at a women’s magazine, or sought out any weight, diet or Eating Disorder content online, the chances are you’ve seen some “before and after” images.  These images typically come in two forms:

Type 1: a “before” picture with (typically) a female in a bigger body and an “after” image of her following weight loss.

Type 2: a “before” image of a significantly underweight (usually young and white) female, next to an image of her following a slight weight increase achieved during treatment for an Eating Disorder,

I wont be posting any example images and you are about to learn some reasons why

Firstly, these images reinforce diet culture and a very narrow projection of what an apparently ‘healthy’ body should look like.  In those Type 1 images, the person shown has often been on a diet of some sort – whether that was reducing calories, limiting food groups, or something else.  Her before image is being shown as an example of something we are essentially encouraged to dislike, often combined with a caption about hating her body.  The after image is likely to be more in keeping with today’s beauty standards, showing a thinner body, perhaps with a heavy face of makeup and proclamation of feeling more body confident.

This image reinforces to the person pictured that she is somehow now more valuable and worthy because she lost some weight.  There is typically no mention of how miserable she might have felt while sticking to the diet, how potentially harmful the method of weight loss was or how sustainable it will be.  In turn the image tells viewers that unless you are AT LEAST as thin as the after picture, you would also be more valuable and worthy if you did the same.  It tells you that to be good enough, and happy, you must look like her.  Chances are you’ve looked at one of these image sets and thought “Oh, I should try that diet”.

The problem here is that weight loss (especially in the form of an extreme diet) is often not the healthiest thing either for your body, or your mental health.  Nor should your value as a human being be attached to how many inches you are around your waist.  I mean, have you ever found yourself meeting a potential new friend and whipping out a tape measure to determine if they fit the bill?  No, I didn’t think so.  You (hopefully) focused instead on shared interests and their personality.  You thought about the things in life you might get to share and enjoy with them.  So, now please explain to me how weight loss would make them more valuable?  I assume it wouldn’t.

So, what about those Type 2 images?  Their before and after is supposed to be a projection of their hard work in Eating Disorder recovery – and to some degree it is.  However, these images reinforce the message that people with Eating Disorders are underweight (which is actually only true in around 10% of cases) and that if they gain weight they are recovered.  It really isn’t this simple.  Eating Disorders are a mental health condition and most of the struggle and recovery (whatever the weight of the person) happens within; emotionally and psychologically.

As a starting point, those “before” skinny pictures can be very triggering to other people struggling with an Eating Disorder.  Those affected often feel that they will only be deserving of Eating Disorder care, that they will only be “sick enough”, if they look at least as thin as the person pictured.  This message has become such a stigmatising reality that even Eating Disorder services often reinforce it.  Well, I’m here to tell you anyone struggling with an Eating Disorder deserves care irrespective of the way their body looks.

In addition to this, the “after” pictures are typically only posted by those individuals who gained enough weight to fit within the same narrow image of conventional beauty that the Type 1 image was painting.  This is like saying “you need to gain weight in recovery from Anorexia, but not too much weight!”.  Most people’s bodies are not as thin as the media’s current beauty standard and therefore most people in recovery from Anorexia won’t look like that.  These images can make it very hard for people in recovery to allow their body to heal fully to its HEALTHY weight.

Collectively these images also totally ignore the reality that the person in the first image might have an Eating Disorder and that either one could still be struggling emotionally just as much at the time of the “after” pictures.  They also ignore that health comes at different sizes for different people, and that some are genetically more slight, and others more curvy.  Does it even matter?

Of course, people are allowed to feel proud and want to celebrate their achievements; getting healthier if they actually have.  However, a picture of that person with a beaming smile and a caption about achieving that happiness should ALWAYS be more meaningful than minimising their journey to “before and after” photographs.

If you’ve ever posted one of these pictures, please don’t take this blog post as an attack on you.  The chances are that you had no idea about some of the deeper meaning about it, chances are you were absorbed into the subliminal messages so deeply that you felt you were posting something positive.

Let me tell you, you are worthy, and deserving, whatever your weight.

2 Comments
  • Shelly
    Posted at 02:30h, 03 November Reply

    How very true. I try hard when dealing with my teenage daughter not to get tied up in the journalistic nonsense that isr printed in the media regarding weight and body image. But it’s sometimes so hard to deal with a teenager who’s on and off the scales a couple of times a day , especially it would seem when she is menstruating, is distressed by what the scales say,and is screaming “It must be OK to have ribs removed, because Victoria Beckham has had it done – and look at the beautiful pictures of her in the magazines.

    • Kel_MHB
      Posted at 08:52h, 03 November Reply

      Oh Shelly. I’m sorry to hear about your daughters experience. If not already you might want to consider seeking some support for her. It’s possible to move on from this frame of mind and get to a healthier and happier point.

      Just to let you know i removed your last name from your comment in order to protect your daughters privacy. 🙂

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