Before and after weight loss pictures have always irked me. And for multiple reasons.
First of all, whether on TV or social media, these pictures often portray a mostly nude person censored in such a way to hide their identity. Now I don’t have a problem with nudity, but it just feels strange to reduce another person to a headless body. This objectifying and dehumanising portrayal feels opposite to the celebration of health such pictures are attempting to depict. I’m all for celebrating a person’s journey towards health, but I don’t think these before & after pictures accurately honor such progress.
This brings me to my second point, which is that there is absolutely no possible way to determine the true health of a person through a picture of their body. Body size, shape, and weight are not accurate indicators of a person’s health, metabolic fitness, and wellbeing. Health is determined primarily by social factors as well as our genetics, actions, and behaviors- all things that are not apparent in a photograph of the body. Each person’s body is unique, and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
This is the principle behind the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement.
“Health at Every Size is the new peace movement. It supports people of all sizes in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors. It is an inclusive movement, recognizing that our social characteristics, such as our size, race, national origin, sexuality, gender, disability status, and other attributes, are assets, and acknowledges and challenges the structural and systemic forces that impinge on living well.”
Ultimately, the goal of HAES is to help all people regardless of size move towards a healthy lifestyle in their unique body. HAES aims to improve the quality of life for all individuals even if their weight does not fall within conventional height/weight guidelines. Therefore, HAES stresses the many behaviours and actions that a person can take to move towards whatever a healthy lifestyle looks like in their life, which includes a healthy relationship with food, movement, and body.
Some additional information about HAES from the Association for Size Diversity and Health:
There is considerable scientific evidence supporting the HAES approach and establishing that “obesity” is not the health risk it has been reported to be.
- Weight and BMI are poor predictors of disease and longevity. The bulk of epidemiological evidence suggests that five pounds “underweight” is more dangerous than 75 pounds “overweight”.
- Multiple studies are suggesting that a focus on weight as a health criterion is often misdirected and harmful.
So back to my initial point, I do not believe that before & after photos depict an accurate portrayal of a person’s health and wellness. We cannot accurately decipher how a person eats, whether or not they exercise, if they have a medical condition, if they smoke cigarettes or do drugs, if they drink in excess, if they feel mentally well, or any other aspect of their health by looking at their body shape, size, and weight. Therefore, I propose movement away from such photos in order to celebrate true health and a person’s journey towards it.
When we speak of progress, why not speak of increased ability, vitality, or mobility? Why not talk about feeling more engaged in life and excited about movement and activity? Why not share experiences of decreased pain and symptoms of illness? This is the kind of information that I believe most accurately depicts a person’s unique journey towards a healthy lifestyle. And we don’t get this information from a before & after picture.
People often say that they set health goals to feel better, not look better. Well, why not reflect that in the way we illustrate progress toward these goals as well?
So back to the headless before & after pictures that spread the message that health is depicted through the appearance of our bodies.
Here’s my body transformation journey toward my
eating disorder, I mean, healthy lifestyle:
Awwwww, don’t I look happy to be skinny in the picture on the right! Damn, I must have been so healthy in 2008.
But you know what’s more accurate?
Yup, no one told me that losing 30% of my body weight in one year would come with a whole slew of other problems. What started as an innocent attempt to “eat healthy” soon turned into an obsession with eating “clean”, which soon turned into orthorexia, then anorexia, then bulimia…and the cycle just went on and on.
In addition, I found myself in a deep depression and often wished that I could just not exist anymore so that I would no longer have to feel any of the emotional and physical pain that I experienced on a daily basis. My days mostly consisted of obsessing over calories and eating only the food I regarded as healthy enough. And I was eating all the good stuff: lentils, beans, colourful veggies, fruits, whole grains- you know the drill, the “clean” things. Plus it was all organic and mostly local so it was super healthy, ya know?
Anyways, each night, I would plan out my workout for the next day. I was super active and everyone applauded me for being in great shape. I biked and swam almost daily, and went rock climbing a couple nights a week. Little did people know that I would briefly black out almost anytime I stood up too quickly.
I don’t even think I need to say it, but my body was not in the least bit healthy at this time. I lost my period for about 2 years, which is a symptom of disordered eating known as amenorrhea. I fainted once while hiking and casually blamed it on altitude sickness rather than the fact that I was just not eating enough to support my body’s basic functioning. And I was constantly trying to avoid having to actually sit in my mental distress and self-hatred. My focus on weight loss offered a nice distraction from the emotional pain I was experiencing.
I don’t want to get into my full eating disorder story here. Rather, I want to make the point that it would have been impossible for anyone to decipher the true state of not only my physical health but also my mental health by looking at my “after” picture. Actually, people looked at me for a whole 7 years before anyone caught on to the fact that I had a raging eating disorder.
And this is why I think it is so important to shift our view of health to a holistic one that includes not only physical health but also mental health. You see, I’d much rather be at my all-time heaviest weight (or even higher) if it brings stability and peace to my mental wellbeing. And for me, addressing my mental health has required weight gain. It also required not exercising for over a year to heal my relationship with exercise and discover what joyful movement meant. It required that I eat candy and donuts often until I no longer obsessed about the “empty” calories or experienced tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety when faced with these foods. And finally, it required about 7 years of really intense psychological treatment to work through all of the emotional baggage that fueled my eating disorder.
So I really urge that we boycott the photos and instead highlight the true marks of progress and victories towards health and wellness.
Let’s celebrate being able to do a pull-up, walk around the block, cook eggplant for the first time, be sober for a week, quit smoking, experience less chronic pain, stretch, be self-compassionate, run a marathon, run a mile, walk a mile, bike in the park, go to therapy, pick up a child or pet, take a break, read for pleasure, improve cholesterol, take prescribed medications, resist ED behaviors, and other actions that move us towards whatever improved health uniquely looks like in each of our lives.