I used to really enjoy looking at before and after photos of makeovers and weight loss journeys. For a moment they would give me hope that I could look better too. But there was also a small part of me that felt jealous and disappointed that I wasn’t what the “after” picture looked like in the first place, and deep down I just wished I could be better.
What I didn’t realize, though, was the bias we tend to have when it comes to these kinds of pictures. We post and view pictures and videos of ourselves or others working out and eating healthy, touting our journeys toward good health and good looking bodies. We publicly announce how much weight we’ve lost, how much weight we can lift, how far we can run, and what the new letter or number is on our clothing. We’re proud of our hard work, our healthy attitude, and our new look.
But when we go the opposite direction and gain weight, well now we have a problem. Even if Person A, who lost weight, and Person B, who gained weight, end up at the exact same size, our cultural bias is to praise Person A and wonder about Person B. We see Person B as “struggling with their weight” on the outside, while they are struggling with shame on the inside… for what? Not watching calories? Eating too much evil sugar and fat? Not exercising enough? Person B looks the same as Person A, but because h/she went up instead of down, there is both societal and personal expectation to change.
The only exception is with pregnancy. We love to post and view sweet baby bump pictures showing the beauty and progress of pregnancy. We love to see the miracle of a human growing inside another human. I mean, wow! But what happens shortly after baby is born? All of a sudden that miraculous body isn’t okay anymore, and there’s pressure both within Mom and in culture to get back to “pre-baby” shape. There are no (or rarely) photos of the post-birth stretch marks or pillow-soft belly where that newborn finds safety when she rests on her tired mama.
I just want you, dear reader, to notice the bias, whether you love before and after pictures because they make you feel inspired or hate them because they make you feel inadequate. It wasn’t until I realized the bias of before and after photos that I understood how dangerous and unhelpful these kinds of pictures can be. Especially for people in recovery or in the throes of an eating disorder. These pictures aren’t accurate measures of what health looks like or should look like.
It’s okay to be proud of the hard work we put into ourselves to feel healthy and good. I’ve spent nearly four years of hard work in anorexia recovery, and not only have I gained weight but also perspective. It is imperative to remember that life is deeper than the before and after pictures. The same drive and ability used to lose weight or meet health goals is the same drive and ability we use to love our kids, advocate for our loved ones, to spark change for justice, or to get out of bed in the morning during a season of depression. These are the deeper things that don’t show up in before and after photos, yet make all of us valuable… regardless of what we looked like before or after.