Everybody loves a story
We all love stories, and the neater and more instantly gratifying they are, the better. When it comes to fitness, the simplest, most satisfying story is the classic ‘Before and After’. Almost exclusively, this is how the story goes: “Once Upon a Time I was bigger. Now I’m smaller and that means I’m a better, happier person. The End.”
The internet is awash with these stories. Instagram, the perfect format for simple, visual messages, is a particularly well-stocked library.* The hashtag #beforeandafterweightloss alone brings up nearly 200,000 results. There are countless variations on it that add to that number.
There is an uncomfortable similarity to many of these posts. ‘Before’ is an unflattering photo of someone looking shy and unhappy. ‘After’ involves a nicer outfit, better lighting and a big smile. The explicit message is positive. It celebrates success, happiness and pride. The subliminal message, however, perpetuates the idea that being smaller brings happiness, attractiveness and acceptance.
What’s the problem?
My uneasiness with these pictures is in no way a slight on the effort put in by the person in the photograph. I recognise the hard work that’s gone into any such transformation, but I also recognise the toll it may have taken. It’s worth bearing in mind that there are plenty of ways to get smaller which are detrimental both physically and psychologically. By encouraging us to judge the book by its cover, Before and Afters also encourage smallness by any means possible.
Not only that, but an ‘After’ isn’t necessarily a Happily Ever After. Although studies have struggled to pin down exactly what percentage of dieters will regain the weight that they have lost, it’s certainly a significant amount.** By framing success purely as weightloss, and weightloss as a short, well-defined period of out-of-the-ordinary behaviour, this cycle becomes harder to escape. If we could build a culture of seeing managing our health as an ongoing journey – one that starts at birth and ends in death – we’d build an environment in which people could be free of a vicious cycle which does good for neither mind nor body. Removing the guilt and self-hatred from the equation would allow us all to build better relationships with our bodies.
I’m not a shrink
So, the story is convenient, bite-sized, but it is only a fraction of the tale. By ignoring the less visual but more life-changing elements of increased health and fitness, ‘Before and Afters’ reduce the cultural conversation around our bodies to nothing more than the physical space we occupy.
For these reasons, there are no typical Before and After photos on my website, my Instagram or my Facebook page. I do not believe that my success as a personal trainer is primarily defined by shrinking my clients. I rate success in other ways: clients having increased confidence, finding day-to-day life easier, and above all setting goals which seem impossible and then smashing right through them. These things take time and are more keenly felt from the inside. Most importantly, they often don’t show up well in photos.
The real before and after
I have personally lost a lot of weight and have many pictures from the past I could make into readily shareable posts, but I don’t believe they would tell a story as interesting as the ones below. When I think of the real improvements to my life since I embarked on my journey into health, this is what I value.
Before: I gazed up at the Duo Torres in Bologna while my partner climbed up. I was scared of heights – still am – but didn’t trust myself to manage the stairs and basically preferred not to try.
After: I’ve had the chance to enjoy the views from Torre dos Clérigos twice after happily managing the 79m climb. I’m still terrified of heights, but I’m an experienced hand at setting myself challenges and smashing through them. I also climbed the Eiffel Tower recently too 🙂
Before: I hurt my back really badly not long before this but soldiered on in a lot of pain for months with no idea how to help myself.
After: Even through two wrist breaks and numerous other smaller injuries, I have managed to train, eat well and take care of myself.
Before: This was the first full-length photo I’d liked of myself in a very long time. I had to stand in a very specific way and have my bag in front of me to feel comfortable being photographed.
After: I just messed about on the beach while the photographer took photos. I love every jiggly, hairy, glorious moment of them.
Being the change
Take a moment to think about your health and fitness successes. What has mattered the most to you? How did it make you feel? How many of the things you really value were only about how much space you take up in the world? Sharing these stories in all their variety is a vital contribution to changing the narrative around size, health and body-image.
If this feels as important to you as it does to me, take the time this week to share some of your real Before and Afters. Let’s make this a story with a wide and wonderful cast of characters, a more complex but rewarding narrative, and a Happier Ever After for all of us.
To read more about face-to-face or online personal training with F*it Swansea, visit here.
*I haven’t included examples as I don’t think it’s cool to single out strangers on the internet.
**Finding a clear answer on this was extremely difficult. Even looking for a meta-analysis didn’t prove fruitful, so if you know of one then please do get in touch. In the studies I could find, the lowest estimate was that one third of dieters regain at least the weight they have lost. There also appears to be long-term physiological consequences for repetitive bouts of weight loss and weight gain that we’re only just beginning to understand. I’m going to try to put together a blog post on this in the future.