How 'before and after' photographs promote unattainable body ideals

March 13, 2018 by Jenny Cole, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock/shutterOK

When Weight Watchers announced it would no longer be using "before and after" photographs it was met with mixed reactions. Some dieters who had successfully lost weight – and therefore had before and after photos they were proud of – felt that these so-called "transformational photos" were an important element of their motivation and could be inspirational for would-be dieters.

Other responses welcomed their removal from Weight Watchers, arguing that they were misleading and unachievable in the long term. Both sides may have a point. The key may lie in the relationship between transformation photos and the type of motivation they tap in to.

One of the reasons Weight Watchers cited for the removal of these photographs was they wanted their members to focus on adopting healthy lifestyles instead of aiming for a specific "after" . This is a very savvy response as diets are falling out favour with more people moving towards "lifestyle" approaches to health and . This argument is also supported by voices outside of the "diet industry", including the Health at Every Size movement (HAES).

Dehumanisation and body image

HAES advocates argue that a focus on weight, rather than health, and the assumption that you can diagnose health from body weight and size, leads to damaging weight stigma and the moralising and dehumanisation of people in larger bodies. Transformational photos may encourage a focus on size and weight for determining health, and those unfortunate enough to be closer to a "before" photo are positioned as having an undesirable body size, potentially impacting their self-esteem and body satisfaction.

They argue that the removal of transformational photos encourages a more inclusive approach to health not based on visible size/weight. A weight inclusive approach, which views health as multifaceted and not defined by one's weight, is a more effective, and more ethical, way to promote health.

A focus on weight as an indicator of health affects everyone and not just those in larger bodies. Appearance as a motivation for weight loss, which may be encouraged by transformation photos, can be counterproductive. This type of motivation has been shown to reduce the positive psychological impacts of health behaviours such as exercise, and actually lead to negative effects on mental health and eating habits.

Evidence for this comes from research on the benefits of exercise. We know that exercise is good for physical health and research also shows that exercise can make us feel better about our body because it encourages us to see our body in terms of what it can do, rather than what it looks like. However, there is evidence that this benefit is not enjoyed by people whose for exercise is to change their or shape.

Exercise motivations that are based on desired appearance changes are also more likely to be associated with poor outcomes such as depressive symptoms and even disordered eating. Any actions that therefore encourage a move away from the appearance motivations encouraged by transformational photos could have positive effects for how we experience being more active.

Flaws and all

The focus on "before and after" photos also feeds into general narratives in Western societies that we should always be striving for perfection and that our body is an incomplete project that requires continual investment. There is extensive evidence that repeated viewing of idealised bodies in the media prompts us to compare ourselves unfavourably to these ideals and has a detrimental effect on our satisfaction with our bodies. "After" photos provide another source of these idealised images and can make us feel like our body is not good enough, regardless of our body size.

In contrast, the positive body image movement in psychological research, and the body positive movement in Western society in general, encourages acceptance of the body as it is – flaws and all. It is common for people to view body acceptance as "letting yourself go" or, if you are overweight, as "glorifying obesity". But the research suggests that actually body acceptance is associated with positive psychological and physical .

Body appreciation has been associated with more use of sunscreen, more positive sexual outcomes, reduction in the damaging effects of idealised media images and improved mental health.

For many people, transformational photos are an important way to motivate themselves to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle. But it is important to remember that the "after" bodies in such photos are not achievable or desirable for everyone. Weight Watchers' move to discourage these photos could make positive body image more possible by removing yet another source of unattainable body ideals and encouraging healthy behaviours for their own sake.

Explore further: Women prefer health and fitness, not perfection

Related Stories

Women prefer health and fitness, not perfection

January 12, 2018
Images of fit, toned bodies on social media claim to provide fitness inspiration, but millions of photos tagged #fitspo could be having the opposite effect.

Weight-loss surgery alone won't keep the pounds off

January 30, 2018
(HealthDay)—If you think your battle against obesity ends on the operating table, you're mistaken.

Yo-yo dieting doesn't necessarily make you heavier in the long run

March 1, 2018
Many of us have lost weight to feel better about our bodies before donning a bathing suit for a beach holiday, or getting into that just-too-tight outfit for a special occasion.

How to maintain that weight loss

February 20, 2018
(HealthDay)—If you've been on a diet more than once, you know that it can be harder to maintain weight than to lose weight in the first place.

Scientists identify weight loss ripple effect

February 1, 2018
People who make an effort to lose weight aren't just helping themselves, they may be helping others too.

Exercise alone does not lead to weight loss in women—in the medium term

November 23, 2017
Knowing whether or not exercise causes people to lose weight is tricky. When people take up exercise, they often restrict their diet – consciously or unconsciously – and this can mask the effects of the exercise. In our ...

Recommended for you

Young children's oral bacteria may predict obesity

September 19, 2018
Weight gain trajectories in early childhood are related to the composition of oral bacteria of two-year-old children, suggesting that this understudied aspect of a child's microbiota—the collection of microorganisms, including ...

Rethinking an inflammatory receptor's obesity connection

September 12, 2018
Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) is a protein that plays a vital role in the body's immune response by sensing the presence of infection. It has long been thought to also sense particular types of fats, which suggested a mechanism ...

Rising European life expectancy undermined by obesity: WHO

September 12, 2018
Life expectancy in Europe continues to increase but obesity and the growing proportion of people who are overweight risks reversing this trend, the World Health Organization warned Wednesday.

Brief sleep intervention works long-term to prevent child obesity

September 6, 2018
When it comes to obesity prevention, sleep is not usually something that springs to mind, but a University of Otago research team has found we should not underestimate its importance.

Researchers develop more accurate measure of body fat

August 27, 2018
Cedars-Sinai investigators have developed a simpler and more accurate method of estimating body fat than the widely used body mass index, or BMI, with the goal of better understanding obesity.

Study suggests need to include overweight subjects in metabolic research

August 23, 2018
Children's Hospital Los Angeles investigators have demonstrated the need to include a growing constituency of obese and overweight children and adults in clinical research, with their study of a key marker for metabolism ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.