Before-and-after photos can be more harmful than helpful — here’s why

Trigger warning: The content of this article engages with weight loss and disordered eating.

The first thing I notice when I look at old photos of myself is my cheekbones.

Sharp but round, pronounced, defining — the kind of thing that could make Kris Jenner jealous. I’m always surprised and impressed, then I feel defeated. I don’t look like this anymore. My face is round and full like that emoji of the moon with a face.

I don’t make a habit of looking at old photos of myself, but being an extremely online person calls for it sometimes. Most recently, the 10-year challenge had people sharing what they look like ten years ago beside a photo of themselves today.

The social media posts that depicted positive transformations garnered hundreds and even thousands of shares. Looking at old photos of me is hard, not because I looked so bad back then — because, objectively, I looked amazing.

From my cheeks, I look at my arms, my waist, my legs — all ideal. How I looked at 16 is so vastly different from where I am at 26.  On all accounts, I’m just bigger now than I used to be. My face is less defined, my collarbone is nowhere to be found and my waist is barely doing anything for me. It’s hard to look at these features, knowing what they used to be, and present myself to the world with confidence.

But what I see in that photo from 2010 is much more complex. 

Other people see a thin-but-athletic-girl alongside my current picture, but when I look at myself in 2010, I see a girl skipping meals. I see a girl whose anxiety was so crippling she got sick in the bathroom during school nearly every day. I see a girl who worked out for two hours every day and still cried on the floor of Old Navy every time she had to try on jeans.

I see a girl whose volleyball coach told her she “didn’t have the right body type” for the team and suggested she start dieting even though she was already pretty thin.

I see a devastating combination of external actions and internal feelings that sparked a challenging relationship between a woman and what she eats — the fuel that keeps her alive.

The author at 16.

When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with the scale. I’d watch it go up (bad) and go down (good.) Fortunately, some conversations with wise adults (and Tumblr posts) helped me realize that that was not a realistic goal. Unfortunately, I shifted my focus to something I thought was less problematic, but was certainly not — transformation. I wanted my friends to see a photo of me in January compared to one from June and tell me how good I am at making myself smaller and taking up less space in the world. 

I didn’t just want to be skinny, I wanted to be skinnier, smaller, more ideal. I spent the next, well, ten years ricocheting dramatically between diets. Every time I look in the mirror, I see a few things I like, but more than that, I see potential. Such a poisonous concept. I see something that needs to be improved, tweaks that need to be made. I am constantly on the verge of greatness, but never there. I see a “before” photo.

I have worked so, so hard to get past this. Reading, listening, talking, therapy-ing, and I like myself just fine. But when I see photos of myself at 16 and 26 next to each other, like with the cutesy “10-year challenge,” my brain tells me “these are backward.” I feel as though I need to get back to what I used to look like, even though I know how terrible I felt.

I know I’m not alone in this. I’m lucky that I was nearly in college when Instagram became popular. My compatriots in Gen Z have grown up with a constant barrage of “fitspiration” posts in their faces and feeds and I cannot imagine how much that can warp one’s concept of reality.

Credit: Instagram

One study found that looking at “fitspiration” posts on Instagram led to body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem and even a worse mood. The negative effects were most pronounced for women with a preexisting tendency toward disordered eating, like me and nearly two-thirds of young adult women in America.

Most “fitspiration” imagery is easy for me, and anyone who has spent a lot of time online, to dismiss. I know I will never look like many of these influencers who are paid to be hot and thin. They sting, but they aren’t as biting as they could be.

But when influencers (and even my own friends) share their before-and-after photos in an attempt to show off the fact that “change is possible,” I start to hate myself. I’ll skip lunch, and maybe dinner. These images trigger a chain reaction in me so swiftly I can barely counteract what I recognize is a toxic thought. I know I’m not alone.

Before-and-after photos can be absolutely devastating to people who struggle with body image issues. Here’s why.

They are rooted in comparison

The first issue with these images is that, straight out of the gate, they force your brain to compare things that are not equal.

“Weight loss before-and-after photos serve one purpose: to draw comparisons,” Rachel MacPherson, a certified exercise nutrition coach and writer at Radical Strength, told In The Know. “We compare ourselves to someone else’s body and to their success without any real experience with what they did to get there, and whether or not it was healthy or sustainable.”

“Even if those images come with a long caption explaining that person’s journey, that’s not enough,” she added. “The photos alone can lead us to create unrealistic goals and resort to drastic and unhealthy measures to lose weight or keep up.”

They oversimplify the process

It may seem obvious, but photos don’t tell the whole story. They can be doctored, the timeline can be misleading or there could be essential health information missing from the posts.

“Before and after photos are an oversimplification of someone’s journey through body size change,” Liz Wyosnick, a registered dietician, told In The Know.  “I don’t doubt that the after photo is a result of hard work, dedication and sacrifice, but I’m also quite certain the after photo (can) also represent deprivation, forcing and hatred.” 

They idealize thinness

Before-and-after photos present a clear bias toward a specific body type and weight — the before image typically shows a larger body and the after image typically shows a smaller, fitter one. 

The goal of these photos is, essentially, to garner praise for shrinking oneself, and with that, make people who aren’t shrinking themselves want to do so.

“They continue to perpetuate messaging that individuals should be defined by their bodies; and the smaller, more defined bodies are obviously more successful and healthy,” Liz Wyosnick said.

Taryn A. Myers, a psychologist who specializes in body image research, told In The Know that this can have a negative impact on anyone who sees the photos.

“Pictures portraying the appearance ideal — thin for women, slender but muscular for men —  are linked to a host of negative outcomes, including body image disturbance, lower self-esteem, and thoughts of making efforts to diet or exercise to change one’s body,” she said.

They create a culture of shame

Though people might share their before-and-after photos solely to inspire others, that’s not always how they are perceived. The mission to make your unique body behave in the same way as someone else’s is always going to be a flawed one.

“The idea that ‘if they can do it, why can’t I’ does not help anyone to lose weight or obtain healthy habits,” Rachel MacPherson told In The Know. “To take care of our bodies, we need to appreciate them, not be made to feel inadequate.” 

Your journey toward better health should be focused on exactly that — your health, not your appearance, your lowest weight or your smallest body. 

If getting healthy is what you want to do, and setting goals is something that will help you get there, experts recommend counting your “non-scale victories” instead. Those can range from feeling good in your clothes to exercising for longer periods of time to just having more energy every day.

‘A work in perpetual progress’

I can’t do anything unless I know I am going to see results that I can share with people. I can’t write an article without sending it to my friends. I can’t bake a cake without posting it on social media. I can barely get dressed in the morning without opening my mouth about it. I am, without a doubt, the target audience for these posts.

I know that I’m going to spend the rest of my life struggling with my weight. That thought rattles around in my brain all day, bumping up against all my other thoughts, torturing me every time I have to walk past a reflective surface or stare into a Google Hangout camera. What gets me through is not the hope of a transformation — it’s the reminder that I am, at the risk of sounding corny, on a journey that has no defined beginning or end.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve gained weight. I’ve also survived hard times, pushed myself to limits I didn’t know existed, learned countless lessons and grown so much as a person. No photo will ever capture that. No compliment can provide me with that same level of joy.

The author now — no “before and after” necessary.

I love the “new” version of me, but I love the old one too, and every version of myself that existed in-between. My worth as a human being isn’t tied to what size pants I wear or what internet troll thinks I’ve gotten chubby. 

Your body is a work in perpetual progress — there is no “before and after.” 

If you enjoyed this article, read more about our favorite body acceptance influencers you can follow on TikTok right now.

More from In The Know:

The curvy model who walked the Chanel runway is sparking debate about what’s considered “plus size”

7 essential books to read that will educate you and your kids on anti-racism

Black-owned fashion brands you can shop on Nordstrom, Shopbop and Net-A-Porter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter to stay In The Know

Listen to the latest episode of our pop culture podcast, We Should Talk: