I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but when I was a little girl I loved princess stories. I loved the dresses, the romance, but most of all, I loved the happily ever after. You know, the part where the princess and the prince are finally together and he sweeps her away in a horse drawn carriage off into the sunset. All the villains are defeated and the princess is free to live the rest of her life in pure bliss and tranquility.
Oh if only it were just that simple.
Last week I was chatting with a friend about “before and after” pictures, in particular those featuring people with physical changes to their body. My friend, like most people, is in favor of them and thinks they’re inspirational, a good way to keep her motivated to stick with her workouts and “clean eating” plan. I, on the other hand, have a much different opinion.
The “before and after” picture is a grown up version of childhood fairy tales.
Yes, we all love a fairytale ending but unfortunately when it’s sold as reality and even worse, viewed as achievable, we’re really setting ourselves up for a load of unnecessary suffering and frustration.
Suffering and frustration in the form of yo-yo dieting, preoccupation with food and weight, exercise addiction, negative body image, body shaming and much, much more.
Answer this next question honestly:
What is your first thought when you see an incredible “before and after” photo?
“Wow! How did she do that?”
“I wish I could do that”
“I got to keep pushing myself so I can look like that one day”
“When I finally look like that my life will be so much better and I will feel so much better about myself”
So what’s the problem with looking at before and after pictures for inspiration and why am I not buying it?
1. The “after” picture is usually not happily ever after.
Most of the time when we look at an after picture we see a person who is smiling and standing tall with confidence and pride; all of which would lead us to conclude “hey, this person is really happy”. The truth is, we have no idea how they’re really feeling or by what means they’ve taken in order to manipulate their body’s appearance and size to achieve their current appearance. What did their life really look like in between their before and the after? And how do those behaviors established during that time period affect their life now? Assuming that a person is happy because they can now be placed in the socially defined category of attractive is a not always an accurate conclusion. For many people, when they arrive in their “after” picture body, the fear of regaining the weight and going back to their “before” body becomes extremely overwhelming, especially if they’re receiving a good amount of praise and attention for their recent transformation. The preoccupation with food and exercise can become all-consuming and their fear of weight gain can transform them into a prisoner in their own body.
2. If they can do it, I can do it too!
This is the primary reason before and after pictures began in the first place; it is a method of marketing for the diet and fitness industry. We are shown people we can relate to and we see the seemingly instant transformation to their body in ad after ad after ad. This not only gives us hope for ourselves, it also makes us say, “I’ll have what she’s having”. So we buy the gym membership, the juice cleanse, the diet pills, the online nutrition coaching, the “clean eating” book and when the method fails to deliver similar results we blame ourselves.
“I wasn’t disciplined enough”
“I cheated too many times”
“I’m just too lazy”
“I’m such a failure”
Did you know that 95% of all diets fail (a diet is defined as a way of eating in order to manipulate your body’s weight and shape)? So really, it isn’t that we’re the failure, it’s that dieting and exercising in order to change our body shape and weight just doesn’t work.
If we fail to realize this and internalize our body project failures we are left with shame, guilt and a pretty crappy relationship with our body.
3. Every girl needs a project, but not a body project.
When we look to before and after pictures for inspiration, we send the message to ourselves that the most important thing about us is how we look; that our appearance is a reflection of not only our health (which is not always the case) but also that what people think of our appearance is what we should be the most concerned about. We are led to believe that investing in our “body project” should be our number one priority, and while it’s important to take care of our health through good nutrition and exercise, don’t forget that health has many angles. There is mental health, spiritual health, social health, occupational health, ect. While what we eat and our physical activity do play a role in our health, it’s not the only thing to consider when looking at our overall health and well being. Investing the majority of our time, energy and attention into body projects is basically a powerless venture, meaning; it is the opposite of empowered. Instead of focusing on activities that might serve the greater good (and make us feel awesome in return) we are too busy worrying if we’ll fit into our skinny jeans by next week. Our mental real-estate becomes over-crowded with calorie counts, body shaming messages and scheduling of workouts to spend any time on anything else of real importance and real value.
So the next time you catch a glimpse of a before and after picture, just remember, the real happy ending is when you decide to stop allowing your appearance and your weight to determine your self worth, your success and your health. This is the ending where the princess rescues herself and you have the power to choose this ending. Believe me, it’s freakin sweet.