The Robbery of Before/After Photos

We’ve all seen them. Before: a fat girl looking sad, squeezed into a exercise bra that hasn’t yet seen the bloodstains of sweat from self-hating workouts. After: a sad girl looking thin, trimly tucked inside the same bra now fitting perfectly without pudge hanging over.

If you’re anything like me, a woman too big for the magazines (but aren’t we all?) and often swiping through Instagram with a donut in hand, then maybe these photos hit you the same way — with discomfort, guilt, or self-loathing?

These photos are undoubtedly triggers for self-image issues, but what more are they doing?

Rachel Fox, a PhD student in Communication and Science Studies and former lecturer in Women's and Gender Studies, has an answer in “Against Progress: Understanding and Resisting the Temporality of Transformation Weight Loss Narratives.”*

Her paper examines the effect of before/after weight loss photos on the concept of time for dieters. When dieters focus on after photos, they create an ideal future where not only is their body thinner and smaller, but also they are more confident, happier, and accepted by society. However, doing so causes dieters to become less grounded in the present.

By striving for that after-photo future, dieters start to exist in a sort of present-past where their day-to-day living is already a part of the past. They are simply living for the future of the after photo. This lets dieters place anything unpleasant into that same past—even if they are experiencing it presently. Any problems with themselves or their life can be blamed on the fatness of their before photo and imagined as resolved in the perfect fantasy world of their after photo.

This type of fantasy living is problem discussed in depth by fat activist Kate Harding. In “The Fantasy of Being Thin,” Harding explains when losing weight “is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable [but] about becoming an entirely different person—one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the [present] fat you have,” dieters live an avoidant lifestyle. In other words, striving for an after photo can be a way to avoid all the problems attached to the before photo, including addressing the root issues of self-esteem, confidence, or anything that else that leads to unhappiness.

This after-photo fantasy distances a person from their present existence and allows avoidance of processing their day-to-day struggles and the consequential personal growth and understanding. Harding writes, “Organizing life and time in a linear way is not inherently bad, but an extreme investment in progress can be dangerous.” Essentially, this creates a sort of life that is hyper focused on the future—without living in the present.

Fox writes, “What ‘after’ photos ask us to imagine is not a slightly better version of our current lives, but a completely different life, a utopia in which losing weight fixes all our problems.” This is the heart of the issue. To give up dieting and taking before/after weight loss photos means to get to the root of our “problems” and “flaws” by working toward a different type of progress—personal reflection and compassion. This can be a scary prospect, but it is a healthier one with more growth at the end than any after photo could capture.  

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*Rachel Fox (2018) Against progress: Understanding and resisting the temporality of transformational weight loss narratives, Fat Studies, 7:2, 216-226, DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2017.1372992