From all the comments you see on before-and after-pics posted on social media, many people seem to find them applause-worthy and inspirational. I’m not one of them.
As a person with a history of binge-eating disorder and the author of a book about young women’s messed up relationship with food and body size, I rarely see these side-by-side photos in my social media feeds. Instead—in addition to pictures of friends’ kids and pets—my feeds feature a lot of plus-size fashion bloggers, health-at-every-size activists, and inspirational messages from dietitians who don’t focus on weight loss.
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So when a real live before-and-after photo popped up on Twitter awhile back, I felt like I’d been hit in the gut with a brick. It was a split-image picture of a good friend in workout gear, a typical bit of fitspo. In the tweet, she mentioned that posting the picture was her way of acknowledging herself for bringing fitness back into her life, for making herself a priority, and for challenging herself athletically. In today’s busy and sedentary world, those feats are admirable and deserving of celebration. I mean, I get it: I feel like Rocky Balboa when I simply make it to the gym three times in one week!
But why the photo? Why did the illustration of her hard-earned pride in her dedication and her healthy actions have to take the form of a head-to-toe picture highlighting the changes in the size and shape of her body? Because she, like most of us, has internalized society’s idea that the ideal (read: good/acceptable/worthy) woman’s body is slim and looks “fit.”
I felt like crying—for a couple of reasons. First, far from being inspirational, the post made me feel bad about myself. A 2015 study from Australia found that looking at fitspiration posts on Instagram led to worse mood, body dissatisfaction, and lower self-esteem in the women who viewed them. And, as you might expect, the negative effects of fitspo images were most pronounced for women with a preexisting tendency toward body image concerns and/or disordered eating. Like me.
Second, I’ve done pretty much the same thing. We often hate in others what we despise in ourselves. Back in 2008 before social media was everything, I wrote an ongoing blog about how I lost 20 pounds for a magazine website. I thought I was inspiring readers, but I shudder now to think of some of the hurtful and just plain false messages (such as “thinner bodies are better and/or healthier,” “you should try to lose weight, too,” and “if I can do it, so can you”) I sent to readers. I posted pictures of myself at my lowest-ever adult weight with captions like “Does this dress make me look fat?”
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Fitspiration posts on social media—even those that talk about looking “strong” and “healthy” rather than “skinny” in the captions—reinforce the belief in that the ideal body is one that is thin and looks “fit,” studies like the one above have shown. Internalizing that belief leads many people to an effed up relationship with food and their bodies.
We’re more than our bodies. Health is more than size. And the real “wins” in life have nothing to do with the shape of your ass.
Sunny Sea Gold is a health journalist and the author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug.