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15th May 2020

Cruel comparisons: The toxic culture of the ‘Before and After’ photos

Before and after posts are too common on social media, writer Amy Dewar considers the implications of these
Cruel comparisons: The toxic culture of the ‘Before and After’ photos
Photo: Charles Deluvio @ Unsplash

You’d have to be living under a rock these past few weeks to have missed the media hype surrounding globally renowned singer Adele. Twitter, Facebook, and countless news sites have been plastered with the same image of the slimmer 32 year old – each accompanied with hundreds of comments lauding her ‘incredible transformation’ and supposed 7 stone weight loss.

‘She’s an inspiration’. ‘She’s so beautiful now’. 

Of course, I have no problem with Adele losing weight. I recently read an article which condemned Adele for supposedly letting down plus-size women everywherea somewhat regressive statement which is more telling of the writer’s own insecurities. For me, the underlying issue is that the over-glorification of Adele’s almost unrecognisable and slimmer physique is that is debases her previously larger – but completely healthy – body.

Praise is focused principally on how much more attractive the multi-Grammy Award winning singer has become. She is an ‘inspiration’ for her physical transformation, almost nullifying her many other achievements, and, crucially, perpetuating the toxic and misguided belief that weight loss is synonymous with happiness and self-improvement.

The hype surrounding Adele’s dramatic weight loss parallels another destructive modern trend and one which has always made me uncomfortable on Instagram – the toxic culture of the ‘before and after’ transformation post. This has arguably become even more prominent in the recent months since this lockdown and the ensuing ‘productivity contest’ that is perpetuated on social media.

In such posts, the bodies depicted pre-transformation portray the supposedly ‘undesirable’ body types. For women this tends to be an undefined waist, the love handles, the touching thighs, the muffin top, whilst for men it’s any physique which doesn’t resemble a Marvel movie superhero.

Obviously, there is nothing objectively flawed about these bodies. They are perfectly healthy and normal, but the negative implication is there when it is displayed as a before photo.

Why would anyone want the before body? Who would ever want to look like that? This new, skinnier body is so much better.

Perhaps you’ve never had body hang-ups before. Perhaps your lack of visible abs has never really crossed your mind. But the criticism implied by these comparisons can lead people to question the desirability of your body type.

Is there something wrong with the body in the first image? Should I, like these people, be doing something to change it? Would I be more desirable if I did?

In addition to their denunciation of perfectly normal body types, the vast majority of the post-transformation images are grossly misleading. In many cases, our exposure to ‘before and after’ comparison comes from social media influencers who share posts to sell more of their fitness and diet plans.

Thus, body transformation images become just another marketing tool, a means of persuading the consumers – mostly impressionable young men and women on Instagram – into spending money and buying into this ideal.

More than that, they’re also used by young people to market themselves – to carefully construct an idealistic profile in the ongoing, seemingly endless battle for social media ‘clout’.

No one ever said marketing has to be transparent. Angles. Lighting. Pose. Posture. Body makeup. Time of day. Clothing. Photoshop. All powerful deceivers, all extensively used to manipulate the ‘after’ image to give the illusion of a quicker, more dramatic, more incredible transformation. Can anyone realistically (and safely) achieve such dramatic weight loss in a matter of weeks? Almost definitely not. Seeing is not necessarily believing.

Of course, some of these young people are simply proud of the progress they have made, eager to share with others the rewards of their determination and hard work. While I am happy for them, I would urge them to reconsider so publicly portraying their pre-transformation body as ‘undesirable’ – it is somewhat dismissive to their previous selves and damaging to others.

It may be extremely cliché, but it really does ring true: try to be sensitive and mindful with how you post and interact online. Denouncing and comparing body types can provoke very real and harmful issues.

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