As a middle-school kid, my favorite thing to draw was “makeover” images — usually starting with a limp-haired, glasses-wearing, mousy girl (myself, to be honest) who transformed into a glamorous princess ready to take on the world.
Now that I’m an adult, and on social media, I’ve found that seemingly long-ago impulse never really disappeared completely. I love the “before and after” photos related to weight loss and muscle building, and I’ve even posted a few of my own. But sometimes, I feel some transformation envy, the kind that leaves me preoccupied with comparing myself to others.
That can be a common reaction to these type of side-by-side images, says psychotherapist Eliza Kingsford, author of “Brain-Powered Weight Loss.”
“Before-and-after photos bring up a mixed bag of emotions,” she notes. “Whether or not they are useful really depends on the individual. They might be relatable, motivating or empowering. But they can also bring up negative feelings that, in turn, produce negative actions and negative results.”
That’s why it’s important to cultivate better tactics for using these kind of photos — both to gauge your own progress, as well as use the success of other people for more motivation.
Consider these five strategies:
EMBRACE THE “BEFORE” PHOTO
Maybe you’re at your heaviest right now and don’t feel good about that or you simply don’t love the way you look, no matter what your weight or fitness level. Resist the urge to make some progress before taking that first “before” photo, suggests certified personal trainer Chris DiVecchio of Premier Mind & Body.
“All of my clients know from Day 1 that the only way we’re going to make progress is if we start with the truth, and that journey begins with a photo,” he says. “Too many people lie to themselves about where they’re at with their health by covering themselves with baggy clothes to hide their reality. That only perpetuates the problem.”
The starting photo is always the most difficult one, he adds, but by the time his clients are ready for an “after” photo, they can’t wait to strip down and show off their hard work.
USE THE PHOTOS FOR YOURSELF FIRST
Whether or not you ultimately decide to put your “before and in-progress” photos on social media, posting them shouldn’t be your major driver. Instead, take them for yourself, advises certified personal trainer and nutrition expert Corey Phelps. She’s a huge supporter of these kind of photos, as a way to combat focus on the scale.
“I urge people to take these photos to compare for themselves, not to parade them on social media, but to paint an accurate view of the facts,” she says. “There are times when the scale may not indicate how much progress has genuinely been made. These photos can be fantastic for offering visual evidence of progress.”
Using them instead as a kind of self-promotion on social media, even if you’re looking to motivate others, could lead to self-sabotage, she cautions.
DON’T WAIT FOR THAT “AFTER” MOMENT
Everyone loves a dramatic change, which is why the photos comparing big differences are so popular. But if you want to keep yourself motivated, focus much less of your energy on that “after” photo, and much more on the regular “in progress” pictures.
“Instead of the kind of photo where someone was once obese and is now a size 0, it’s better to look at — and take for yourself — the photos that show progression toward a goal,” advises registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto. “It’s more realistic and also helps people wrap their minds around the process.”
For example, she says, if you see someone start at 300 pounds, then see photos at 275 pounds, then 250, then 200 and finally 150, it gives you a better idea of what to expect if you’re at roughly that same starting weight. That’s a more empowering approach than seeing a side-by-side comparison of someone at 300 and then at 150. The same goes for yourself, and often gives you more motivation if you hit a plateau.
BE OBJECTIVE WITH OTHER PHOTOS
When looking at transformation photos as a way to inspire yourself, don’t get too hung up on how good or “perfect” they look, suggests Rissetto.
“I can make myself look like a supermodel or Shrek, depending on the day, if I slept well, and what happened the night before,” she says. “Also, you can never tell if these pictures have been doctored up with filters or editing, so I usually take them with a grain of salt.”
Instead of feeling disheartened that you don’t have similar progress within the same timeframe, keep in mind that you usually don’t know the process — especially the ups and downs — of the people you’re following on social media.
In general, it’s important to think about how you feel when you’re looking at before-and-after photos, whether they’re yours or someone else’s. Do you feel bummed that you haven’t made more progress or psyched about the path you’re on? Tap into those emotions, and if you’re in the “bummed” category, it’s important to remember each weight loss and fitness journey is unique.
“If these progress pictures make you feel stressed and worked up, it’s important to ask yourself why, and really try to understand your response,” advises Caroline Leaf, PhD, a neuroscientist and mental health expert. “That’s a sign that there is something you need to work out. Then you can use them as a source of inspiration rather than condemnation.”
For me, I’ve made an effort to recognize when that not-so-nice tendency toward comparison is building up, and I focus on bolstering my healthy habits and revisiting my goals instead of wishing I could look like the strangers on my social media feed. And I use my own photos to celebrate my progress, knowing that there isn’t really an “after,” since my fitness is an ongoing adventure.