When I was in middle school, the older boys in class had a joke they would play on the new 6th graders; an older kid would approach a younger one and say, “Do you want a Hurtz Donut?”
“Sure,” the naive 6th grader would say.
Then the older boy would punch you in the arm and say, “Hurts? Don’t it?!”
Then you’d rub your arm and never accept an offer for a Hurtz Donut again. Because it would be pretty nuts if people kept asking if you wanted one, then kept punching you when you said yes, right?
So why the heck are we still falling for before-and-after photos of celebrities and other prominent figures?
Before-and-after photos are the bane of my profession. They do more harm for the health of the United States than all the toys in Happy Meals ever could. Most “after” photos are lies. They’re a Happy Meal with no prize in them at all. A lie that insinuates that if you use X product or hire Y trainer, you’ll get the results implied in the juxtaposition of two photos (which are presented completely without context).
And here’s how they lie (hat tip to fitness author James Fell for these examples):
- The subjects never looked like that. Not even on the day that photo was taken. Photos are not a two-dimensional slice of the God-honest truth. Reality is three-dimensional! Between lighting tricks, camera angles, spray tans, posture and Photoshop, chances are you are not looking at reality.
- The “after” photo were shot first. Don’t believe it’s possible?
- The subjects took “something else.” Tom Hardy was asked in an interview for Men’s Journal if he used steroids to put on 40 pounds of muscle to play Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. “No, I took Smarties. What the [expletive] do you think?”
- The photos were cherry-picked. Companies who have 10,000 or 100,000+ customers can select the most appealing before-and-after photos from stacks of options.
- They don’t show you what happens after the “after” photo.
Here is a note from an honest, talented, well-meaning personal trainer posted to my forum for coaches: “I just looked back at the before/after pictures of one of our most successful transformation challenges. These people did an amazing job. Today, almost every single participant has gained all of the weight back. It made me sad. It made me feel like I failed them. Though I didn’t teach them to do anything even remotely similar to crash dieting, I suspect some did cut some corners, hoping to win. More importantly, the glue hadn’t dried long enough for anything they did during that time to stick.”
And before-and-after photos are actually far worse than just lies. They are lies that someone is making you tell yourself. A lie that if you do not achieve what you think are the same results that you see in those before-and-after photos, it’s your fault.
Before-and-after photos are similar to that middle school super-villain dishing out a Hurtz Donut.
I’ve had clients quit after a few weeks because they weren’t seeing results as fast as a late-night infomercial claimed they could get with their product. I’ve had clients think they were completely broken and unable to have any control over their bodies because they believed the lies that those commercials were making them tell themselves over and over again. I’ve had clients who think that change is not possible because it doesn’t happen like it happens on TV.
But change is possible. Real change. It starts with gradual tweaks to our decision making and requires dedication and patience to make change permanent. This is the kind of change that lasts after the “after” photo. We just have to stop believing the lies, and have to start hitting ourselves when we do.