How Transformation Photos May Contribute to Diet Culture and Racism

Back in 2018, I transformed my body.

For years, I’d struggled to get the lean, visibly muscular shape I wanted. I’d actually wanted to lose weight for most of my life despite being in a thin body. True story: I have diary entries from as early as age 7 that discuss my fear of becoming fat. And from conversations with peers and a plethora of research, I’ve learned this isn’t unusual at all.

Of course, my body was still nowhere near “perfection.” And having grown up in a culture that promises *anyone* can have a model-like body if they just work hard enough and follow a specific diet, it was kind of disappointing to realize that long, lean legs were never going to be in the cards for me. I’d never look like the celebrities I grew up idolizing.

Still, I was happy with and proud of my progress.

So I shared my transformation and the lessons I’d learned with others. I posted before-and-after photos — and my abs — on Instagram. I tried not to make it all about my aesthetic transformation. I talked about how all the fad diets and intense exercise routines I’d tried didn’t work. I explained that after putting in the work, I now had a better relationship with food, and I’d finally kicked the cycle of overdoing it and then restricting what I ate to “make up for it.” I’d realized that by making certain foods “off-limits,” I was actually making things worse for myself, and I wanted others to know how liberating it feels to want a cookie, eat one, and feel totally satisfied, knowing you can have another whenever you want.

Beyond that, I talked about how good it felt to finally hit a 200-pound deadlift and knock out five chin-ups. I also shared that changing my body did not fix my body image issues. Somehow, I still saw the same flaws 20 pounds later, and I was honest that I was still working toward feeling at least neutral about my body.

Once I shared my transformation, I started getting messages about it on social media and via email. For every person who said my takeaways about “food freedom” and putting progress over perfection helped them keep things in perspective, it seemed as if there were five others who had questions like: “I need to lose 15 pounds in 30 days. What should I do?” or “How do I get my abs to look like yours?” or “What exercises can I do to shrink my thighs?”

At the time, I was frustrated. I thought, ‘These people are totally missing the point!’ I could tell that they were looking at my transformation photos, but not reading my long captions that explained it wasn’t all about what was happening on the outside. ‘Maybe they just aren’t ready to hear this message,’ I thought.

That real problem was far more insidious. And it took a social uprising for me to realize it.

In reality, I had not only pursued a body that perpetuated diet culture — a belief system that values weight and appearance above all else — but by sharing photos that put my leaner body on a pedestal above my slightly larger body, I was amplifying a system that had already done me so much harm.

Though I was sitting with some discomfort around the response to my transformation photos, I initially took the easy way out and did nothing.

It wasn’t until I learned that diet culture by its very nature upholds white supremacy that I decided to do something. Like many others, I started doing anti-racism work following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery spurred a necessary conversation about systemic racism. I was painfully late to the game on this, and thanks to anti-racism activists and allies, I learned that wellness professionals really need to be part of the conversations around diversity and inclusion within our industry and beyond.

As I began to diversify my social media feeds and the types of wellness content I was consuming, I discovered something else that was new to me: The ideal I’d been holding myself to all these years — thin, not-too-muscular, but “full” in the right places — wasn’t just an unrealistic beauty standard but an ideal grounded in white superiority.

I ended up taking my transformation photos down.

Instead of doing it silently, I decided to post an explanation. In it, I shared that I love being part of the nutrition and fitness industry. I know that movement and nutrition have the power to help us heal and enjoy our lives in so many ways.

It’s not that I think it’s always wrong to want to lose weight. I believe you can appreciate your body and, at the same time, seek to change it in some way for health, performance, or aesthetics. That is your choice, and what you do with your body is your choice. But I have always asked my clients and those who sought my advice to consider why they want to lose weight.

And I don’t mean fitting into a certain jean size or seeing a specific number on the scale. You’ve got to go deeper.

Is it because you want to feel a certain way about yourself? Be more comfortable in your skin? Change how other people perceive you? Improve a specific health marker? Live longer?

And…could you accomplish those things without losing weight or trying to change your body?

For many people, the answer is yes.

After having these conversations, some people still ultimately choose to try to lose weight or change their body composition in some way. But understanding that shrinking your body isn’t your only option opens up a whole new world of possibilities for what “health” could mean to you.

It’s okay to have zero desire to change your body, no matter what kind of body you’re currently living in. As Chrissy King, strength coach and #BodyLiberationProject, recently said in an article she penned for Shape, people can “enter fitness spaces for reasons other than shrinking, maintaining, or otherwise manipulating their bodies.”

So here’s what I ultimately realized: My transformation photos are about me, my progress, my body, and — if I’m being entirely honest— the impact diet culture has had on me.

Sure, my progress photos might be inspiring to some people. And hey, it’s not like they’re going to be scrubbed from the internet. You can easily find them if you want thanks to Google. And I still stand by the takeaways and advice I shared along with them.

But ultimately, I’ve decided that putting my personal before-and-after photos out there does more harm than good. Why should I publicly uphold a standard that did so much damage to me — and does immeasurably more to those in marginalized bodies? If you find progress photos helpful, by all means, take them — even share them if you want to.

But I’m clear on my stance about my own personal transformation pictures: Health is about so much more than the isolated moments in side-by-side photos, and it’s time I start representing that more.

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