Before I get going, I want to make it clear that I do think transformation photos can be extremely useful and positive. I encourage many of my clients who are seeking changes in body size / composition to take progress photos for themselves - tracking progress visually is so helpful when the scales don't give a clear picture, or when weight has become a fixation. People proudly sharing their transformations on social media, including a 'before' photo that previously they'd have been horrified to share with the world, can be really inspiring. They're not all bad! I also want to clarify that this article isn't trying to criticise other trainers' professional practice outright (although I hope it might encourage some to reflect a little). This post has two aims - to explain my professional values (both when working clients and generally existing on social media), and to encourage readers to think a bit more critically about the health and fitness content they view, engage with and post online.
I do understand why trainers post stripped down 'before and after' photos of their clients' physical transformations. It's the 'done thing' in the industry to: - Prove one's worth / knowledge / skill / validity as a fitness professional - Advertise one's services by appealing to potential clients who want the same results - Celebrate a client's success in reaching their goal ...or simply just to populate one's social media accounts and websites with the type of content that we are used to seeing our fellow trainers post every single day...i.e. it's the norm. I get it. I've worked in marketing. Personal training is a really competitive industry - trainers need to advertise, and clients' success stories make great adverts. While I do believe that some trainers post these images to knowingly appeal to people's insecurities/desire for a quick fix in the hunt for new clients, I know that most trainers put these images out there with the best intentions (or simply because they're stuck for something else to post). But I wonder how many have actually thought about their motivations behind posting such images...what these posts say about their personal and professional values...and what role these images play in the wider conversation about body image, mental health, and wellness. There really are so many reasons why I've chosen never to share stripped down transformation photos of my clients bodies. Here, I'm going to share just a few...
My clients' transformations go beyond what can be seen in a photograph
I've been lucky enough to work with clients whose goals are varied and multi-faceted - everything from post-surgery rehab to weightlifting technique, postnatal recovery to competitive performance, as well as supporting more general health and wellness goals. Many of my clients have had weight loss targets, wanted to build muscle, or had other aesthetically-focused goals. Fat loss, muscle gain, or any composition change, can of course be healthful and positive goals that are certainly worth working for in many cases in seeking to improve physical and mental health. In my experience, however, when delving deeper with clients it is clear that these goals are generally (and sometimes subconsciously) accompanied by a desire to also improve other aspects of their life, such as reducing joint pain or improving health markers, mental health, self-esteem, energy levels, complexion, sleep quality...just to name a few. Most trainers would agree that the most rewarding client testimonials aren't those that read 'I reached my fat loss goal in the target time - thanks!' - it's the ones that go on to list the numerous (and often unexpected) ways that improving their health and fitness has positively impacted their lives. What I'm trying to say here is, improving our health and fitness goes beyond aesthetics and measurable goals...it encompasses aspects of our lives that can't be captured by scales, a tape measure, or a photograph. Sometimes, weight loss or physical transformation may be an inappropriate goal at that moment in time - perhaps the client is dealing with illness, or in a vulnerable state of mind, and we need to prioritise other things. Weight loss isn't always the goal.
Good health isn't always visible. It is more than clothing size, or whether you can see someone's abs (I've been significantly less healthy, both physically and mentally, at my leanest / smallest / looking what many would consider 'my best'). A client's improved blood pressure, heart and joint health, and their boosted self-confidence, can't be seen in a photo of them in their underwear, yet to me these things are significantly more important than any number of likes their transformation photo might gain me.
Not everybody reads the caption
Of course I could list the other positive changes that accompanied the transformation in the caption - after all, my client has become healthier in so many ways as a result of their hard work, and I want my followers to understand that our work together has been safe, healthy and incredibly positive...but: - Instagram, for example, only shows the first couple of lines of a caption, hiding the rest behind a 'more' button... - Maybe someone clicks 'more'...yet the average length of time an Instagram user spends viewing content is around 10 seconds per post (this number varies quite wildly depending on the study or article you read...but we can all relate to mindlessly skim reading a post, or 'liking' without reading a caption at all)...
- Even if somebody does read the full caption, I have no control over how the image I've put before them impacts their mental wellbeing, regardless of how pure my intentions or body positive my message...bringing me onto the main reason I've shunned this content...
Body transformation photos can be detrimental to mental health
Something often forgotten when posting body transformation photos is that one person's 'before' will always be somebody else's 'current' or 'after'. No matter the intention or positivity of the post or it's caption, posting an image as a 'before' photo (and thus implying that the body in that state required improvement) is likely to have some level of emotional or psychological impact on almost anybody who sees themselves, or something apparently 'better' than themselves, in that photo. Some trainers know this and, unfortunately, use this as a marketing tactic. I passionately refuse to prey on people's insecurities in the quest for their business, and don't wish to contribute to social media's normalisation of damaging dietary practices and ratification of body ideals. You might think I'm overthinking this, being overdramatic about an innocent photo, but these images can be severely triggering for those with, or un the cusp of, eating disorders, or those likely to engage in unhealthy diet and exercise behaviours. A huge amount of research suggests that thin body ideals shown across mainstream and social media, often lead to body dissatisfaction and the development of disordered eating and unhealthy behaviours as a result of feeling unable to 'match up' (Thomsen et al. 2001). Viewing thinness-promoting content is a proven catalyst for developing eating disorders and fostering a drive to be thin (Harrison and Cantor, 1997, and Bissell and Zhou, 2006). Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder (that's an estimate of up to a whopping 5% of the UK population). Eating disorders are responsible for more loss of life than any other mental health condition, and their incidence is rising. If you've seen the recent Netflix documentary 'The Social Dilemma,' you'll be familiar with just how little control we have over the content we're presented with on social media, no matter how much we try to curate our feeds. If a platform spots you spending more time viewing certain types of content, you'll continue to be presented with like-for-like posts. Algorithms pick up on engagement with #fitspo, #transformation and #weightloss content and carry on delivering, leading people deep into a rabbit hole of images reinforcing thin or fit body ideals and potentially fostering unhealthy ideas and practices. For some, this may be a positive conversation, encouraging them to strive for healthy body composition and a more active lifestyle, yet it can be problematic for so many. As somebody working to improve people's health and wellness all round, I refuse to contribute.
Lastly - this content can alienate people that need, and want, support
As a personal trainer, I'm here for more than helping people to lose weight. I want to be here for everybody, at every stage of their lives - for the person regaining fitness after illness, the grandfather wanting to keep active for his grandchildren, the mum wanting to feel stronger after pregnancy, the person too afraid to step into a gym alone, or anybody with a disability or condition that makes thinness their last priority. Some people who do want to lose weight may also be alienated by huge transformations, thinking they're simply not possible for them. Some may just want to lose a few pounds and not feel pushed into feeling they need to lose more, or may have had an unhealthy relationship with food in the past and be looking for more health-focused support. To fill my feed with images of physical transformation could imply that I value appearance and body composition so highly that I expect commitment to aesthetic improvement from every one my clients, or that I want them all to fit into the same box. The world of fitness can be a scary place for many - I want to help to make fitness feel more accessible for everybody, no matter their size or shape.
I will not encourage anybody to lose weight, change shape, or otherwise alter themselves when that goal isn't right, or healthy, for them. I'm here for more than to make people 'look good'.
Bissell, Kimberly and Peiqin Zhou 2006. Must See TV or ESPN: Entertainment and Sports Media Exposure and Body Image Distortion in College Women. Journal of Communication 54(1): 5-21. Harrison, Kristen and Joanne Cantor 1997. The relationship between media consumption and eating disorders. Journal of Communication 47(1): 40-67. Thomsen, R. Steven, McCoy, Kelly and Marleen S. Williams (2001). Internalizing the impossible: Anorexic outpatients’ experiences with women’s beauty and fashion magazines. Eating Disorders 9(1): 49–64.