Weight Watchers has announced it will be phasing out the use of ‘before and after’ pictures in its advertising and publications, in a move to promote weight loss as “a journey of health, with no beginning, middle or end”.
The diet company was among the first to use ‘before and after’ as a concept, but today, the photographs are widely used across social media, with countless fitness bloggers and personal trainers posting images online. The hashtag #TransformationTuesday also gives members of the public the chance to share their weight loss experiences with others.
While fans of before and after photos say they are a way to maintain motivation and gain support from online communities, critics believe they perpetuate body image pressure and the idea that a slim body is the ideal.
In light of announcement and the ever-growing movement of self-love, should we all be calling time on photos that compare our bodies in such a way?
Josie Clifton has been a gold member of Weight Watchers for six years, meaning she has hit her target weight and sustained it. She has previously appeared in promotional material for the company and thinks “it’s a shame” they’ve decided to phase out transformation photos.
“Before and after photos are a great way to remind yourself how far you’ve come, to keep motivated and inspired. I still post them from time to time on the Weight Watchers app.” she told HuffPost UK. “The photos are constantly shared between members, which is a great way to praise each other on weight loss and a reminder of how well you’ve done, even years down the line.”
A common criticism of “before” photos is the innate suggestion that a certain body type needs changing. But Tammy Langford, who also regularly shares before and after photos on Instagram, does not see old photos as a way put her former self down. Instead, she said looking at past pictures is a positive reminder of how far she’s come.
“We all fall off [weight loss plans] at some point. Looking back on photos and comparing really helps you see the bigger picture and I find personally it helps to not ‘beat yourself up’ over the Chinese you had the night before,” she told HuffPost UK. “I also love seeing other people’s transformations, especially when you are first starting, because it helps you believe you could achieve your goals.”
In a statement to HuffPost UK, Weight Watchers said it would not be actively discouraging users from using the photos themselves.
While some may hail the positive impact of sharing such photos, Jenny Cole, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, said they can be a “a path to body dissatisfaction” for those viewing them, as they make people compare themselves to one another.
“It can also encourage a focus on appearance and on portraying some types of body as better than others, which can lead to body shaming,” she told HuffPost UK. “Moving away from a before and after mentality may also help those wanting to lose weight, by encouraging a focus on fuelling and moving the body so that people feel healthier, rather than punishing the body to get closer to an often unattainable ideal body appearance.”
Body image and mental health campaigner Natasha Devon said before and after photos are part of a wider “unconscious narrative which tells us that thinness equals success and happiness” and she is pleased Weight Watchers has ditched the photos. “I don’t endorse diets - I believe in the HAES (health at any size) ethos - health is a lifestyle based around eating well in a balanced way, exercising regularly and taking joy in your body,” she told HuffPost UK.
For those who are vulnerable, before and after photos could be have serious consequences. A spokesperson from eating disorders charity Beat said while eating disorders are complex mental health issues, before and after photos have the potential to contribute to the body image pressure vulnerable people feel to look a certain way. They said they “welcome the idea” of Weight Watchers phasing out the use of such photos.
“For people affected by eating disorders, images that present an idealised body type can encourage them to continue or worsen their disordered eating,” they told HuffPost UK. They added there is a risk that when somebody posts a before and after image online, you will not necessarily get the full story of their weight loss, such as how they have lost the weight and whether they are healthy.
Denise Hatton, chief executive for YMCA England and Wales, a founding partner of the Be Real Campaign for body confidence, echoed this.
“Healthy is an outfit that looks different on everyone and just because someone is slimmer than before, it doesn’t mean their overall health has improved,” she told HuffPost UK. “We want people to feel more confident about who they are, so it’s important that we create a society that values health above appearance and Weight Watchers’ new approach is a great step in that direction.”