The humble ‘before and after’ transformation photo. Favourite of fitness bloggers, personal trainers and diet companies alike, it’s hard to spend much longer than a few minutes on Instagram without seeing some impressive feat of physical change. But is this a good thing or are we all getting a bit too obsessed with #TransformationTuesday and forgetting about what health and wellbeing is really about – feeling good on the inside as well as looking good on the outside?

A Brief History of the Before & After Effect

Over the last couple of years we’ve seen personal trainers like The Bodycoach and Kayla Itsines achieve huge levels of success online by marketing their training and nutrition plans with the use of often incredible ‘before and after’ transformation photos. You can’t help but be impressed by how many people have managed to lose significant amounts of weight, build muscle and generally tone up, all through their own hard work and dedication after following these plans.

But this isn’t a new phenomenon of course. The multi-billion dollar diet industry has been using this technique for years to sell products. Brands like ‘Slim Fast’ back in the 90s and of course the infamous ‘Weight Watchers’ have all been massively successful for many years by promising quick and rapid results.

Everything Isn’t Always as it Seems

Whilst many of these photos are undoubtedly genuine transformations reflecting months of effort in the gym and the kitchen, they can also be open to manipulation and sometimes misleading. The BBC did a great article showing what on the surface looked to be an amazing ‘transformation’ of two volunteers but was in fact just a few tricks of lighting, posture and make-up. The time difference between the two photos? Just a couple of hours. There’s also a great scene in ‘Bigger Stronger Faster’, the documentary exposé on the US supplements industry (check it out on Netflix) where a professional fitness photographer reveals that he sometimes takes before and after photos on the same day!

My transformation

My transformation – a huge difference but I did also have a pro photographer taking the photos!

I’m definitely not suggesting that The Bodycoach and Kayla Itsines post anything put genuine pics. But sometimes these photos can set unrealistic expectations about what is achievable within a certain timeframe, or promise a miraculous outcome from using a particular diet supplement, all with the purpose of trying to sell a product or fitness plan. For those of us that want to get into better shape, that can create the added pressure of trying to live up to unrealistic expectations without fully understanding that there is no such thing as an overnight transformation. It takes a lot of hard work and changing your lifestyle in a more permanent and sustainable way.

Talking from Personal Experience

I did my own ‘transformation’ last summer. It took me 10 weeks to get from ‘ok’ shape to really lean up and get into what you could call that ‘cover model’ style physique. I’d been training for a few years so I wasn’t starting from a base of zero. I learnt a huge amount, I was pretty religious on my nutrition and I didn’t drink alcohol for probably the longest period in my memory! I was really pleased by the results but I also discovered a lot of things that you don’t read in the fitness magazines – like the fact that even professionals don’t look like that ALL the time. In the photos I’ve also got a nice tan, a bit of a ‘pump’ and I’m tensing my muscles, which all add to the effect.

REALITY CHECK! 💥 How long between these two pictures? About a minute 💁 First things first, I want to apologise for the boob grabbing. Keep it classy Zanna 😂 However, these pictures illustrate a great point. I took both of these about 5 minutes ago to send to my coach @be_x_fit. Don’t believe every picture you see on Instagram, we only post the flattering ones. Left = unflattering angle, no tensing, no filter. Right = flattering angle and lighting, tensing and a filter. Please don’t compare yourself to those you follow on social media – you don’t know what we actually look like without our lighting, angles and filters 😜 Just trying to keep it real with you 💕 #fitfam #fitness #girlgains   A photo posted by Zanna van Dijk 🇬🇧 (@zannavandijk) on

It’s All About Balance

So there are clearly some negatives that go along with the ‘before and after’ effect. But we shouldn’t forget about the huge positives as well. A lot of credit has to go to leading bloggers in the fitness social scene like Zanna Van Dijk and Celia Learmonth for casting a light on how easy it is to present a certain image to your audience by some simple edits to a photo, and acknowledging that the glossy lifestyle presented by some isn’t always a true reflection of real life.

Real progress achieved through sweat (and possibly tears!) should always be celebrated and held up as an inspiration and motivation for others. Which is ultimately what sharing is all about.