You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a female fat loss transformation specialist.
Why It Matters: Social Media & Body Image
Social media is well-established to have a profound effect on our eating behaviour . This is particularly evident in the fitness sphere, with fitsporation content consistently linked across literature with body preoccupation, disordered eating and pathological exercise practices . Big yikes.
Image-based platforms like TikTok and Instagram are particularly problematic for fostering negative body image amongst individuals [3,4]. This may be in part due to the focus on aesthetics necessitated by these apps to generate engagement and success. We already know that excessive focus on body weight and shape is a high-risk behaviour for developing disordered eating/eating disorders , which has hopefully resulted in you holding up a big cartoon “YIKES” sign when considering fitness content on social media.
Transformation posts come in a litany of formats – ranging from side-by-sides showcasing physique changes, quotes from clients about how their lives have changed or dramatic videos that end with the individual looking muscular in gym downlighting whilst dramatic inspirational music plays. And that’s all very touching, but not all transformation posts are created equal. Some have more sinister undercurrents than others.
I’m not going to pile on all transformation posts (yet). Rather, I’m going to roast the “typical” transformation posts that litter the Instagram pages of Fat Loss Transformation Specialists. These posts, as defined by Vogel et al. are “two images set alongside one another to represent the changing of bodies in look shape or size” . These are the posts that contain little-to-no context or anything of value other than this person once had more body fat and now they don’t. The issue with such posts lies in the fact that they serve no purpose other than reinforcing body ideals. Trends that focus on “glow-ups” or solely aesthetic changes create a sense of physical shame for individuals, particularly if you are scrolling social media and look more like the “before” photo/video . It also reinforces this binary system of bodies – you either have a bad (before) or good (after) body.
The Algorithm Is Gonna Get Ya
Unfortunately, TikTok and Instagram reinforce this kind of content. Likes/comments and shares increase engagement, which therefore makes the algorithm recommend similar content to users. So, we all get trapped on this hamster wheel of aesthetics. Hate that for us.
These before-and-after posts reinforce body image ideals and consistently push this idea that there is only one way to have a body (fit, lean and muscular) . As a consequence, we see a kind of “selective platforming” by the algorithm, which alienates those who don’t fit this ideal (disabled, elderly) . Body ideals are not inclusive by nature, and do more harm than good.
Transformation photos and posts have helped shift the body ideal from thin to muscular . Which sounds better in theory (yay muscles), but at the end of the day it’s just another body ideal innit? Consider the #gainingweightiscool hashtag, which is rife with transformation photos of individuals. The hashtag tends to be attributed only to muscle gain. So, it’s not really weight gain per se that is cool. Weight gain is apparently only acceptable if it’s muscle, which isn’t the healthiest message to send out for body image either.
The Princess Diaries Effect
The Princess Diaries/Frankenstein Monster Effect is one of the biggest gripes I have with transformation photo content. These are the transformation posts that present individuals as sad lumps of adipose in “before” photos – forlorn expressions, low-rise leggings and rolls. Tragic, right? Not until the almighty White Knight Online Coach stepped in. Cut to twelve-weeks later, and The Before (out of 10 amirite) has undergone some form of lobotomy and incredible physical transformation. They have a beaming smile, rippling muscles, discovered high-waisted leggings and for some reason are always more tanned (the secret side effect of fat loss apparently?). Why wouldn’t you sign up to change your life with these coaches?
Well, as the great Shania Twain said – let’s go girls.
Posting transformation photos with no context sets individuals up to fail. They suggest that we are fundamentally flawed humans that are amenable to being fixed (ick) by following advice of experts. Transformation photos that do not account for the realities of these transformations – the ups and downs of changing your physique – are actively unhelpful. You create false expectations for your clients. How representative is a physique really? A before and after body shot does not capture transformations in mindset. Or real life.
I am always sceptical of these kind of transformation photos. Especially considering that transformations with an upward trajectory (I lost weight and then my life improved and nothing bad ever happened again) report better engagement .
And look, I’m not saying transformation posts don’t have their place. They have been proven helpful and inspiring for some, particularly those in eating disorder recovery . If you want to change your body in some way, it can be helpful to work with someone who has gotten similar results. However, I think it is really important to be mindful with their use. Be careful about the message you are conveying with such posts.
I find the whole transformation photo thing a bit of a minefield tbh. I think the majority of posts are done terribly, and are nothing more than self-aggrandizing ego boosts for coaches. Easy engagement. I think it is really important as coaches we take responsibility for the direction of health and fitness coaching. We can continue to let coaching to be physique-focused, where the best coaches are ones that get individuals closest to the latest body ideal. Or, we can be coaches that help clients achieve their body composition goals, whilst also helping them realise that how their body looks is just a fraction of their being.
I think the best coaches can get these transformations for sure, but you can see from their transformation posts how they have transformed their clients beyond their body fat percentage. Better relationships with food, confidence and happiness come not from a 100 like transformation photo but from working with a damn good coach.
Don’t do yourself a disservice by working with someone who only wants you for a photo. There’s plenty of men on Tinder who want that from you for free.
- Pink AE, Lim PX, Sim AY et al. (2022) The Effects of Acute Social Media Exposure on Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Behavior of Male and Female Students. J Soc Clin Psychol 41(4).
- Cataldo I, De Luca I, Giorgetti V et al. (2021) Fitspiration on social media: Body-image and other psychopathological risks among young adults. A narrative review. Emerg Trends Drugs Add Health 1.
- Pryde S, Prichard (2022) TikTok on the clock but the #fitspo don’t stop: The impact of TikTok fitspiration videos on women’s body image concerns. Body Image 43, pp. 244-252.
- Fioravanti G, Svicher A, Casale S et al. (2021) Examining the impact of daily exposure to body-positive and fitspiration Instagram content on young women’s mood and body image: An intensive longitudinal study. New Med Soc.
- Sharpe H, Griffiths S, Choo T (2018) The relative importance of dissatisfaction, overvaluation and preoccupation with weight and shape for predicting onset of disordered eating behaviours and depressive symptoms over 15 years. Int J Eat Disord 51(10), pp. 1168-1175.
- Vogel EA, Rose JP, Crane C (2017) “Transformation Tuesday”: Temporal context and post valence influence the provision of social support on social media. J Soc Psychol 158(4), pp. 446-459.
- Liu J (2022) The influence of the Body Image Presented Through TikTok Trend-Videos and Its Possible Reasons. Adv Soc Sci Ed Human Res 559.
- Alberga AS, Withnell SJ, Von Ranson KM (2018) Fitsporation and thinspiration: a comparison across three social media sites. sJ Eat Disord 6(39).
- Hockin-Boyers H, Pope S, Jamie K (2020) #gainingweightiscool: the use of transformation photos on Instagram among female weightlifters in recovery from eating disorders. Qual Res Sport Ex Health 1(1).