Before and after the before-and-after

In the hyper-competitive world of physical training and health promotion, marketing experts tell us that we’ve got to have the images to make our case. Consumers are highly visual creatures and they’re more likely to respond to dramatic imagery than big blocks of explanatory text. If we use “before” and “after” visuals, we’re more likely to draw attention to our books, DVDs and training practices.

And so, the before-and-after spread has become an icon physical transformation. In fact, before-and-after spreads are now taken as “evidence” that the program, whatever it is, actually “works.” And even though most of us know better, we still fall for it. Consumers and professionals alike are impressed; we take these spreads as conclusive “proof” of a miraculous transformation.

But sadly, the before-and-after meme is illusory at best and dishonest at its worst. B-and-A’s sell the notion that physical transformation is fast and easy; just buy the product or the service in question and you’ll be “after” before you can blink. But anyone who’s actually done the work will tell you otherwise: physical transformation requires long hours of effort, usually spread over years, even decades. The gap between “before” and “after” can be immense.

Even worse, before-and-afters are unlikely to be genuine representations of real people. In a world of ubiquitous digital imagery, it’s safe to assume that every image that makes it to print or screen has been doctored in some way. Photo spreads are routinely selected, edited and Photoshopped. Computers make it easy; even complete amateurs can figure out how to Photoshop the human body into a more slender form.

To make matters worse, we’re even beginning to hear stories of health marketers who actually start with the “after” image. That is, they approach lean people in the gym, get their pictures, and then pay them to gain weight for the “before” picture. Clever, but absolutely dishonest.

And, even in cases where the before-and-afters are authentic representations of genuine physical transformation, all they really tell us is a story of adipose tissue lost or muscle tissue gained. They tell us nothing about the whole person or their whole life. They tell us nothing about their nervous system, their hormonal system, or their relationship with the world. They aren’t even close to being holistic.

To put these before-and-afters in a historical context, it’s worth remembering that, for the vast majority of human history, there were no pictures. There were no cameras, no images, no mirrors and thus, very little awareness of self-image. In the Paleolithic, no one really knew what they looked like. It was all about function. Are you a good biped? Can you hunt? Can you gather? Can you travel long distances without being picked off by a predator? To native peoples, our obsession with appearance seems sad, bizarre and distinctly unhealthy.

Obviously, we live in a culture that is obsessed with appearance and this isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It would be foolhardy to suppose that we, or our clients, will suddenly give up the desire to look a certain way. But as professionals, it’s time that we got out of the before-and-after business and hold ourselves to a higher standard. Our primary job is to promote health and vitality, not appearance.

The before-and-after meme is a con. It tells us nothing about function. It tells us nothing about sustainability. It tells us nothing about happiness and it tells us very little about health.

So let’s stop feeding the visual obsession. We have bigger fish to fry.