On Instagram alone, you’ll find 13.8 million posts under the tag #weightlosstransformation, many showing side-by-side images of people in gym kit (or sometimes just their underwear) showing off how many pounds they’ve shifted since embarking on a new diet and/or exercise regime.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling proud of your achievements, of course, but is this focus on physical changes actually the best way to encourage healthy life choices?
New research from Asics reveals that 80 percent of people feel demotivated by before and after pics, while 73 percent believe society’s obsession with the perfect body image is damaging our mental health.
“An after picture, it doesn’t give you any context,” says online creator and activitist Jada Sezer, who was a plus-size model for 10 years before leaving the industry to pursue other interests.
“You can definitely have an after picture that might have this idealised body type, yet [that person] could be hungry, could be really moody, it could affect their periods, they could be angry and have lost out on some relationships around them because of their moods.”
While social media users might think their impressive weight loss journey photos are inspirational to others, that’s not always the case. The research found that 48 percent of people feel insecure about their bodies after seeing exercise transformation pictures.
Sezer, who in 2019 ran the London Marathon in her underwear with journalist and author Bryony Gordon and is also an ambassador for UN Women UK, wants to encourage a more balanced approach to exercise and social media.
We caught up with the 33-year-old Londoner to talk fitness, body confidence and building an inclusive community online.
Do you think personal trainers and companies use before and after photos as a tool to get other people to sign up to their diet and exercise programmes?
“I think the fitness industry is a very, very large industry with a lot of profits to be made. And the fact that transformation pics have become a big part of that is to try and sell this idealised ideal of what you could become, it’s like selling a dream.
“It doesn’t take into account different people’s body compositions. It’s not very individualised. It’s very one [size] fits all. We’re all really different. I just find it can be quite reductive.”
Do you think there’s a healthy way to share your fitness journey on social media?
“The thing with Instagram is it’s always going to be a snapshot of someone’s experience – it’s not going to ever show anyone the full human experience of what that one person is going through.
“And then when you’re congratulated with likes, and these positive strokes that the algorithm of Instagram can often give us… that’s a whole other conversation to be had.
“But is Instagram the best place [to track your progress]? Or would it be maybe working with your personal trainer or a fitness coach and have that one-to-one relationship where you can also get that offline support?”
How does exercise benefit your mental health?
“Exercise helps me to realise how strong I am, [that I can] achieve certain milestones and challenges I’ve set myself. But also on a day-to-day maintenance basis, it helps me to get out any pent-up stress.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a really sweaty, hardcore HIIT session four times a week. It can be literally just doing movement in my room, just doing some yoga and sun salutations for 20 minutes or whatever.”
Some people still believe you can’t be fit or healthy if you’re not a certain size, what would you say to those people?
“Fitness doesn’t look like one thing. The fat on your body doesn’t determine your fitness level, although we’ve been told for years that is the case through movies that show larger actors as the sloppy ones, the messy, dirty, lazy ones.
“There’s a lot of very ‘skinny fat’ people that are internally not very healthy. They might have fast metabolisms but are on a McDonald’s diet. You might assume that they are really, really healthy. They must workout, their life must be perfect. And I think it’s about changing that narrative.”
What are the most encouraging kind of messages you receive?
“I think it’s really beautiful that people share their stories [such as] really harrowing experiences they’ve had, that have really destroyed them at times.
“Even mums that share my profile with their daughters, or women that have said, ‘We’ve got into running because of your experience,’ or ‘I went to the gym for the first time’, or send me pictures of them wearing shorts.
“Or ‘I wore that bra that you recommended and it’s changed the way I wear a top, because I’ve been shopping the wrong bras for so long’. Things like that make me feel really, really proud.”