How to shut down negative thoughts after being triggered by a before/after photo

Why Before and After Photos Should Be Banned

While the majority of Before and After photos are posted to sell a diet program’s results, sometimes Before and After photos are posted with relatively good intentions—someone set a goal for their body and they’re celebrating progress towards their appearance goals. In either case, the intentions don’t actually matter because Before and After photos are triggering to anyone who has ever struggled with their body image.

The Diet Culture Effect

The backbone of diet culture messaging is to make you feel bad about yourself so that you will buy health, fashion and beauty products. Diet culture constantly tells us that who you are now, what you look like now, and who you’ve been is not good enough. But, if you diet, exercise, shrink down, lose weight and finally fit into those smaller pants (that the fashion industry is only making in limited sizes), you will finally be deemed worthy.

I think most of us, on a cerebral level, understand that this is obviously not true. But because we’re exposed to messaging like this every single day, we continue to believe that we lack worth if we don’t lose the weight.

How Diet Culture Messaging is Perpetuated in Before and After Photos

Before and After photos are, of course, a side-by-side comparison of one individual’s body. The accompanying caption will typically talk about how fat and lazy they were before they found <X> product/program, then they’ll flip into a testimony about how they’re so much happier now that they’ve lost weight and gained strength. They sometimes add “I now have energy!” for good measure, but the focus is still on appearance. And how could it not be when the side-by-side photo is literally of their body when they thought it wasn’t good enough, and their body now that they think it’s worthy of praise.

What happens when you view before and after photos

Whatever the intention may be of the person posting the before and after photo, the real issue is what’s happening when you view that photo.

The average person will look more closely at the Before side of the photo and compare their own body. And if your current body isn’t as “good” as the poster’s Before photo, then you will feel even worse about yourself. Once you move on to the After side of the photo, you will either have “more proof” that you’re not good enough, or if the Before side didn’t resonate with you on a negative level, now you might be triggered by the After photo.

Whether you have the self-awareness to deal with that emotion in the moment, or you’re filing it away in your reserve of negative thoughts about yourself, there is a very negative connection happening right there simply by viewing a Before and After photo.

We make these judgments in an instant. We see the photo, we look at the before, and we immediately compare it to our own body.

What to Do When You’ve Been Triggered by a Before and After Photo

Anyone who has gone through Gain Wellness before knows that I use the word “awareness” all the time. Self-awareness is the key to healing your relationship with food, fitness and body image because if we don’t have awareness of our behaviors then we can’t change our behaviors.

The upfront work of building self-awareness is learning what your triggers are. What pushes your buttons and causes an emotional response? What imagery and words cause your bad thoughts about yourself to bubble up? When do you feel raw and exposed?

For everyone dealing with body image issues, Before and After Photos are definitely a trigger. In those moments, my clients and I use my 3-step method to immediately shut down the bad thoughts.

My 3-Step Method for Coping with Negative Self-Talk

  1. Awareness—Realizing in the moment you’re being triggered and speaking negatively about yourself.
  2. Interrupt—Select a halting word as soon as you become aware you’re triggered. I use “NOPE!” but my clients all use different words such as “STOP!” “ENOUGH!” or “SHUT IT DOWN!”
  3. Shift—Change to positive words about yourself, whether it’s off-the-cuff, a mantra, quote, or scripture about where your worth and value actually comes from.

Healing Your Relationship with Food, Fitness & Body Image Doesn’t Make You Immune to Bad Thoughts. But It’s How You Deal With Them That Makes All the Difference.

It’s important for you to know that as you heal your relationship with food, fitness and body image, it doesn’t mean you’re not immune to bad body image moments or negative thoughts about yourself. But the difference is having the tools and coping mechanisms to deal with those thoughts.

The old me would have looked at a Before and After Photo, felt terrible about myself and would have spent the day restricting my food even more, working out extra hard, drinking all of the water, and using tools from diet culture to manipulate the shape of my body to proactively pretend I was in control.

The healed me now uses coping tools to help my mind and heart deal with the emotions that are triggered. I can then sit for a moment with the “bad thoughts” and figure out why I reacted that way. Then I file it away as a lesson and move on with my day.

Meridith Oram
Meridith Oram is an ACE-Certified Health Coach at Love Yourself Towards Healthy where she helps chronic dieters heal their relationship with food, fitness and body image. She is also the creator of Gain Wellness, a 5-week behavioral change program to unlearn diet culture, stop negative self-talk and set wellness goals---not appearance goals. Follow Meridith at @loveyourself2healthy on all social channels.

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