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“Progress pictures” — two side-by-side photographs of the same person with dramatically contrasting appearances — have become ubiquitous on Instagram. Normally, in the left-hand image (the “before”) they are pale, bloated, soft and unsmiling. But in the right-hand image (the “after”) they are taught and defined, confidently flexing a bicep or popping a hip. These inspiring shots prove that transformation is possible, but they can also be deceptive — setting unrealistic expectations and encouraging us to idolize the end goal instead of committing to slow, steady lifestyle improvements.
There are many thousands of entrepreneurial influencers who make a living posting curated images on Instagram, but only a few — like a 25 year old personal trainer from Adelaide, named Kayla Itsines — have managed to build a global empire.
Her followers, who refer to themselves as Kayla’s Army, number 5.9 million on the photo sharing platform alone, and are willing to travel vast distances to attend one of her rare live boot camp tours. The fangirl hysteria at these events has earned Itsines a reputation as “the Taylor Swift of sit-ups.” She is, by all accounts, a fitness superstar, and at the heart of her success are before/after weight loss photos that promote the results of her Bikini Body Guide — a grueling high intensity interval training regimen and healthy meal-plan said to contain only 1,600 calories per day (for context, anything below 1,500 is considered starvation).
Itsines encourages her fans to take progress photos so they can track their transformations. Tag her in the photo and you might even get reposted on her account, ensuring exposure to a huge community of fitspiration-hungry young women. “Perhaps the biggest ‘lift’ I’ve had in followers was after Kayla Itsines shared my progress shot,” explains Sarita Walsh, a designer and former BBG enthusiast living in New York. “Within 24 hours I’d more than doubled my following.” “Today, any time I post a progress shot it’s guaranteed to have high engagement,” Walsh says, referring to her own 26k-strong Instagram following. “Some people follow me for my design aesthetic, but I know that by far the biggest reason is for inspiration, just as I did with other girls when I started out.”
Our desire to be the “after” — thinner, leaner, and presumably happier — is what drives the popularity of fitness accounts, and Itsines’ comments section is a deluge of friend-to-friend motivation (“This will be us. Let’s do it!”) or encouragement for the poster (“WOW. What a difference!”, “You are goals!”). Entire communities are cultivated around celebrating the personal successes and achievements of individuals, and according to Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, this is especially vital in lieu of real-world champions. “Not everybody has people they can count on,” she says. “People are inspired by the admiration and encouragement of others. Plus, communities online can be supportive with setbacks, especially if they’re in the same boat and have similar aspirations.”
Once in awhile, though, a different sort of before/after photo goes viral; one that exposes how easily these images can be enhanced or doctored. With a different pose and outfit, lighting and some artful filtering (maybe even subtle photoshopping in some cases) it’s easy to create a faux transformation. In other words, images held up as inspirational are sometimes unattainable, and this has given rise to the #notatransformationphoto hashtag. Even without overly edited photos, some women simply have a genetic head-start — like Jen Selter, a petite 23 year old with over 10 million Instagram followers, known for her tiny waist and prominent glutes. If you’re not achieving the same sculpted results, despite hard graft at the gym and restraint in the kitchen, it’s easy to get disheartened, but fitness model Anna Victoria urges followers of her own workout guides to avoid comparing themselves. “My biggest piece of advice is to remember that everyone has different starting points and are at different points in their journey,” she says. “It’s not fair to yourself to compare your starting point to someone else’s six month or one year progress.” Like Itsines and many of their fitness influencer peers, Anna Victoria emphasizes self-love as the most reliable route to lasting lifestyle changes. In May of last year she posted contrasting selfies — one standing in a bikini with defined abs, the other sat down with a relaxed fleshy tummy snuggled into blue cotton shorts — her point being that absolutely everybody, no matter how fit, has “bad” angles. Social media is frequently, famously misleading.
Strengthen your resolve without becoming obsessive. Once you start seeing results and those results begin to garner compliments it’s tempting to keep upping the ante — skipping rest days and whittling meals to avoid the dreaded plateau.
“There’s definitely a danger of [obsessing] in this world, where we surround ourselves with fitness inspiration everywhere we look,” says Sarita Walsh. “If people start to beat themselves up every time they divert off-course, that’s not constructive. That’s why I spend a lot of time educating younger girls on the importance of finding a balance. I think that’s sometimes as important as progress pictures, if not more so.”
“It starts out being about good intentions – no GMOs, an emphasis on organic – but eventually leads to a ‘restrict’ state of mind,” she says, adding that “constant comparison with other women on social media can lead to anxiety and depression.” Instead, set goals that are realistic to your body type and schedule, because not everyone can make it to the gym six days a week.
Think in terms of a long-term lifestyle overhaul and embrace the weight fluctuations that inevitably come along with that. Some weeks you’ll workout at 7am every day and eat salads with all the good fats. Other weeks you’ll drink syrupy pina coladas on vacation and enjoy languorous lie-ins. Aim for balance rather than perfection.
Avoid setting aesthetic goals for your body and hone strength instead. “Focusing too much on the physical can be emotionally draining since you won’t see that progress from one day to the other,” Anna Victoria notes. “Significant progress doesn’t even happen in a month, and that’s not being said in an effort to discourage, but to set realistic expectations of how to focus your efforts for the long-run. This is why focusing on how great you feel, on how strong you become, on how healthy and energized your body feels is a better way to stay on track.”
And if you’re going to take progress pics, do it right. The Progress app will help you snap perfectly aligned selfies and after 15 weeks creates a time-lapse video, accurately chronicling how all the hard work is paying off.