The Problem With Fasting, Before & After Pics and Diet Culture

The Problem With Intermittent Fasting, Before And After Pics, And Diet Culture

April 4, 2021 Updated April 11, 2021

Knife and fork tied with measuring tape, concept of strict food restrictions
Scary Mommy and Motortion/Getty

I’ve never had a healthy relationship with my body. I mean, when I was a child, I didn’t think too much about it. My legs were for running, my arms were for climbing, and my hips were for dancing. I used to sway in the street to the music of Madonna and Elton John. But sometime between fifth grade and sixth, my thoughts changed. My perception changed, and I began seeing myself in a new light. I saw my body through a new lens. Unfortunately, this lens wasn’t positive or rose-colored; oh no. Instead, it was harsh and mean. It was critical, through and through. And before I knew it, the voices of self-loathing were so loud I became sick. Very sick. I developed an eating disorder

Of course, there were numerous factors which contributed to my illness. I was young and vulnerable. I lived in a dysfunctional home, one in which put downs were common. My life was out of control. I was changing, physically speaking, and didn’t know how to cope. My newfound curves made me self-conscious. I felt disproportionate and saw myself as too heavy. And I felt this way because I grew up in America, a country which glorifies thinness.

I came of age in the “Baby Got Back” era. Models walked runaways in their underwear. Abs were in. So imagine my horror and surprise when I saw “it” on social media: a before and after weight loss photo showing a “normal” woman and one who was rail thin. Her shoulders jutted from her body. She lamented about having once been a size 6. And she described herself and her journey as brave. Wasting away, she thought, was brave.

But skipping meals isn’t a sign of strength. Saying no to snacks, and denying your hunger, isn’t courageous or cool.

Maybe you’re thinking I’m just jealous — that I’m being judgmental and “skinny shaming.” But truly, I’m not. I’ve been criticized for my appearance. For context, I once was an adult weighing just 86 pounds. But I am concerned about the message her images,and images like these, are sending because they perpetuate the belief that our weight defines our worth. That in order to be appreciated, valued, and loved, you must be a certain size — i.e. very very thin. These images suggest that, because she is smaller, she is a success. She is “winning” at life — and, by default, the rest of us must be failing. We have “given up” or “given in” unless we are actively trying to become smaller too. And these images are problematic because they can be triggering for those with eating disorders and/or a history of disordered habits. 

A 2015 study from Australia found that looking at “fitspiration” posts on Instagram led to worse mood, body dissatisfaction, and lower self-esteem in the women who viewed them. It didn’t build others up; it pushed them down. Fitspiration posts, like these, made others feel inadequate and impacted their mental health.

Plus, pictures only tell part of a story. They are a snapshot of one’s life, a moment suspended in time. And no one really knows what was or is going on in the before or after. No one knows the truth — like that many before photos show individuals during pregnancy, or soon thereafter, and many afters are altered and photoshopped. We stand a little taller, hold our heads a little higher, and “suck in.” After photos almost always involve sucking in. What’s more, some after appearances are obtained using unhealthy, even dangerous, means.

In the post I saw, the individual in question explained how she reached her ideal form through intermittent fasting, or alternating between periods of eating and not-eating, and people applauded her. They wanted to know her tips, tricks, and secrets. But this is toxic bullshit. It is dangerous, through and through. Because intermittent fasting and other restrictive diets are just that: diets. And honestly, diets literally do not work. 

Make no mistake: Some “experts” support weight-reduction diets and plans. Intermittent fasting, for example, has several purported health benefits. It is believed the act can reduce insulin resistance, stress reactions, and even prevent cancer. However, any diet that requires you to restrict what you eat or when you eat is “disordered.” It’s just repacked through a “healthy” lens or labeled a “lifestyle” instead. 

“Any time you implement strict food rules, be it amounts of foods, types of foods, etc. our bodies will see this as a threat and want to ‘stock up’ on those foods when they can,” Colleen Christensen, a registered dietitian, recently told Scary Mommy. “Binge eating is a common phenomenon that happens. It may also lead to other disordered eating such as orthorexia or severe fear of eating foods outside of set rules. All of this leads to increased stress to the body, which is not beneficial for our health. [Intermittent fasting] commonly leads to weight cycling (losing, regaining, losing, regaining, etc) which has been shown to increase risk for disease.

Of course, some would argue intermittent fasting is not a diet, but a lifestyle. But this is perilous and precarious, at best. It simply isn’t true. Because anytime you follow a system of eating and restricting, it’s a diet. Period. End of discussion.

So while you may think you are helping others with your before and after photos — while you may think you are encouraging others — you may want to think twice before sharing your dietary journey or touting your tips/tricks. It can be hurtful, and it can be triggering. Your “success” story can cause another shame and pain. And that’s not actually just ‘their problem,’ and it doesn’t mean they are insecure or jealous of you, it means we are living in a society that values thinness–especially in women––above all else, including our physical and mental health, and folks living life in larger bodies should not continually be ostracized and discriminated against due to this patriarchal bullshit.  Let’s rise above.