Before-and-after photos have become a full-on social media phenomenon. But these kinds of images can never really show you a start point and an end point to anyone’s weight or health journey. They’re just part of a story—often a lifelong one, with ups, downs, and U-turns. Glamour asked three women with widely viewed before-and-afters to share the real deal on their personal odysseys and what they learned that we all should know.
About four years ago I set out to lose the 20 pounds I’d put on during my second pregnancy; my older daughter had told me I looked beautiful, and I’d responded, “No, I’m not. I’m fat.” (The photo above on the left was taken around that time.) I couldn’t believe I’d said that to her, and I didn’t want to go on feeling like I wasn’t taking care of myself. So I started making sure I was moving more each day, I cleaned up my diet, and I lost the weight. I felt good, and I wanted to see what I could do next. I began working out harder, doing more strength training, and eating even less. I didn’t take rest days. When I posted my “after” photo (middle), people said I was an inspiration, which should have been motivating for me. But I wasn’t happy, at least not in the way I wanted to be. I had no balance in my life. It’s heartbreaking to look back and think that I couldn’t enjoy playing with my kids because I was so concerned about the love handles I thought I had. So last year I changed my views. The most important thing, I realized, isn’t my weight—it’s staying true to who I am. I have stretch marks. I have loose skin. I’m never going to be perfect.
When I shared this part of my story, it turned out that my “failure” was even more inspiring to people. Sure, on my latest photo, some people have said, “So you got fat.” But that’s OK. I bounce back because I know I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I can cope with my anxiety, my marriage is stronger, I’m a better mother, and I found a new career path as a health coach. I spend more time with my kids, and I’m present for it. To the negative commenters I say: Fitness doesn’t have to be one thing. My goals aren’t to get more and more defined or lose weight; I want to be fitter and happier as a whole. I’ve learned I can’t evaluate fitness using someone else’s definition of health. And you can’t evaluate someone’s health by looking at a photo, either. No one’s opinion about my body matters besides mine. I lost sight of what’s important: It’s not how I look. It’s how I feel.
About a year after I had my daughter, in early 2014, I reached my heaviest weight of 330 pounds. I had back pain, and I wasn’t able to be the mother I wanted to be, so under the advice of my doctor, I received bariatric surgery. After about 18 months I lost 150 pounds. I had all this excess skin, so much that I thought I’d done something wrong, because no one else was talking about this part of their weight loss. I later realized it’s entirely normal. Because I’d started with unrealistic expectations, I decided to document my journey first on Tumblr and then Instagram (@mandas_muffintop), hoping that my photos, like the two above left, would make other people feel less alone. It was painful: When I was plus-size, people told me I was unhealthy and looked terrible; with these pictures some people made fun of my loose skin (saying things like “Your stomach looks like an old man”). After I got surgery to remove the excess skin (right), I thought that would be the end of the criticism, but now people come at me asking how I could be body positive if I’ve had skin-removal surgery. I did it to improve my quality of life: I don’t have to worry about moving my skin around to sit. Of course I’m body positive; how else could I put myself out there like this? Sometimes I think it would be easier if I shut down my Instagram, but then I remember the positive feedback I’ve gotten. My followers tell me they feel more comfortable in their body because of me. I want people to love themselves no matter what “stage”—before, after, or in between—they’re in.
Until two years ago, I was a smoker, I drank, and I didn’t eat well. I was a crash dieter and would look in the mirror and put myself down. I wasn’t happy with where I was emotionally, and I’d heard working out could help with that. Then I found Kayla Itsines’ community online and was inspired by the supportive women there. I signed up for her plan and went from years of not exercising to logging six workouts a week. I was stronger and treating myself with more respect. I was proud of what I had accomplished, so I decided to post some before-and-after photos (far left, from my dieting days, and left, after I started working out). The next day Kayla featured my photos on her accounts. I was ecstatic—until I read some of the comments. People said I looked better before, I looked sick now, and I must be unhealthy. For two days I obsessed about reading the posts. I was so confused and hurt. I knew I had made healthy changes in my life. I reminded myself that people didn’t know that I used to eat poorly, drink, and smoke. I focused on the mental progress I’ve made too, something people can’t tell by looking at a photo. One person implied I was romanticizing anorexia but later reached out to me and apologized; she said she didn’t realize I was a real person. I thanked her. That apology meant a lot to me. People will always say judgmental things. I’m not doing this for them, but for me.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Glamour.
Women Behind Viral Before-After Weight Loss Photos Share Their Stories