By Natalie Carey

I have a secret obsession.

I’m a personal trainer that loves looking at before and after photos.

I love seeing a physical transformation of others who have worked hard to get where they are, even though I sometimes question whether we are publicly shaming the before picture or just acknowledging it as part of the journey.

As I have gotten more involved in social media, I have found myself following a growing number of profiles that included only before/after photos. Some of the feeds I follow post a variety of transformation pics, gathered from all over the internet, for people like me who just liked seeing people’s progress.

There are even profiles that I follow that don’t offer any new wisdom about diet and exercise, but I’m so fascinated with watching some stranger work their way from the ground up to a body they feel good about that I keep double tapping those progress pics.

There’s no way of knowing whether these strangers are following a healthy diet or starving themselves, or even doing an exercise program that’s appropriate for them.

All we see are their results.

We want what they have.

We want their dedication, determination, and courage. They seem to be saying, “look, I learned something,” or “I’m not perfect, I don’t know it all, and I’m okay with sharing that.”

But what if they laugh at me and think I’m ugly?

After a while, I got curious as to what it would be like to use social media as an experiment to do my own before/after challenge. I started considering it at a time when I was feeling like I was half ass-ing my programs for myself. Bland workouts, sticking to my meal plan but with lots of little cheats here and there... I wondered if posting my progress for the whole world to judge would force me to be more accountable.

I wondered if people would laugh at me, or tell me I was ugly, or think I had failed for being a personal trainer who had a little bit of body fat to lose.

Feeling nervous but gutsy, I took a picture of myself feeling fluffy in front of a mirror, my pants fitting a little tighter than I cared for them to be, and marked the picture of Day 1.

“I’m doing a 30-day Challenge!” I announced to the world.

For 30 days straight, I forced myself to take these pictures. Sometimes it felt pointless or like nobody cared, and sometimes I worried it sounded like I was fishing for compliments. I continued to work hard in the gym and the kitchen, very aware that if I gave up I would be disappointing myself, and perhaps anyone else who was watching. A few people told me privately how much I was inspiring them and this really drove me to stick with it.

At the end of the 30 days, I was very satisfied with my results. There was a visible change in my physical appearance that hadn’t been reflected on the scale, and I felt validated for my hard efforts.

The experiment was a success, in many ways, and I also learned a couple of things. First, having to post a half-naked picture every day really did hold me accountable. I never let myself cheat, because I knew I would be responsible for it online the next day. Also, people don’t like to see your daily naked updates only for naked’s sake. They generally want to see visible progress, which comes down to maybe every week or so. As a collective, we want to be able to admire where we started from and how far we’ve come.

I wish I was brave enough to do that.

Most importantly, to me, was that I finally got to hear people reveal why they liked before/after pics as well. The comment I got more than anything else was, “I wish I was brave enough to do that.” Like me, others have expressed how freeing it was to post an almost naked picture online.

It’s a way of telling the world, “this is me, this is what I have, there’s no hiding or denying or pretending about it!”

It’s a way of owning those imperfections that we’ve been told to hide away and be ashamed of. And while we still might be posting those pictures as part of trying to transform ourselves in the before/after process, there’s still no denying what we look like, and that I think, is beautiful.

I also think that sometimes overindulging in food and drink and not getting to the gym can be signs of bigger problems too. While food is not the only coping mechanism out there, it is often the most obvious one since it shows visible signs of abuse. I’ve found during my career that many times when someone is eating too much, it’s because something isn’t quite right in their personal lives, and they use food to feel better. If this is the case, posting a before/after photo of yourself can feel even more vulnerable. It opens the conversation of what you may have been trying to cope with, and allows people to see that your world hasn’t been perfect or easy.

There are undoubtedly some less-than-savory reasons for following these pictures.

Perhaps some people out there like to look at the pictures and compare themselves to make their ego feel better.

Perhaps some people post their own pictures because they need to hear others telling them they look good, or better, or sexy.

Perhaps some people look at the before picture with disgust and quietly shame what that person used to look like.

I know these are some of the reasons behind the obsession but I like to think there’s another side of it too.

Silent cheerleaders

I feel like I’m silently and remotely cheering these strangers on. I’m happy for them that they’re chasing down a goal. That’s why I’m so obsessed with watching random people on social media transform their bodies. I hope they hold on to their changes and whatever lessons they’ve learned to be healthier for themselves and their loved ones.

A lot of people talk a big game about changing themselves or the world, but so few people stick to the proclamation they make. I look at these pictures and I’m proud that there are people out there who will work hard to make a better situation for themselves.

It’s hard to post these pictures of yourself online, to stop with the excuses and the loose clothes and the New Year’s resolution making.

It’s even harder to take steps towards change.

We watch these people and we wonder what they discovered along their journey, hoping that we can find it too.

We read their posts to glean any kind of wisdom or insight in how to be stronger and make it through the process ourselves. Just as I obsess over these pictures because I think they show strength and humanity in all its imperfections, I hope they are being posted with the same positive intentions. Most of all though, I hope their outer change is reflected on the inside as well, and that they have found whatever it was they were searching for on their journey.

Natalie Carey I’m a runner, a crossfitter, a ballerina, but mainly a pole dancer. I train ultramarathon runners, aerialists, endurance athletes, and focus my practice on corrective exercise and injury recovery and prevention. I started my fitness journey while living in Japan, working out to P90X videos in my tiny Japanese apartment. I live and work in San Francisco where I consume lots of bacon and laugh in the face of my vegan friends. I like burpees and my favorite movie of all time is The Goonies.