body image · fashion

The Power of Pictures

I’ve been thinking lately about the power of pictures. Here’s two different contexts in which it seems pictures matter to people.

The first context is nutrition and fitness websites. It seems they all feature pictures.  Lots of pictures. Mostly of beautiful strong bodies. We want to look like those people and have bodies that look like that. We’re a visual culture and pictures mean a lot to us.

But not everyone wants to play the game this way. Some people don’t find these images inspiring or motivational at all. You can read Tracy’s piece The Inspirational Dis-Value of “Fitspo” here. Just as some people don’t want to look at photos of impossibly fit people, there are also people who are in the fitness business don’t want to post the pictures either.

The strength coach Nia Shanks, of Lift Like a Girl, has  written an eloquent piece about why she refuses to put pictures of herself up on her website. Called How to Build a Better Body & Why You Won’t See Pictures of Me in a Bikini, it’s a wonderful rant. I love good rants. You should go read the whole thing.

Here’s an excerpt:

“You won’t see photos of me in a bikini on this website or the Lift Like a Girl Fanpage.

Sure, I rock out a swimsuit whenever I chill out at the pool, lake, or beach, but I won’t post these photos.

Here’s why — it’s just not my thing.

Not the answer you wanted? Fine. I’ll elaborate.

Years ago when I was battling my disordered eating habits, I also drastically changed my approach to working out. I stopped focusing on fat loss. I even took things further and stopped focusing on how I LOOKED.

I challenged myself to focus on absolutely nothing but my performance. The only thing that mattered was adding more weight to the bar, squeezing out extra reps, performing more challenging bodyweight exercises, and running more hill sprints.

During my training sessions I wore less revealing clothes so I wouldn’t be tempted to analyze my physique before, during, or after my workout. I even made it a point to refrain from looking in a mirror when I was at the gym. (Unless I got an eyelash in my eye. Seriously, that’s just annoying and has to be taken care of immediately).”

Here’s what does matter to Shanks: “I can bust out pull-ups, handstand push-ups, dominate 50 pound dumbbells for bench pressing, and I’ve deadlifted over 300 pounds.My PERFORMANCE is proof enough.”

I’m with Shanks. I’m not sure about the amount of importance we place on pictures. But pictures of me don’t freak me out even though I’m not about to post bathing suits shot on our blog either.

Let me explain the second context in which I’ve been thinking about photos, specifically about before and after photos.

Each time I’ve done nutritional counseling, including this latest round, pictures have played a role. Photos of me in two piece bathing suit, facing forward, from behind and sideways.

The pictures are meant to broaden things beyond the number on the scale. We’ve measured weight, percent body fat and tracked using measurements. Pictures are one more piece of the equation.

Judging from discussions I’ve had with others in the same boat, this is most people’s least favorite bit of tracking. To the extent that people feel good about these photos, it sounds like they’re thinking of them as horrid, before shots. “I’ll never look like that again.” Maybe they are also people who put fat photos of themselves on the fridge to stop the door being opened. But I am very much not that sort of person.

I work very hard to love, respect, and care for the body I have now.  Love is a better motivator than hate. So while the pictures are odd, not very Sports Illustrated Swimming Suit Issue looking at all, I try to remain neutral about them. They’re just me in a bathing suit.  I have very fond feelings about this bathing suit.  It’s my favorite, bought on my last sabbatical in Australia, four years ago, and worn ever since to the beach almost every time I’ve been. I love it so much I don’t wear it in swimming pools. Chlorine would kill it. I have very happy memories of last summer in that bathing suit on the beach at the Pinery Provincial Park where we always holiday.

So, for me, the pictures are just information, telling me things about posture and muscle development that numbers on the scale alone cannot. But my focus is really on performance and I like that Shanks’ website is free of bikini pictures.

Here is Nia Shanks demonstrating the progression she took to get to hand stand push ups. I really want to be able to these! And if I succeed during this fittest by fifty campaign, I promise I’ll post a photo or video here.

Progressing to Handstand Push Ups

3 thoughts on “The Power of Pictures

  1. I hear you, Sam. When I first started working out, I bought fitness magazines. I stopped buying them because more than half of the magazines were ads for supplements depicting either gigantic ripped bodybuilders or Barbarella women in “yearning-for-you” poses. Quite ridiculous, really. And they’re not Axe commercials which poke fun at the possibility of women fawning over you for using the product either. They seems to suggest that if these products are used correctly, Barbarella will be yours by right!

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  2. I love Nia Shanks sequence for progressing to hand-stand push-ups and plan to do that too. I’m still working on my regular push-ups though. But from yoga my handstands (without the push-up element) are pretty strong and I am quite used to being upside down for long-ish periods of time.

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