body image

OMG It’s the Darn Photo Contest Again

Why, Precision Nutrition, why?  I know Sam already said how much she detests the PN photo contest. And I’ve already said how they lost me when they spent a month getting us all prepped for the final photo shoot.

Both of us attest that there are some good things about the PN program. But the photo contest certainly isn’t one of them. This week, we both got links to the women’s and the men’s finalists’ before and after shots so we could vote on the most amazing “transformation.”

Some of them do appear to amazing. But what’s so irritating is that all through the program they say it’s not about the numbers on the scale or even about the way you look — it’s a change in attitude and approach.

What’s the big change? It’s a habit-based program. And what it really encourages us to do is take up healthy habits. I know that for a lot of people the reason to take up healthy habits is to lose weight and get lean. It is, after all, called “The Lean Eating Program.”

So what did I expect? What’s so bad about a photo contest? Why do I despise before and after shots?

First of all, if you know anything about “before” and “after” shots, it’s that they’re not always indicative of the truth. There was that thing awhile back where people took “before” and “after” shots within minutes or hours of each other.

Remember the Australian personal trainer, “Mel,” who did a 15-minute “transformation”?

Mel transformation

Andrew Dixon wrote “Seduced by the Illusion: The Truth about Transformation Photos” for The Huffington Post, where he talks about marketing campaigns that use before and after photos as a major selling point (sound familiar?):

Before I claim it’s all bullshit, I want to make it clear that there are definitely some very impressive, genuine physical transformations out there. What I do take issue with are the transformations that are manipulated with Photoshop, professional lighting, postures to degrade or enhance their look, pro tans, sucking in or pushing out a bloated belly or flexing muscles vs. not flexing to obtain an optimal look.

This is just the sort of thing PN encourages (not necessarily the gut sucking and so on, but definitely the professional photo shoot.  Dixon decided to experiment:

I decided to take my own transformation photos to see what was possible with just a few easy tweaks. About six months ago I was around 185 pounds and about 16 percent body fat. I was feeling particularly bloated on the day, so I asked my girlfriend to take a before shot. I then shaved my head, face and chest and prepared for the after shot, which was about an hour after I took the before shot. I did a few push ups and chin ups, tweaked my bedroom lighting, sucked in, tightened my abs and BOOM! We got our after shot.

dixon 2013-07-24-ADixonTransform1

Or there’s this instructional video about how to fake your before and after shots.

What this says to me is: be skeptical. Be very skeptical.

I’m not saying that no one in PN changes and that it’s all smoke and mirrors. But there is a lot of information missing from the contest. Like are they repeat-customers (“VIPs” as PN likes to call them)? How did they do with the habits?

And the million dollar question: maintenance. This is where so many people hit the wall. When the focus in largely on weight loss, that’s sort of the easy part. The struggle is keeping it off. The merit of a habit-based program is that you are supposed to be developing new habits for life. So you would think that the main indicator of importance would be how well those habits stay once the program is over. Or do we have to keep paying hundreds of dollars a month to keep up with those good habits?

I also don’t like the fact that PN uses the photo contest as its main marketing tool. It’s free advertising for them and they spend about a month trying to get the clients, who are already paying hundreds of dollars each month, to shell out for a professional photo shoot.

Of course photos from a pro shoot are going to be more flattering than the photos everyone took on day one, with their smart phone camera, at the beginning when they felt crappy about themselves.  I don’t know. That part really gets to me — the way they kept telling us “it’s worth it” and “you’re worth it” when really, more than anything else it’s worth it for them when their clients get the pro-shots and turn them over to PN for inclusion in the photo contest. We pay, they get to use the pics to get new clients.

I didn’t get a professional shoot and I didn’t give them permission to use any “after” shots. In fact, for me, the monthly photos were the worst part of the program because I was trying to get away from using appearance as a motivation for healthy habits.

So here we are again with the photo contest. And it happens to coincide with the “pre-sale,” which is an early sign-up that gives you 20% off of an unspecified amount and enables you to register a day earlier than everyone else for the January program.

My cynicism is not just because a year after the end of my PN experience I’m still struggling with the same stuff as I always have. It’s not just because I feel the need to find other bench marks because getting leaner eludes me. And it’s certainly not because I myself wouldn’t have ever been a finalist even if I had wanted to be considered for the contest.

It’s more because I wish there was a way of selling healthy habits without selling appearance-based “transformations” and without taking advantage of everyone’s susceptibility to being “seduced by the illusion.” I also think it’s just kind of embarrassing, in a way I didn’t used to, to put yourself out there to be judged on your appearance and your weight loss by countless strangers.

For all the pronouncements that it’s “an inside job,” the final photo contest just makes the program seem sort of shallow and the contestants desperate for a stamp of approval from others. Really? Do we have to keep doing this?


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