“To be labelled as a ‘before’ suggests that a fat body is always a work-in-progress,” Marie Southard Ospina tells me. “It is never complete, and therefore it cannot be worthy of joy or basic dignity.” The plus size writer and blogger has had her images appropriated on the internet as part of the ‘before and after’ advertisements which so often advertise questionable weight loss techniques or 'transformations' several times without her permission.
The very notion of 'before and after', Marie explains “tells us we cannot ever be fulfilled in our current state of being, and the only way to experience that fulfilment is to shrink.”
If you are connected to the internet, the chances are you’ve seen a 'before and after' advert. The imagery is always the same. It features a person who was once fat, but is now thin. Sometimes these advertisements show men who are now Ken-like and muscular but more often than not, it’s a plus size woman who has ‘miraculously’ lost a large amount of weight.
These adverts are always questionable, flogging the likes of laxative tea as a weight loss aid. But, more than that, they are sinister because the ‘before’ images of fat women (which have been taken without consent) aren’t actually the same people pictured in the ‘after’ photo.
“I first saw my photos being used to promote a weight loss tea about eight years ago,” Jessica Torres, who recently went viral on TikTok for speaking out about this topic, recounts to me over video call. “I saw it and I thought that this had to be a joke or prank. But no, my image was genuinely stolen to sell diet products as a ‘before’ image. This has happened at least twice a year, each year, in the time since.”
Jessica continues, “Every single time I see my body attached to the word ‘before’, in any weight loss campaign, it reminds me how much people hate fat bodies and fat people like me. It reminds me of how I felt when I was a little kid - it triggers memories of me thinking like, ‘Oh, the moment that I lose weight, I'll be able to have a great job, I'll be able to fall in love, to be a successful adult, to have great relationships with friends and family.’ All these things that I thought being skinny would fix. And now that I'm older and fat? I have all these things anyway.”
Speaking to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over email, a representative explained to Refinery29 that “if anyone has any concerns about their image being used in an ad, they should get in touch” but insisted that they rarely hear of such cases. However in her circle of fat friends, Jessica counters that she knows “more people who have been used as a ‘before’ than people who haven't.” Marie agrees, commenting that this is a common issue in the fat community.
This aligns with my own research. I reached out to my Instagram and Twitter followers (a total of 19k) that are largely made up of those aligned with plus size politics and numerous women came forward about their experiences in being used as a ‘before’. It seems more likely, then, that those encountering this issue aren’t reporting it.
To exist as a fat person online is to face a never-ending quandary. We want to live our lives and reach a place of peace with the bodies we’ve been taught to hate. We have internalized fatphobia because it’s everywhere but that’s not all we have to reckon with. In almost every corner of the internet, people are reiterating our worst and most self hating thoughts as truths. Nowhere is this more palpable than in 'before and after' imagery.
Plus size blogger Debz Louise was also targeted by 'before and after' comparisons. A Reddit thread named ‘Fat People Hate’ - which has now been removed by the site - encouraged users to “steal photos of fat people from the internet and recreate them to show how much ‘better’ they look.” Debz tells me that she was largely unphased by this vicious attack on her fatness because the sheer fact of existing as a plus size blogger has made her used to unwarranted and hurtful comments on her body. However, she nonetheless found herself angry that other fat people could see these posts and might feel badly of themselves because of them.
“Forums like Reddit may give you ‘free speech’ but ultimately the people you are posting about, mocking and being derogatory against are real people.” She vents: “How would you feel if someone posted something similar about someone you cared about? Fat people already know they are fat, your words are hurtful and purposeless. Fat people exist and we’re not going anywhere.”
But we shouldn’t need to humanize fat people in order to draw attention to how abhorrent this trolling really is. In fact, doing so may even have the opposite effect. What spurs many of these accounts on is the explicit goal of hurting fat people, of making us feel shame. They don’t really care about the fallout.
“Socioculturally, we celebrate weight loss no matter what. We always believe it to be an indicator of wellbeing — even though oftentimes, it's an indicator of precisely the opposite. ”
Marie Southard Ospina
Jessica Torres emphasizes this point. She notes that when she has reached out to brands using her imagery without permission, they simply apologize in a shallow way and take it down but the damage has already been done - both to her and any fat person who has seen it.
On one occasion, one particular weight loss brand even directed Jessica to a catalogue of images that they were using. She saw many of her friends among the images available on said site. The company, Jessica says, dismissed the situation as a misunderstanding about copyright and told her to “message anyone involved photo by photo and let them know.” She responded, “‘No, go do your fucking job.’ And I left it at that.”
The unpaid emotional labour requested in this case is representative of the kind of expectations the fat community face every day: in order to get basic respect and rights, we need to explain why we deserve it. And for those that feel fat people shouldn’t have these things? The answer is not neutrality, but abuse.
Marie Southard Ospina’s case, where the images stolen for a 'before and after' weight loss advertisement stands out as an incident that cannot be brushed off as a misunderstanding over image rights.
“My photos have been stolen by companies selling detox teas or slimming smoothies repeatedly,” she explains. “They tend to deep dive into my web history to find photos of me at my slimmest - when I was suffering badly from anorexia - and then they use that as the ‘after’ shot, juxtaposed with a recent picture where I'm at my heaviest.”
The effects of this on Marie’s mental health have been devastating. “One thing I'll never forget about being thin was the praise I received for losing all the weight,” she laments, “I did so by starving my body, but people never hesitated to tell me what a wonderful thing I had done and how beautiful I looked.”
That is why anyone who has had their image stolen and appropriated like this feels not only violated but wounded. We endure this implicit abuse day in, day out in every aspect of our lives. We are told that we aren’t worthy of basic respect and, not only compared to thin people but to formerly thin, less happy and healthy versions of ourselves by people we’ve never even met.
“Socioculturally, we celebrate weight loss no matter what,” Marie concludes. “We always believe it to be an indicator of wellbeing — even though oftentimes, it's an indicator of precisely the opposite. ” But, when a vulnerable person sees a 'before and after' advert, they won’t know the true history of the person pictured, what they’ve been through or how they really feel. All they will experience is shame.