Are Before And After Photos Problematic in Sobriety?

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

I want to preface this entire article by saying that there is no right or wrong way to get sober or maintain your sobriety. Whatever works for you might not work for another person, and that is completely and utterly fine.

As always I can only speak from personal experience, but lately I have been thinking a lot about before and after photos in the context of getting sober, and more specifically whether or not they are helpful.

Just a quick Google search of “sober before and after photos” leads to thousands of results such as “Shocking before and after photos show the devastating impact of alcohol addiction!” and “Cleaned Up! The Before & After Photos Of Sober Celebrities!”

Even on the sober accountability groups that I am a part of online, I see at least one before and after photo being posted every day. This normally consists of two selfies side by side — in the photo on the left the person is puffy faced, sometimes crying and on the right, they are radiant, smiling, with a more defined jaw line indicating some weight loss. “Day 1 vs Day 100” the caption usually reads.

Some before and after photos depict more drastic physical changes, whereby the person has lost over 100 lbs over the past few years since they stopped drinking, but the message I seem to take away from both forms of before and after photos, is that when you get sober you “look better”.

I spend (read: far too much) time on Instagram, and I’ve noticed that before and after sobriety photos tend to get heightened engagement and attention compared to other forms of posts. People are drawn in, like moths to the dopamine hitting flame, by the looming possibility that quitting drinking could be their ticket to weight loss or better skin, or whatever physical attribute they want to change.

Buzzing questions for newly sober people on a reddit sub that I frequent tend to be something along the lines of “30 days sober. When does the weight loss happen?”

I’m not trying to spill over into body image territory here, but I found myself scruitinizing my face and body over the past few months and comparing it to a few selfies and photos I took over the past year while I was hungover. I took these photos with the full intention of them being my “before photo” and aspiring for the day when I could throw it into a collage app and do my “1 year sober before and after” announcement.

About a month ago, I did create one of those side by side photos of a horrible, crying hangover selfie and a more recent photo of me smiling after coming home from a long walk. I looked “better” in the recent photo, but I thought to myself… “Obviously you look better, you’re smiling after exercise and not crying your eyes out after being hungover all day.” This made me go back to photos of me when I was still drinking, and I realized that I pretty much still looked the same as I do now. In some of the older drinking photos, I even looked better thanks to a good hair day, a Croatian tan, and some makeup. What the photos weren’t capturing, was the anxiety and shame I experienced practically every single day at that point and the the mental gymnastics that were going through my head when I thought about quitting drinking — which was also practically every day.

It got me thinking about how important it is to communicate to people (mainly myself) that, yes, weight loss and clear skin tend to be bonus side effects when you quit drinking, but vanity aside, there are so many more important internal changes that happen when we quit drinking. Changes that we can’t see and probably don’t even know are happening.

We’re doing important things like changing our thought patterns or how we speak to ourselves. Some people are working the steps, making amends, and improving their self esteem. For me personally, I am re-learning how to socialize without alcohol, lessening my anxiety, and putting time into creative projects that are cathartic and help me express how I feel. These things are all so invaluable, but unfortunately they don’t show up on the camera screen when I take a selfie.

If you were in the same situation as I was — binge drinking on weekends, drinking more than you intended to, and unhappy with your relationship with alcohol — you may not have looked like there was a problem. I didn’t. I still dressed up for work, put my cute clothes on for special occasions, did my makeup, and smiled for photos. However, I did all of this with a backlog of hangovers, anxiety, regret, and shame that stemmed from black out drinking every weekend. Although I look pretty much the same now as I did when I was drinking, the anxiety has minimized so much and is now manageable, I don’t have regret or shame in the mornings for drinking too much and not remembering the night before, and I just feel more calm and content with myself.

Before and after photos are an amazing way to stay motivated and positive during sobriety, so I am definitely not saying they are not useful for some people. As I said in the beginning, if it works for you then that’s amazing and you should take as many before and after photos that you would like! However, I just wanted to say that if you haven’t noticed a visibly drastic physical change since quitting drinking, that’s normal too and you’re not alone.

I barely lost any weight and my skin looks pretty much the same, but I feel so much better and I realize now that, for me, the truly important changes in sobriety are not the physical ones.

Back when I was drinking, I wasn’t consistent with any part of my life. I was trapped on the drink — blackout — hangover — anxiety hamster wheel that was making me feel worse and worse every single day. Today I feel so much better and more optimistic about my life and have so much more time and energy to put towards broadening my mind, rather than constantly worrying about drinking. My mind finally feels less frantic.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a before and after photo of your mind?

Disclaimer: This is not a post about alcoholism. If you are physically dependent or addicted to alcohol or other substances, please contact your GP or other online resources for a professional opinion.

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Melissa Kay

PhD student in Ireland writing about my personal journey with sobriety, mental health, and student life.