Are You Ready for your Close-Up? The Unhealthy Side of Fitness Photography

We’ve all seen the masculine, bicep-bulging, perfectly toned bodies of what appears to be the world’s most fit men and women, draped across billboards, posters and other media outlets. Many of us have professed our willingness to perform unspeakable acts to achieve such healthy perfection. But according to experts in the field, the frightening truth is that the people in those photographs are far from healthy—often dangerously far.

Don’t get me wrong, these are people who are generally very fit, with salubriously kept bodies on an average day. But photo shoots are not average days, and to achieve such a finely sculpted physique, a person is actually required to take their body to a hazardously unhealthy state.

Jill Coleman knows all too well what it takes to become “photo-ready”. She used to be a fitness and figure model, but gave up that part of the lifestyle to teach people a more ‘body-positive’ way of maintaining fitness, which she does via her own blog,

Jill says the worst part of the charade is that the models in the photos do not even look like their photographed visages. “Most fitness models are at least five to ten pounds heavier than they are in the photos,” said Jill Coleman, pointing out the abundance of “smoke and mirrors” involved.

Seb Gale, a personal trainer and fitness writer, supported Coleman’s claims, calling the deceitful photo shoots a “mockery” of the health and fitness industry, “that to get into that condition you have to be incredibly unhealthy.”

Gale spent a week “drying out” (losing as much ‘water weight’ as possible) before a recent photo shoot. He described the preparation for being photo-ready as, “really overloading your body.” He says it’s not uncommon for people to land “in the hospital preparing for shoots.”

Photo Ready: A Week of Unhealthy Living

Gale shared his week-long experience, starting with the utter elimination of carbohydrates. He ate nothing but green veggies and meat or eggs for protein. He also started popping 20 fish oil pills a day. Listerine, anyone?

For the first three days or so, Gale says the lack of carbs has the same physical effect as having the flu. But of course, you have to maintain your workout regimen anyway. Once ketosis kicks in – a state where the body quite literally begins eating its own fat to produce energy – the flu-like symptoms subside and mental clarity returns. However, he said “everything felt really heavy. I was lifting 30 or 40 percent less weight during my workouts.”

While ketogenic diets can actually be quite successful for many healthy individuals, Gale took the process many steps farther, which is what makes it such an unhealthy way to gain the appearance of physical perfection. And remember, he’s also supposed to be “drying out” his system.

Gale reduced his calorie intake by about 5,000 calories per day, consumed magnesium pills and drank dandelion tea four times daily, as well as four gallons of water per day, accelerating the dehydration process. As he put it, “you basically need to be within 10 minutes of a toilet at all times.”

Coleman explained the purpose of drying out as getting that “shrink-wrapped” appearance, where the skin wraps tightly around the muscles. This is because the only water left in the body is absorbed by the muscles, rather than lying under the skin.

The day prior to the shoot, Gale cut out water completely. And don’t forget, he continued full workouts throughout the week.

On photo day, when the body is completely exhausted and ready to give up, the carbs come back into play, as well as sodium. Everything from potatoes to cheesecake is fair game, though some prefer to go with rice cakes, oatmeal or peanut butter. Thus the muscles become filled with sugars called glycogen, swelling them beneath the now-taught skin.

Seb Gale Fitness Photo

Seb Gale “Photo-Ready”

Gale described his physical state during photo-readiness. “I had no energy, I was really dehydrated, I felt very close to cramping, and it was basically very uncomfortable,” he said. “It wasn’t tiredness exactly. I just really wanted to sit down and eat food. I came home afterwards and ate whatever I could find…”

The Cold Reality

As Gale put it, the feeling of accomplishment afterwards makes it all worth it, although he admitted that the week of preparation “destroys your social life”. He said “you start to have an incredibly bad relationship with food, but it’s a satisfying achievement once the photos turn out and you see all your hard work captured in that moment in time.”

The moral of the story is, the next time you see a flawless physique with “shrink-wrap” toned muscles, bulging biceps and visible veins, enticing you to join a gym or take the latest diet pill, instead of asking yourself why you have never been able to look like that, ask yourself if you really want to.

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