Happy Before(s), Happy After(s)

Happy Befores

I nearly tripped over the two women sitting on the stoop of the nondescript building I’d just exited onto Reed St. One of the women promptly asked me if I had a light; all in all, a very South Philly experience.

It was my second visit to Matt Godfrey‘s photography studio in as many days. I was only supposed to go once, but at our first session, the prospect of taking flexing photos wearing a bikini in front of a near-stranger had suddenly seemed like a much better idea in theory than in practice. 

It had been my idea to begin with, so I reasoned that I could change my mind. I’d opted instead for a shorts-and-sports-bra combo, only to arrive home later that day filled with regret about the cavalier way I’d squandered an opportunity to stretch my comfort zone and gather more useful and informative photos. (Matt is a consummate professional, by the way, and my discomfort was no reflection on him.)

So, I called him back. Booked and paid for a second session. All of this to get “before” pictures, mind you.

The back story: I recently dove glutes first into a new muscle-building program written by fabulous St. Louis–based trainer Kourtney Thomas (more on our upcoming collaboration at the very end of the post), and I want to see objectively how my body changes over the next 12 weeks. 

Training primarily for aesthetics is new territory for me, personally. All of my own major fitness goals to this point have been more “do focused” than “looks focused.” Competing in the realm of figure and bodybuilding (as in being on stage in a bikini) has simply never appealed to me. So, I’ve haven’t sought hypertrophy—an increase in muscle size—as a goal. Historically, I’ve instead learned and honed various strength skills (in the realm of kettlebells, steel clubs, or with bodyweight), or I’ve competed in a new sport (such as powerlifting, weightlifting, and strongman). My existing muscle mass is a function of that training, or the accessory work performed in support of that training.

Now, a freshly minted 38, simply because fitness is a grand experiment and I like to learn by doing, I want to see what a hypertrophy focus for the next three months looks like on me. Even though I still have no desire to take the stage, I want photographic evidence of the process.

But frankly, most “before” pictures are a real downer. The slouchy posture, sad facial expressions, bellies pushed out and low backs swayed exaggeratedly, all photos snapped from low angles under unflattering lighting—it’s pure Eeyore. Ideally, the thinking goes, this will create a most stunning and dramatic visual transformation into the person featured in radiant, happy, perfectly-lit-and-posed-just-so “after” pics (which could often feasibly be taken the same day).

But: I don’t live a slouchy, sad-faced life, regardless of what my body-fat percentage or state of muscularity is. Right now or ever.

I’m all for better fitness, but I don’t condone selling the notion that getting leaner or more muscular means complete happiness and the eradication of all problems. (I would, however, argue that a rock-solid regimen of self-care that includes weight-training and an array of cardiovascular activities leads to greater physical, mental, and emotional health, and that those activities do have a way of helping to maintain healthy body fat levels and increase lean, metabolically active tissue. But it’s so much more complicated than muscles equal happiness that I can’t even begin.)

What if—on the rare occasion “before” photos were called for—we took them in a way that showcased our own personal flair? What if we took them in good lighting and did whatever we personally like to do in order to feel cute first? And then hit a handful of reproducible poses so that we could have another data point for evaluating our program down the road. Without vilifying where it is that we’ve come from. Wouldn’t that be more…enjoyable?

A happy, purposeful life, it seems to me, is a delicate balance of playing the lead in the movie of your life while also accepting certain unassailable, unemotional truths.

As such, I decided I wanted my “befores” to reflect the work I’ve already put into my fitness, my current relationship of appreciation I have with my body—right now—as well as tell the truth about my areas for improvement in terms of muscular development in the future. I’m willing to bet that my “afters” will reflect an equal level of satisfaction…but if the program works (and it will, it already has), I’ll also be more muscular.

Here’s how the shoot went. (It goes without saying, I’m sure, but none of these images have been altered in any way.)

Still filled with the bravado of having arranged a second shoot specifically to capture bikini photos, I arrive on set with Kourtney’s shot list in hand, determined to toss off the towel and get straight to work. Just like last time, but with fewer clothes. I am fine. Everything is fine. 

Hide 1

Witness the doubt creep into my eyes, the momentary falter where I consider running away, the towel my cape flapping behind me. Was this such a good idea?

Hide 2

Never one for ripping the bandaid off, nonetheless, I toss the towel off to one side in what I hope appears to be a bold move and hit a “double bi,” a term short for “double biceps.” I’ve heard various figure competitor friends sling this term around, but it has no real meaning in my life. Almost immediately, a hot pain sears from the vicinity of a tendon in the back of my left hand. “Did I just injure myself flexing?” I wonder. I knew I should have watched Chase Erwin’s “Learn to Flex” tutorial more than once. Too late now.


Oww, I definitely injured my hand and now there’s also a needling sensation in the middle of my back. The next shot on the my assigned list is called a “Front Flared.” I have no earthly idea what I’m doing but I do know that I’m starting to sweat already. Am I the Hulk? I used to love the Hulk as a kid. Yes. I’ll definitely pretend to be the Hulk. 

Front Flared

The “Relaxed Front.” Hulking has me hype, though. I don’t want to stand still.

4_Relaxed Front

The next shot on my list says “Side Flexed.” In the small reference photo next to those words, a well-muscled man is pretzeled into a pose I’m not certain I can emulate. But by god I will try, again and again. I am now completely sheathed in sweat. I tip my wrist…up? Also, does it kind of look like I’m humping something? 

5_Side Flexed

The “Relaxed Side” looks like a poolside mug shot: “I’m afraid  you’ve had too many piña coladas, ma’am.”

6_left relaxed

I love piña coladas. 

7_left relaxed 2

And getting caught in the…wait, what am I supposed to do with this arm? Do I still look relaxed? 

8_left relaxed 3

When I turn and hit double-bi for a second time, the pain again blossoms in the back of my left hand. Of all the possibilities for injury, I never saw this one coming. I wonder if I’ll have to get surgery. I hope not. I am happy the back of my head is being photographed now, though, because my husband, David Dellanave, braided my hair, and I am proud of his work. (So is he.)9_back flexed

“Back Flared” is my next assignment. I have flashbacks to my friend Jill Coleman, a former figure competitor, teaching me to flare my lats like she used to on stage. As I would struggle to make the mind-lat connection, she would slap my curled, stiffened fingers and yell, “Claw hands! Get rid of those claw hands! RELAX!” But the reference photo shows the hands positioned on the front of the hips. I experience a moment of panic, but it’s fine: I will simply channel a bodyguard on a yacht. I am on lookout for sharks. I don’t see any right now, but I shall remain vigilant. Also, I just noticed that I haven’t exhaled in at least two minutes. I fear I am turning purple. My fears, it turns out, are not unfounded.

10_back flexed

Most casual shot of the day. I wish they could all be “Back Relaxed.” I made a face here, just because I was drunk with power and I knew I would not be caught. 

11_back relaxed

But, all good things must come to an end. “Can you kind of…look back at it again, like you just did?” asks Matt. We both laugh. This is ridiculous. What are we even doing here in this room. On this planet. 

12_right relaxed

“Is there anything else you wanna shoot?” asks Matt. “Yeah!” I say. “One that sums up the idea of embracing your bigness.”13_pose kiss


Do you secretly want arms as big as your life? Or, if that’s an overstatement, ready to really look like you lift weights? And have people go, “Oh my god your arms look so strong!” (If you’re not into that, go ahead and skip this free downloadable.)

If more muscular arms are something you’d like to embrace, input your email address here to get your FREE copy of Kourtney Thomas’s “Arm Pump”: a detailed, easily implementable tip list and three-workout arm plan that you can do in any combination to pop your shoulders and round your biceps. Each exercise in the plan is demonstrated and explained clearly through photos and thorough written instruction.

Grab your copy of “Arm Pump” here!


[All photos by Matt Godfrey Photography]


Author:Jen Sinkler

Fitness writer and editor, workout connoisseur, meditator, proponent of spandex, former rugby player; never, ever without lip gloss.
Comments: 26

26 Responses to “Happy Before(s), Happy After(s)”

  1. Karen Jones

    I would love to see the after pictures – I am going to start the bigger project this fall and would really like to see some examples from women who have done it.

  2. You are such an inspiration!

  3. Great body and great attitude! Keep it up!

  4. juli

    Those swimsuit bottoms look uncomfortable AF!

  5. Elizabeth

    Fantastic post — and I was surprised to find myself laughing the whole way through it (and wanting a pina colada, of course). I love the self-depricating humor mixed with empowerment. You’re my new spirit animal!

  6. Bela

    Damn! You look stunning. I would kill for a body like yours. I can tell you’re doing lots of sprints 😉
    But on a more serious note, you seem a little self conscious in some of the shots. There’s absolutely no need. You look fabulous with or without your clothes on. Or at least, in a bikini!

  7. Elsie

    You are the best. This article made me smile from ear to ear. I absolutely love your comments on the pictures and how much fun you look to be having.

  8. Sinkler, your butt is on fleek.

  9. You look great now and you’ll look great after, after after, and after after after! You’ll look amazing as long as you are strong and still have that smile!

  10. Margaret

    Sorry if I came off a little witchy. More frustration with my own self. I do love LOVE seeing women celebrate their bodies! And you provide so much great information.

    But on a more constructive note, it would be cool to hear from more women who were morbidly obese but eventually obtained a very fit/athletic body. I think for me carrying excess fat for so long has somewhat changed how my body works and I struggle at this point with what realistic expectations might be for my body.

    • Jeni

      Hey Margaret – you may want to check out Kelly Coffey (www.strongcoffey.com) – she has an amazing perspective about losing 150 pounds and being in the fitness industry. Hopefully some of what she shares in her posts will resonate with you. Congrats on continuing your fitness and personal development journey, even when it may not be the path of least resistance!

    • For what it is worth Margaret, I don’t think you came across as harsh and honestly I think you voiced what many women will think. I, too, absolutely love Jen’s idea of happy Before pictures and of course, she is coming from where she is which is perfectly valid. And gorgeous. And fun. And I am glad she uses her voice to fan the glowing spark of the idea that we women are okay Before and After and even if we never get to an After. But I wanted to say I heard you and I also heard how carefully you tried to say what you were thinking and feeling.

  11. Laura

    Yessss!! I just applied for the program, fingers crossed! 😉

    Aaaalso, come check us out at South Philly Community Acupuncture on Passyunk for that hand 😉

    • Hurray, Laura!

      And OMG I WILL BE RIGHT THERE! (Seriously, I just walked by your place the other day and thought hmmmm, I need to stop in there soon.)

  12. Courtney F

    Girl-Woman-Lady … This is fantastical in its awesomeness!! These picts definitely sum you up … And really, that braid!!

    • Hahahaha! Girl-Woman-Lady, I thank you so much and appreciate YOUR awesomeness, too! 🙂

  13. Rachel

    “I don’t live a slouchy, sad-faced life, regardless of what my body-fat percentage or state of muscularity is. Right now or ever.”

    I want to stitch that on a friggin sampler and hang it on my wall. Love it. Thank you!

    • Can you stitch?? I’m so impressed! <3

      • Rachel

        Haha, yup! Back in the days of seemingly infinite free time (college), I’d stitch goofy stuff in old-timey fonts. My favorite was “BACK IT UP, BACK IT IN”, which my friend (now a philosophy professor) still displays in her office.

  14. Margaret

    OK, don’t get me wrong, I think you are amazing. But it is REALLY pretty easy to be happy with your before shots when you have an amazing body. You don’t appear to have cellulite or flab. You have a great butt and flat abs, as well as definition.
    I think it’s AWESOME that you have such self confidence. But you also have an amazing body that 99% of women would KILL FOR.
    It’s a lot easier to love yourself and not villify where you came from, when where you came from is very healthy and lean and attractive.
    I do agree that fitness and health is attractive, but sadly…. it doesn’t always come with a tight tummy and a lack of cellulite. I guess this would have been more impactful for me if your before had been something short of basic perfection. I guess it just makes me feel like I myself am doing something wrong because even my best after doesn’t come close to your before (which yes, you are happy with which is awesome). It’s kind of like the time the fitness guru posted the stunning black and white photo of herself and went on about embracing her flaws and so on. Uh, if my body was like that I’d parade around nude.

    It would be fun to have a voice in this world of someone who was once very obese- not just “the fitness models called me fat:” but, you know, I was a size 26 and will always have saggy skin and weird stretchmarks.

    • Hey Margaret,

      I think your missing the mark here a bit.

      She’s coming from this project at a different angle. Sort of an experiment if you will. She’s been training in one style for most of her life and she’s experimenting with something new to see how it “fits” and encouraging women to come along the journey (no matter what they look like now).

      No need for the harsh diatribe of judgement. If the program isn’t for you, then scroll on. Doesn’t seem that hard 😉

      • Thank you, Diane, I very much appreciate you seeing what I was aiming for.

        Margaret, I hear you, and I truly regret that I’m not able to represent all viewpoints at once—especially one as valid and important as the one you are expressing. Everyone has their stuff, everyone has their struggles, and the best I can do in my firsthand accounts (versus the much larger body of my written work that’s reported and covers a broader array of topics) is try to tell my own tales and connect through my own experiences. That said, let me repeat that I hear your request and will think of more ways to address it. Thank you for your comment.

        • angie

          I think this was one of the best responses EVER. Seriously. I know exactly where Margaret is coming from and for her to not be judged on her speaking her own truth and what she sees and for you to be totally respect that makes me believe there we can be open and honest without feeling attacked! I love you Jen.

  15. #

    You are AMAZING and absolutely STUNNING!!!!!!!! Way to go lady! 🙂

Leave a Reply