Are you a woman over the age of twelve? You should definitely be on a diet. It doesn’t matter if you’re a size 2 or a size 20, there is always weight to lose or maintenance to be done. How will you ever find love and succeed in the world, if you don’t know your daily caloric intake? It’s not just about beauty, of course, it’s also about health. Everyone knows that health is a number on a scale. Today is the first step in a journey! You are a before now, but soon you will be an after!
We’ve all heard this message. As women, society expects us to be on a never-ending quest for perfection. If it’s not fat to vanquish, it’s wrinkles or cellulite. This message, this unyielding refrain of “Be prettier, already!”, makes me want to find the nearest dried up lake, fill it with full fat chocolate pudding, then wallow in its sugary goodness until I seize and/or drown. I am, it seems, alone in that. Lately, my Facebook feed has been overrun with women in their late twenties on a “journey.” Friends, of all shapes and sizes, are posting caloric counts and exercise logs and—worst of all—before and after photos.
You’ve all seen these pictures. On the left, there is a somewhat/slightly/vaguely chubby woman glowering into a mirror, while on the right is that same woman turned into a glowing, smiling health angel. The caption is, always, thus:
“I never thought I’d share this photo, friends, but it’s time for me to be brave. This was me three years ago: fat, depressed, and deeply out of touch with my health. Through hard work and hours of dedication, I’ve taken control of my life. If that girl can do it, so can you!”
Just last week, one of my old school friends posted an eerily similar photo-and-caption combination. When we were younger, she was always one of the chubbier girls in our class—not morbidly obese or anything, just somewhat out of the norm—which all changed when she went to college. She became a nutrition major, an avid runner, and is currently getting her physical training licence. That is all fantastic! She found her raison d’être and is super happy in life! What’s not fantastic, however, is that she completely disavowed the person she was before. By calling herself an after and raising up a picture of her teenage self as proof of what she had overcome, it turned that girl I loved into a negative. She’s now an after, not a before.
There, right there! That’s my problem with before-and-after photos and the sensationalism of weight loss in this era. Losing weight doesn’t and shouldn’t make you a different person. More over, being overweight does not make you a before. A woman is not a butterfly, waiting to emerge from a cocoon of shame, with just a little diet and exercise. You are a real person, have always been a real person, and will continue to be a real person until you die…no matter what you weigh.
While I completely understand and support people wanting to lose weight, because of either happiness or health issues, a scale number shouldn’t be what defines someone as worthy. By framing our body image in terms of before-and-after shots, I worry that we internalize the narrative that after is always better. Weight loss doesn’t make you a better person and it certainly doesn’t make you a different one. You may be more confident, able to shrug off negativity more easily, or happier in your own skin, but you are still Odette. Losing weight is not a woman’s one great accomplishment. If we look at it as such, we are encouraging women who are not in perfect shape to hide away from the world, because conventional beauty is the sole characteristic of a successful woman. The message does not become one of inspiration, but one of shame.
I think it’s wonderful to share accomplishments, especially ones you’ve worked so hard for, but maybe we need to check which ones we’re assigning highest value to . It’s okay to be unhappy at a size 18, but it’s also alright to be happy as one. There are more important things to you than skinny or chubby or gaunt or fat. Are you kind to other people? Are you pursuing a long held dream? Do you make really awesome apple pie? All of these things make you more worthy than fitting into tiny pants. I wish there were more people posting before-and-after shots of academic success or pie baking attempts. If I’m going to be an after someday, I want to be the after of literary success and dressmaking skills.
In the end, however, I don’t want to be an after. I want to be Grace, living her life. I am not Before-Grace, just as you are not Before-Odette. This day, this person you are right now, is just as important as the one you will become. Neither one should be judged by the size of her pants.