It's Ok to be a 'Before'
Here's the thing. The health and fitness industry is (generally speaking) a giant fucking crock of flaming horse shit.
This alienating and incendiary thought has been burning in the back of my mind for decades. It has taken me a very long time to acknowledge it fully. I'm as wrapped up as anybody in the business of losing weight and in the hobby of criticizing myself for how I look. After all, I am a woman. Is that sexist or unfeminist of me? Perhaps. Women are targeted by the health and fitness industry far more than men are. It's insidious and starts at a young age. We're hit from all sides and it boils down to one thing. Telling us we are anything other than 100% gloriously perfect is a fantastic way to make a buck.
As a magazine junky, the slow death rattle coming from print media makes me sad. I love the old perfume samples and hot makeup tips. I'm terrible at such things, and Sassy Magazine was my guiding light through my adolescence. I'm not upset, though, that I'm raising a daughter who will not have photoshopped glossy prints of perfection to compare herself to. I'm happy that she's free of that form of self-torture. She won't be led by headlines telling her that she needs to please men and lose 15lbs now, but is the age of social media any better?
Right now, my feed is filled with before and after pictures. Some of them are of my friends. Some are of strangers. It would be easy to shrug and tell me that I'm just bitter or jealous because I'm unhappy with my body. It would be easy to assume that I long for the same change and that my unhappiness with the industry is a projection of my own unhappiness with myself. There would even be a kernel of truth in there. The complete truth is more paradoxical and complicated.
Let's look at those before and after shots, shall we? I have one of my own. I used to keep it on the refrigerator as a means of motivation, self-flagellation, and shame. It was taken a few weeks before my wedding. At one of the happiest moments of my life. It was at my sister's graduation party. One of the proudest moments in her life. My dad is in the photo. There's a lot to celebrate about this picture. Yet, I use it as an object of shame. I don't use it to reflect on that happy time, I use it to compare the "old" me with the "new" me. I barely see the other people in the snapshot when I look at it.
That is only one of the problems I have with before and after photos. The bigger problem is that they promote a right versus wrong dichotomy. The before is almost always framed as negative. If I look more like your before shot than your after, what do I internalize when I see that? I believe that I'm wrong, bad, negative, not worthy, in need of fixing, in need of something, and somehow lacking. Even if you frame it in a "good for me, but not necessarily for you" way, the meaning is still implied. I should not be happy with myself, and I should strive to look like your after photo. The trouble is, bodies aren't stagnate. They can't be categorized as before and after. They just are. Weight and health are not necessarily linked in a simplistic way, and you cannot see health.
I was watching TV the other night and a commercial came on for an at-home workout program. The woman in the video boasted that she went from a size 8 to a size 2. Good on her, but the implication of that statement is that a size 8 is bad. If I'm a size 8 woman watching this, it is supposed to make me want to be a size 2. That is how they make their money and get other women to join. It's how they generate revenue. If we all started just being happy with ourselves exactly as we are today, in our before state, they would lose money. They fear that the most. A woman who is not obsessed with her appearance has more time and energy to devote to thinking about ideas. That's also a terrifying prospect. This industry is as anti-feminist as you can possibly get. It's entire purpose is duping women into spending money and keeping them complacent by taking up their time and energy that could be spent on actually enacting effective change in the world.
There is some good in the industry, of course. There are medical experts who do not care what their patients look like, so long as they are healthy. There are nutritionists who focus on nutrition and not on fad diets and appearance as a measure of change. I know a few of them, and they are making waves. I love them for what they do. But, there's also a lot of bad. Untrained faux experts and fads have been around for ages, but it's proliferating in the age of social media and get rich/thin quick schemes run amuck.