The unforgivable before & after picture was of a kindergartener. A sweet tiny little girl who looked normal and happy in the before & slightly faking her smile and holding her head just the way obsessed-with-her-appearance mommy told her to in the after. The magazine claimed to be overjoyed and proud of the "weight loss" this kindergartener had accomplished. They praised the mother for encouraging this poor child's "journey" to what they called "health." And right there I realized that these women who I thought were badass strong feminists were just some poor pathetic man-pleasers who hadn't gotten the memo yet that it's 2015 and we are no longer required to warp little girls minds into believing their only worth in this world lies in how thin they can make their bodies. Rrrrrgh! I get so mad when I think about what that poor little girl was put through by her mother. And how many potentially-sensible adults stood by and watched her count this girl's calories and take her measurements and weigh her daily? I still can't even begin to touch how angry that picture made me, how hopeless it made me feel for young women.
But regardless of my anger, mere days later, I was surfing around Tumblr seeking inspiration and feeling dazzled by all of these before and after pictures of adults. If you look for before and after pictures on Tumblr, you can find copious amounts. And at first, these pictures made me feel slightly inspired. I had a "wow -- good for her" kind of feeling. After seeing roughly several hundred of them, however, I felt sick. I felt sad. I read in each of the brief testimonials under the pictures the basic common idea that these women -- mostly young and vibrant and courageous -- felt ashamed about who they had been and clung desperately to this "after" woman they had become. And while I applaud their hard work to become what they believed was "healthy," I began to wonder how "healthy" they truly were.
The fact is, you can't tell how physically "healthy" someone is by looking at them. You can't. You can sometimes tell if a person is under or over weight. But you can't look at a person and know their body fat percentage, how fast they can run a mile, how well their heart works, how high or low their cholesterol levels are, etc.... Similarly, you can't tell how emotionally healthy someone is by looking at them. Often, people endure weight loss regimes that are anything but healthy. Often, the mental bullying that has to take place between the before and the after, leads to a less than healthy emotional life.
It's true that many people use the before and after picture as motivation and/or celebration of weight loss or muscle gain. It can be motivating to see the drastic differences in one's body in one quick glance. It can be validating and inspiring to see how much change you've been able to create in your body over a certain time period. If used in a detached, casual way, the before and after picture can be one more helpful tool for SOME people in their journey toward REAL health. But, ultimately, I think the very concept of before and after pictures is more damaging than productive to most people's goals -- particularly if they become attached to that after person.
There is a really sad and vicious side to the phenomenon of the before and after picture. In the underpinning of the entire philosophy behind the before and after picture, there is a negation of a human being's worth "before" and a vicious indictment that if the "after" ever has the audacity to change, this human being will once again, likely, be worthless, or in need of further scrutiny. Of course, at worst, the before and after picture is actually a lie created by companies to sell something to people who are either unwilling or incapable of critical thinking.
A few years ago, I embarked upon a journey toward better health. Though this journey came with significant weight loss, it is not remotely the weight loss that is the best part of it. The best part of this journey is everything a before and after picture could never show you: my self-acceptance, my ability to care for myself and love myself like never before, my new-found fearlessness, my total belief in myself. Not only could a before and after picture not show you these things but the truth is I had all of these things IN the before. I only got TO the after because I ALREADY felt all of these things.
And if you haven't gotten the message -- from self-help books and pop songs and pop psychology and chick flicks -- yet about why self-love is important, allow me to help explain. We are not be capable of loving other people unconditionally if we can't love ourselves unconditionally. We can love people hard. We can love people big and strong. But until we love ourselves -- all of ourselves, with no conditions on that love--we can't do the same for anyone else. The more unconditional love I show myself, the more I feel myself capable of giving my kids, my partner, my friends, my family members, my students. So, you see, it is not just selfishly that I protect my so-called before self from shame; it is fiercely that I protect everyone I love from whatever judgements or restrictions I might place on my love for them if I allowed that shame in!
I wouldn't tell a single person that I love that they should feel ashamed for anything. If they hurt someone, should they be sorry? Yes. If they make a mistake that matters, should they try to fix it? Sure. But shame is a negation of worth. I would never wish Shame on anyone I love. And therefore, I can't give shame to myself (anymore). I refuse it. Before. After. Now. Always.
Am I a different woman than I was before? Yes! We are ALL always changing. Everything right now is different than when I wrote this sentence 3 seconds ago. That's not just some new-age, hippie-dippie philosophy, that's the truth. I am always different. I am no longer the woman in the before picture But... I am no longer the woman in the "after" picture either. That list above remains pretty consistent but the nuances, the sophisticated intricacies of personality and skin quality and spiritual inquiry and a host of other tiny changes are always in flux, always shifting. If I attach myself too strongly to any of these versions of myself that fly by as I write at this very moment, I will get stuck. And being stuck sucks because you are constantly fighting to hold on to something that will change regardless of whether you want it to or not.
Do not get stuck in your before or your after because they do not actually exist. If you must take before and after pictures in order to document changes in your life or to your body, please do not use them as a way to shame yourself; as a way to tell yourself that your before self was somehow a shameful representation of who you are. If you can't believe you were wonderful before, then you can't fully accept the awesomeness of the after, because your love for both your before and after selves remains conditional. Your weight does not make you who you are. It often doesn't even fully reflect how healthy or unhealthy you are. If you need to lose weight, as I did -- to get healthier, and taking before and after pictures will somehow help that goal (though I would argue vehemently that it does not), awesome. But if your before and after picture is some message to the world that since you dropped 150 pounds, you are now worthy of love and acceptance -- screw that. You were ALWAYS worthy of love and acceptance and no matter what, you ALWAYS will be.
The poor little kindergartener that became a weight loss experiment for her mother was stuck in time -- like a butterfly in a shadow box -- when they took that picture of her and much worse than that, when they published it for the world to see and judge, they took away her innate sense of unconditional love. I mean, in our culture, it was bound to happen sooner than later -- but...when the people that take it from you are the very adults that should be helping you protect it, that's tragic, that's cruel. Now, there is shame. Now, there is the person she can't ever be and shouldn't ever have been because that (before) person was "bad" and this "after" person better stay just like this forever if she doesn't want to be shamed or made to feel unworthy. I wish this little girl could know what a deception that picture is. She was born worthy, like the rest of us. She has always been worthy and will always be. Just like you. Just like me.
Love yourself unconditionally