Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By Hannah Hammond, LCSW
My social media has recently been bombarded with friends who are posting their “before/after” pictures. It is that time of year, you know, where you are expected to have the beach body, to have the results of the New Year’s Resolutions and Intentions you set up at the beginning of the year. It is congratulated and celebrated for people to lose weight and so the comments are all positive and excited. People are supportive of the weight loss journey. Some people want to know the secret! The post itself is captioned with a story about how much more confidence the person has, how much more people interact with him/her, and about how much happier life seems, in general.
I have so many thoughts around these posts. On the one hand, I am happy for these people to be on a journey about which they are excited. On the other hand, I am sad that their journey will end when the diet doesn’t work: 90% of diets don’t work.
On the one hand, I am encouraged these people are trying to manage their health. On the other hand, I am sad that their understanding of health is limited to the physical side. I think about their spiritual health that may be neglected; their mental health that has a lot of contingencies, rendering fragile (i.e. I am now able to be proud of myself because I lost the weight; I am now worthy to purchase new clothes; I am now worthy to be seen in public, etc); their social health takes a toll because either the connections are forged around weight loss and exercise or the connections are neglected so that they have time for the new regimen.
It can’t be denied that weight and obesity is on the rise. The average American woman has grown 2-3 sizes since the 1960s. My issue is that I don’t believe the solution is to count calories, to create exercise programs, or to let size be part of the measuring tool for overall health.
I want to talk about my “before/after” experience. Before diets, I was self-conscious, yes. But I was also active, nurturing talents, seeking connection, and being spontaneous. I started dieting when I was 10 or 11 years old because that is what I saw my mom and older sister doing. These diets were nothing very scientific. One was the diet to count fat grams. Another was the diet to limit colors on the plate (cooked chicken and rice are just about as monochromatic as it gets!). There were other variations, but in general, we weren’t the family that signed up for Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, or Atkins. My cousins, aunties, and uncles were on those diets, though, and they commented on how superior and more scientific theirs were. The diet became a status symbol. Over time, I lost my own identity and replaced it with how much I weighed, what size I was, how toned I was, how many crunches and sit ups I could do, how fast I could run, how long I could run, if people complimented my successes, and if I could “control” what I ate better than the next person. It felt amazing to have people tell me they were proud of me. I felt powerful when people would say, “I don’t know how you do it!” or, “what is your secret?” Early on, I would laugh and say something like, “Oh, I just watch what I eat” or “I can only eat these things because I am going to work out later.” However, with time, my methods became a secret. I didn’t want people to be successful in their “healthy” journey the way I was. I didn’t want them to take away what was mine! It was a powerful secret. I also didn’t want them to be successful because I derived my power from being MORE health conscious, MORE disciplined, and MORE controlled than they were. If they found out my secret and became successful, I would be a Nobody.
After diets, I was a thin, scared, muted, anxious, trapped, and uncomfortable person. Yes, I talked all the time. In general, people at the University knew me as “the girl who asks all of the questions in class.” But I never talked about anything that really mattered. I was playing a game. I was avoiding anything personal. I knew what people deemed as intimate information and so I shared those things so that I could convince people they were close to me without having to disclose much. My talking was to fill the air space. It wasn’t because I wanted to contribute to the world but rather was a coping skill to help mask my fears. My interactions became robotic, my sleep minimal. Although I was in all places at once, I felt very isolated from the world.
My experience with “before/after” pictures began with a lot of kudos and congratulations from my friends, neighbors, and past mentors. It ended with people concerned and whispering about me, or people inquiring and me getting defensive.
Now is not the time to measure health as a number on the scale, as a size, as a distance ran, or as weights lifted. Now is the time to measure health by how connected we feel with ourselves. One of my neighbors posted two pictures next to each other, in the same shirt. The first, her resting face, indicating the “before”. The second, her smiling face, indicating “after.” Her caption said, “Before and after… before I realized this is such an awesome color on me and after; after I decided to have a good day. It’s amazing what 5 seconds can do to my chins! #choosejoy #confidenceiswhatitisabout.”
This same woman made the comment that 8-10 years ago she compared herself to all of her “skinny neighbors” and wished she could be like them. She enrolled in a gym, started a diet, and you know the rest of the story. But since 90% of diets don’t work, she felt discouraged since she wasn’t getting the results she wanted. As she got to know her “skinny neighbors,” she noticed how their self-talk about their bodies was just as negative as her own. She commented “If that is what they say about themselves when they look that way, then weight loss is not worth it. Apparently the weight doesn’t change the talk.” How right she was! She focused on improving her self-talk and loving herself in the body she was given.
One of my favorite scenes in the Disney movie, Cool Runnings, happens at the end when the coach, who has been dealing with the consequences of his deceitful choices for many years says “I have learned if you are not good enough without [the Olympic Gold Medal], then you are never going to be good enough with it.” I have found that to be true with bodies, too. If you feel you are not good enough in the body you have, you are never going to feel good enough when you try to change your physical appearance.
The problem isn’t the “before/after” pictures anymore than the solution is to count calories and measure distance. The problem is that, as a whole, we don’t know how to find identity from within. We currently find it by trying to fit in: to fit in with the fad diets, to fit in with the “right” size, to fit in with the “right” look. While promoting her most recent book, Brene Brown said the practice she has learned from writing Braving the Wilderness is not to go through life looking for how we are not good enough because we will find it. She also said not to go through life looking for how we don’t fit in because we will find it. And then we will try to fit in with other people while not belonging to ourselves.
Recently, I learned that if women in the United States and Canada spent 1 week without spending any money on diets, make up, or anti-aging creams, to fit in with the current expectation of body image and appearance, it would shut down the economy! The Industry is planning on manipulating our insecurities and using our desire to fit in to pad their pockets! That fires me up! I will not be a pawn in someone else’s scheme. I am a free agent who will not be used for someone else’s gain.
Now, much after the “after,” I have learned that I am always getting to know myself; I am always redefining myself. I have learned that I often compare to others to no successful end and that I have to soften that tendency so that I can find myself. I have learned that just as I envy someone else and wish I had her life, there is someone out there who envies mine and wishes they were me. I am really learning to be friends with myself. I am really learning how to love myself because of my vulnerabilities, imperfections, and insecurities. I am learning to love myself, post-partum, in a body some would deem “saggy” without longing for a breast lift, reduction, or augmentation. I will always be discovering myself, changing, growing. And that is how it should be.