I loathe before and after pictures. The typical before and after story goes like this:
Before: Woman in larger, softer body wearing clothing too small looks defeated, sad, and tired.
After: Same woman in smaller, tighter body wearing perfectly fitting clothing looks strong, confident, and happy.
This story implies that one cannot be happy, strong and confident in a larger, softer body. And it also implies that if you live in a smaller, tighter body then you won’t be miserable. It’s a story of “either/or” with nothing between, no gray area: you’re either fat and miserable or skinny and happy. The end.
I used to believe these before and after stories without understanding how dangerous and limiting and misleading these pictures are. These photographs don’t tell the whole story and rely simply on physical looks to imply health and wellness (and that the only way to be healthy is to be smaller and tighter).
Let me share with you what my before and after “looks” like.
BEFORE: I was in a tiny, tight body that barely took up any space anywhere I went.
- scared to be fat.
- un-confident in my body, abilities, and intelligence.
- worthless in value to this world.
- tense around food, family, friends.
- uncertain about my relationships, what I thought, and what I said.
- indecisive about what to eat, where to go, what to do, when to do something and how to do it.
- nervous around everyone and in anything I was doing, from grocery shopping to having a friend over for tea to speaking in front of a crowd.
- anxious about how people felt about me, what food was going to do to me, whether or not I was good enough, acceptable, welcome.
- hungry, yet I didn’t understand what that meant.
- nauseous because I was hungry, had celiac disease, and was constantly anxious.
- obsessive about exercise.
- judgmental of my thoughts, feelings, and body size, weight, and shape.
- judgmental about other people’s bodies, nutrition, and health.
- controlling of my food, my husband’s food, and my children’s food.
- restricting, counting, and tracking calories, fat, and sugar intake.
- heavily influenced by mainstream media about nutrition, fitness, and health.
- immersed in self-created food rules and disordered food behaviors.
- prone to panic attacks at the grocery store and in restaurants.
- distrusting of my body and how God created it to operate.
TODAY: I am in nearly four years into recovery from anorexia nervosa. I am still the same exact person at heart except I take up more space everywhere I go, which feels empowering! I don’t have an “after” because recovery and health and life are ongoing. Sometimes I feel amazing and sometimes I feel like crap, but most days I live peacefully in the middle, feeling comfortable and confident in the gray area called real life.
Most of the time I feel:
- strong and alive inside my larger-than-before body.
- confident in my intelligence and abilities.
- energized when I wake up in the morning.
- valuable as a child of God despite what others may or may not think of me.
- happy as a mom, wife, and friend.
- relaxed around friends and most family.
- satiated through the day as I eat meals and snacks as needed.
- creative in the kitchen.
- curious at the grocery store.
- zero food rules or disordered behaviors.
- zero panic attacks.
- zero obsession with working out.
- zero clue about how much I weigh and only vaguely know what size I wear.
- more time and presence in the things I love to do, like write, advocate, and learn.
- trust in my body, my intuition, and God.
- insight and support and advocacy for my children, who are surrounded by peers, teachers, and friends who constantly judge their nutrition, intuitive living, and bodies.
- human, which means I still have judgments of myself and other people.
- more aware of when my judgments are actually harmful.
- practicing how to re-frame my thinking when I am harmfully judge-y of myself and others, or when I am feeling judged.
- prone to triggers yet aware of what they are and how to deal them.
- anxious about my body and food when I feel tired, stressed, nervous, scared, or sad.
- usually aware and understanding of my feelings, how important they are, and how they affect my thinking and behaviors.
- respectful of my body when it needs rest, food, or movement.
- respectful of my spirit when it needs prayer.
- respectful of my heart when it needs tending.
- the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.
Dear reader, ignore those before and after photos. Don’t let them get you down, and don’t let them give you misguided hope. Before and after pictures are missing crucial details that are far more important than how small one’s body shrinks. And there are more than two options for what health looks and feels like; there are more like 7.5 billion unique ways bodies can look and feel and still be healthy. Moreover, you can be the shape of one of the “before” pictures and feel alive, confident, healthy, and strong; you can live in an “after” body and feel completely miserable. Find the loveliest gray area where you feel your best in your life.