Stop The Shame-Talk: We Are Not "Before" Photos

photo creds go to my v. fancy self-timed iPhone

In the last few days, I've had a surprising number of conversations about bodies and body image. My own mental narrative about my body has sucked lately. I've been practicing yoga (virtually) with a couple of my friends for almost twenty days now, and most days I still feel just as weak as I was before. Seemingly, I am no stronger or more toned on Day 19 than I was on Day 1 - just as shaky, but more sore. Yesterday evening, halfway through my practice, I thought about giving up. I was so frustrated by my body.
"Why can't you just be good at this?" I stormed internally. "You are so bad at yoga and you have a bad body and you do everything wrong and you look awful and I hate you."
Let's set aside the fact that I should never speak to anyone that way, least of all my body, and the PMS hormones that were writing this script for me. I really, really wanted to quit. My muscles (still sore from a day on the water this weekend) cramped up. My hips were insanely tight. My upper arms shook as I "rested" in downward-facing dog while tears pricked my eyes. It was still so hard for me, even though it was a "fun" practice and I'd taken any modification I could get my hands on. I was completely over it, on the verge of quitting, mid-practice. Already behind in the challenge after taking a rest-period over the weekend, I would just fall farther behind if I quit now.  But that's what I am, I thought. A quitter. If I wasn't a loser with a loser body, then this would be easy for me and I would show up to the mat every day wanting to work out, and I'd have a good body and I wouldn't be here, like this. A bad girl with a bad body who's bad at everything.
Bad.
Loser.
Ugly.
Every time.
Never.
Always.
Harsh and drastic words; in the moment, I meant every one on them.

* * *

A lot of people have joined health challenges during quarantine, or signed up as fitness coaches, or joked about weight gain during this pandemic. I'm so excited for the people who've finally had time to invest in their physical health and found a way to move their bodies that they love; I'm one of them! I started this yoga challenge out of a genuine desire to grow stronger and find more flexibility. I also take so much joy in walking several miles a day - something I plan to continue outside of quarantine. But in the past week I've fallen prey to the prevailing fear of wondering if my jeans will still fit, or worrying how I look in my bathing suit when I'm supposed to be enjoying my family's pontoon boat, or glancing at my body as I get ready in the morning and thinking unkind thoughts about her. I know I'm not alone in this phenomenon of something that started as a gift to myself turning into a dark criticism of everything I am.

I have seen an unprecedented number of "before and after" photos in recent days. The friends who have become health coaches. The friends who have been on a diet. The friends who finally have time to work out. And I'm proud of them; it takes so much discipline to show up every day, regardless of how you feel, and make the healthiest choices for your body. But my pride in them is not because of their "after" photo - I'm proud of them because of who the are, not what they look like.

The young moms whose "before" photo shows a rounder face and softer belly - I no less applauded them a year ago when their bodies were recovering from giving life and birth to another human being. I'm glad they are taking care of their bodies...but I worry sometimes. Do they feel like they've finally "escaped" that girl of six months ago who grew another human, and who had a double chin because of it? Are they proud of who they were then, or is the "after" photo an apology for having "lost" themselves? Do they delete every "before" photo if it is not accompanied by the "after"? Do they know what a miracle it is that their body could stretch and morph and find its place again, all for the love of a child?

Or what about the even younger woman who not-so-long ago went through the tumults of puberty, gained weight in order to grow (as many young bodies do), and has now streamlined as she learns about nutrition, about making the best choices for her womanly body, and moving in the way that feels best for it? She doesn't like to see old photos of herself from three years ago, before she had figured out the cadence of her brand new body and what it needed. She is beautiful now, of course, but she was beautiful then, too. Growing from a girl to a woman. A complete metamorphosis from one thing into another. Does she feel ashamed at the transformation, as if there was not a sort of magic in the way a child becomes an adult?

What about the woman whose before and after photos are almost identical? I squint at both, trying to see a change. She was always petite, always smaller than most, always hovering in the lowest of sizes. Maybe I can detect slightly less definition in her abs in the first photo...maybe her arms are a little more toned in the second. But the words accompanying her post speak harshly of herself. How ashamed she was of looking that way. How much more confident she is with these barely discernible changes and her "new" body. But is she confident? She was strikingly beautiful in the "before." If she could not see it then, does she see it now, or will the "after" become its own "before" six months down the road? Will she be forever chasing a standard of perfection that keeps her from ever acknowledging her own beauty?

Or the woman who will never post a "before and after" shot because at one point, her "before" was much, much smaller than her "after." She keeps her profile photo from seven years ago. Any current pictures are cropped in so we can just see her face. It's a beautiful face still, no less so than it was a decade ago when she wore a different dress size. She used to weigh her food then: parse out almonds and steamed broccoli and grilled chicken breast every meal, every day. She's learned to enjoy food now, and she sometimes eats carbs. She goes for long walks with her kids every day. She gave up margarine for olive oil, and understands that occasional cake is not the devil, and she simply will never be happy acting as if she were a vegan. But she knows society values her "before" far more than her "after," and though those who know her think she is still beautiful, she hides herself. Before she was a size 6; now she is a 12. She doesn't fit into the jeans she wore in 2001 and nobody must know. She winces when she sees other people's before-and-after shots, and keeps scrolling. In truth, she's happier in her current body, where food is a celebration, not a threat. But the optics aren't good. Should she give up her beach walks and join a fitness program so her current body can be the new "before"?

Another woman is not even trying to post before-and-after photos. Nevertheless, she has toned up and lost weight since the last time she posted family pictures online. Rather than comments on the fun family activity about which this woman was posting, the comments flooded in from other women about her new, more streamlined appearance. These commenting women mean well - they mean to encourage her for the changes she has evidently been making that have resulted in weight-loss. But I know this woman very well, and she has always been stunning - one of the best mothers and wives I know. Even when her physical body was softer and rounder than it is now, she was beautiful. I'm proud of her too, and I think she looks great; I know she's worked hard to make fresh, healthy choices alongside her young girls and prioritize her health. But I've always been proud of her. I scroll past the comments asking about her "secret" and wish it wasn't this way. I hope she knows she's always been this praiseworthy.

These women are part of my life. Part of my news feed. These women and so many others are living every day in the shame of this "before and after" mentality. We have got to rewrite this narrative in our heads. The one that says, "If your body hasn't gotten smaller, you're a loser. If it has gotten bigger, you're an even bigger loser."
This "before and after" mentality doesn't factor in our mental health, and whether we are pursuing said results in a mentally-healthy manner. It doesn't value the act of becoming healthy, just the act of becoming smaller, making results our identity. It doesn't factor-in the bravery of showing up to the mat every day and doing a yoga practice, regardless of whether you feel stronger or more toned. This popular and harmful mentality elevates appearance over heart, skinny over happy, "slim and toned" over "reasonable and sustainable." It is proud of you for being smaller, not healthier. If you were healthier and did not shrink at all, its praise of you would fall silent. It relies heavily on cultural pressure. You are cheered for loudly if you are ashamed enough of the "before" to reach for (and attain) the "after." Entire coaching systems are built off these before-and-after photos. The heart of these programs is, I know, to help women be as healthy as possible; the outcome of them is women recognizing with shame that they embody the "before." If they join this program, they're told, they can be valuable and beautiful upon reaching the "after." I want to believe that these are supportive, encouraging groups of women. I am sure many of them are; I also know that comparison sells while it steals our joy. With the screaming, silent voice of our whole culture telling us we are inadequate, it's easy to be sold these ideas. Women are paying, dieting, sweating, and working to be sold our own insecurities. I wish that we didn't worship results. I wish that my mind last night didn't tell me I had a bad body because it hasn't changed. I wish that I myself valued the act of making healthy choices as the reward, not any physical results that might or might not join it. Last night I believed that I was the nothing better than a "before" photo. I didn't acknowledge the fact that I was sore and shaky because I'd been taking better care of my body and pushing it past its comfort zone. All I believed is that yoga isn't easy for me yet, and that means I have a bad body.

And I'm tired of it. I'm tired of the before-and-after culture. I'm tired of the harsh inner voice that plagues approximately every woman on this planet and tells her that who she is today is the "before" photo. For better or for worse, we are neither before, nor after. We are simply "currently." And whomever we are today is beautiful for who she is - not whom she was, not whom she will be. I don't want to raise my future daughter with this cyclical narrative that was playing in my head last night as I laid on my yoga mat and tried not to quit. I don't want her haters to live in her heart. I don't want her to think that she is the sum of her physical body and the various changes it will go through throughout her life. I don't want my future daughter to look at herself in the mirror and make a face the way I did after my workout, when I stepped out of the shower and wrapped myself in a rough white towel to hide my soft belly and less-than-defined waist.

Why don't we try something? Why don't we try rewriting this script for ourselves and our sisters. We should encourage each other in healthy habits. We should encourage each other to exercise, to eat well, and to celebrate consistent and intentional work. But the showing-up is what needs to set off the confetti cannons. Not the before-and-after pictures. Be proud of your women for showing up. Praise their strength, their discipline, their courage, their follow-through before you praise their pants size. Because like it or not, our bodies are not statues, carved once and forever keeping that shape. They are malleable and change with the days of our lives. No less beautiful or important because they are one shape or another. No less or more wonderful because they are softer, or firmer, or smaller, or larger than they once were.

Rewrite the story. I am not the "before" photo. You are not the "before" photo. We are the women who show up to our lives, to the yoga mat, to the bodies we have, saying "no" to before-and-after and "yes" to currently. It is a daring thing, but it is the truth.

We are not "before" photos.

We are beautiful women who are so much more than the vessels our souls inhabit. Remind your sisters, then remind yourself. We are not "before" photos.

3 comments

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  2. This is important. Thank you. <3

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  3. So true! Thank you for sharing. I can't tell you how many times I have seen photos of my leaner self from years ago, and I remember still being consumed with thoughts of needing to lose weight... So sad. Now when one of my four men gives me a hug, he says, "You're so squishy, Mommy" in a loving voice. And, as I navigate my body after 50, that's okay!

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