I have lost 100 pounds four times in the last 25 years. Yep. That is 400 pounds lost and found. Every single time I proudly posed for photos on the day I started my magical weight loss journey and at points along the way. I have photos of me at my highest weight, my lowest weight, and all weights in between. I have me posing in my underwear, with a tape measure around my waist, and standing on the scale. Put on a loop, you would see my body size and shape bob up and down and out and in over and over again, like a corporeal kaleidoscope.
I took them in a deliberate attempt to show the world and myself, I guess, just how far I could go. I could do this! I could eat right and exercise and change my whole lifestyle. I could whittle my fat self down to a socially acceptable dress size. Such enthusiasm at the beginning of each attempt!
You know the routine by now, right? Throw out the junk food, develop a new eating plan, buy fruits and vegetables, charge the battery in the FitBit, double check that the gym membership is still good, and commit to it all.
This time I WILL succeed.
And I will have photos to prove it.
What I never took into account any time I set out on a “lifestyle change” was that people with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) don’t function quite like other dieters. People who suffer from this mental health disorder tend to become psychologically sicker from dieting, which leads to all hell breaking loose at somewhere around a year and a half or a little less. First, intrusive thoughts about food and eating creep in. Then, sneaking a taste of forbidden food. Then, adding a cheat day. Eventually, saying the hell with it all and eating whatever whenever.
And the After has become the Before AGAIN.
But why? Well, diet culture tells us that people who can’t stick to their diets are weak and lazy, but they are not alone. Studies show that 97% of dieters regain their weight within three years. Dieters gain weight and the diet industry gains profits to the tune of more than $60 BILLION a year in supplements, programs, and other unsuccessful treatments.
And one of the biggest tools in their manipulative arsenal: Before/After Photos.
Before and After photos show one thing only: someone’s desperate attempt to prove that they have control over their bodies. Therefore, what these photos really reveal is the person’s commitment to that illusion. Given that it is well known that commercial Before and After photos are manipulated electronically and otherwise, they become even more troubling because they represent a transformation that can NEVER be.
Imagine, then, having an eating disorder that almost always causes weight gain and being confronted by the before and after photos of others. People claim that they are motivated by these images, but from where does that motivation arise? Shame and disgust for their own Before body. Not only do these images, even the ones that have not been manipulated, make people feel sad about the state their own bodies are in, it prompts them to make changes based on that shame, disgust, and sadness. People might start out being motivated to lose weight, but when that motivation dies, the binger blames him or herself and the cycle begins all over again.
Beyond this obvious result, Before and After photos by necessity set up the Before you as undesirable, disgusting, gross. Do you really want to feel that way about yourself? The concern: what happens if you regain the weight and you become that Before body again? How will you feel about the body you shamed? The body you did everything you could to discard?
As Cat Rodie says about why she refuses to share Before and After photos: “That bigger me is not the lesser person; she is an absolute legend, and I’m very protective of her.”
In addition, there really is no After. Perpetual dieters are never really Before or After but During, but by insisting that there is some achievable place as After, they are stuck in an ongoing cycle of dieting. When is it over? At a certain weight? Pants size? Most of the very few people I know who have lost weight and kept it off for more than five years are constantly working to keep it that way. And for binge eaters constant dieting leads to compulsive thinking about weight and food.
In Slate article a woman describes what it is like to lose weight and keep it off:
Debra Sapp-Yarwood, a fiftysomething from Kansas City, Missouri, who’s studying to be a hospital chaplain, is one of the three percenters, the select few who have lost a chunk of weight and kept it off. She dropped 55 pounds 11 years ago, and maintains her new weight with a diet and exercise routine most people would find unsustainable: She eats 1,800 calories a day—no more than 200 in carbs—and has learned to put up with what she describes as “intrusive thoughts and food preoccupations.” She used to run for an hour a day, but after foot surgery she switched to her current routine: a 50-minute exercise video performed at twice the speed of the instructor, while wearing ankle weights and a weighted vest that add between 25 or 30 pounds to her small frame.
“Maintaining weight loss is not a lifestyle,” she says. “It’s a job.” It’s a job that requires not just time, self-discipline, and energy—it also takes up a lot of mental real estate. People who maintain weight loss over the long term typically make it their top priority in life. Which is not always possible. Or desirable.
I spent more than 30 years obsessing about food and weight. I thought that weight loss, that becoming the After, would help free me from those obsessions. Regrettably, that isn’t the case. I have observed for years that people who lose weight and keep it off tend to become weight loss coaches, weight loss bloggers, dieticians, fitness coaches, marathon runners, and other members of the weight loss and fitness industry. Weight loss and keeping it off becomes their actual job. There is no doubt that the majority of people who take that path are truly trying to help others, but in the end, they are just part of the cycle.
Given that studies done by the Center for Disease Control and other scientific organizations have shown that people with the greatest longevity are overweight to mildly obese, something else motivates people to put themselves through this much suffering. Yes, of course, obesity makes some diseases worse and creates others, but dieters have been shown over and over again to eventually regain their initial weight lost and THEN SOME. We starve ourselves, count our steps, remake our lives in the never ending quest to be an AFTER when the NOW us is enough. More than enough.
So, when the members of my Facebook group, Food Addiction Recovery, get annoyed with me about banning Before and After photos, I try to explain that they are destructive emblems of diet culture, which insists that the only good you is the After you, even though it is nearly impossible to get there and even more unlikely to stay. Before and After photos are the constant dieter’s stick with which to beat themselves for failing to achieve unachievable. For the binge eater they become the trigger for more self harm and a descent into the never-ending madness of food obsession and compulsive eating.
Learn to love yourself as you are. You are not a Before. You can never been an After. You are a whole, imperfect human being with an mental health disorder. Shame and disgust will only make it worse. Acceptance and self-love pave the path to healing.
Are you interested in hearing more of my optimistic message about weight and eating disorder recovery, check out my memoir, The Optimistic Food Addict.
“I read this book in two days, I couldn’t put it down! To be optimistic in the face of so much trauma and adversity is so inspiring. Highly recommend this book for anyone, not only those needing help with food addiction or BED.” ~Rachel, Amazon Reviewer