Every day in the break room at work, I see a weight loss advertisement. From a photograph on the left side of the flier, helpfully labeled “Before”, a rotund young woman gazes out pitifully. Just to her right, a much smaller woman grins widely from a picture labeled “After”. They could be sisters, one fat and one thin. I imagine them at a family birthday party. “Before” demurely enjoys a slice of cake in a quiet corner, while “After”, vivacious center of attention, sips on a Skinny Girl margarita and tells semi-dirty jokes to her Aunts and Uncles. I wonder if they get along, or pretend not to know each other.
Of course, they’re not really sisters. They’re the same woman, divided by a little time and weight loss. Beneath the images, the ad tells me that like this woman, I can “Be the After”. The advertisers hope that I will see the contrast and feel inspired to spend my money on their weight loss wares. They hope I will believe that if she can be transformed from a fat and unhappy “Before” to a svelte and sexy “After”, than so can I. Some days I roll my eyes at this ad. Some days, I can genuinely see the appeal. Most people enjoy a success story, an inspiration, a happy ending. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Except this: the advertisers ask us to assume that the thinner “After” is automatically more desirable than whatever came “Before”. The idea plays on beliefs deeply held by our culture: that thin is beautiful, that fat is the worst thing a person can be. The problem is, besides the fact that she lost some weight, we don’t know much of the story. We fill in the blanks. It’s possible that she was unhappy, and that changing her body was the catalyst to transforming her life in other ways. Maybe she’s a bikini model now, swimming in a Scrooge McDuck-sized money pile. Or, maybe she spent a lot of time and money obsessing over weight and perfection, and now she finds herself skinny but still not “good enough”- a problem no amount of weight loss can solve.
We just don’t know.
She can’t really “Be the After”. None of us can. The “After” is just one moment. The moment passes and all of a sudden, “After” is “Before” again. With a lot of planning and good luck, we might end up with the “After” we hope for. Or maybe life happens and “After” looks nothing like we expected. The beautiful, terrible thing about life is that so much of it is out of our hands and beyond our power to predict. As long as we’re alive, there’s a new “Before” coming, right around the bend.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “Be the After” as well “the Before”. I have my own “Before” and “After” pictures. They don’t show a dramatic weight loss, because so far there hasn’t been one. Or, more accurately, between 2006 and now, there was a dramatic weight loss… followed by even more dramatic weight gain. Mixed in with all that dropping weight and picking it back up, I became a mom, lost a husband, remembered the sexual orientation I was born with, came back around to God, and learned to love living in my body again. I lost about 80 pounds, regained 110, and now have lost a smidge over 30… just enough to put my weight right back where it started, in the 350’s.
It’s strange to undergo so many big internal changes, and not have a big physical change to show for it. But, the way I measure my success has changed a lot since then, so maybe it shouldn’t be a big shock that my “success story” doesn’t fit the standard health and fitness model. Whatever it looks like, I’m the happiest and (I believe) the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m learning to embrace myself as I am right now- all my Befores, my Afters, my In Betweens… and most importantly, my Nexts.