It all started when I spent a few hours on Facebook, doing the usual. You know, reading clickbait, indulging in online debates, and doing a whole lot more creeping than should be done. That's when I came upon the account of an old acquaintance. She'd become a musician, and a good one too, but her profile had less to do with music and more to do with self-help motivational stuff — the kind that's become an indulgence to modern neo-liberal culture. Ultimately, though, what really dragged me into her profile was her before-and-after weight loss photos.
The caveat to this story is that, as much as the critical thinker in me persisted against succumbing to the hypnotic powers of weight loss imagery, I didn't leave her page. I gawked at those pictures. I couldn't look away. I was glued, obsessed and, just like that, obsessing. My thoughts spiraled into a deep toxic pit oozing with self-deprecation. All I could think of as I scanned her photos was how much weight I had gained since I'd known her and how I needed to lose it all. She looked phenomenal in every photo: before and after. Truthfully (and this may be a moral failing on my part), I was drawn to her pictures for reasons fraught with envy. I felt awful and incompetent for not losing weight like she did.
I'm going to be straight up here: At best, those weight loss posts are extremely ostracizing to the many people who can't access the health industry for whatever reasons, and at worst, they're triggering. Straight up triggering. As in, psychologically damaging to the many people victimized by that same exploitative health industry these posts promote.
It is a normal and natural thing for people to want to share their enthusiasm once they've reached a milestone. Share away! But please keep your before-and-after photos and your weight loss motivational speeches to yourself.
It may sound harsh, but I'm coming from a place of real trauma, and you never know who else might be as well.
I was 13 when I first attempted to make myself vomit after eating chocolate chip cookies. It happened during class in the girls' washroom in my middle school. I was 14 when I lost 20 pounds in 10 days after having invested three hours each day completing three different exercise tapes and surviving on only apples, bananas, and juice boxes. By the time I turned 17, I was pro-ana with the conviction that death from anorexia was a good thing. I idolized anorexic models and regularly starved, binged, and purged. And then there were all the crash diets: cabbage soup, the Master Cleanse, pineapples and tuna, raw veganism, and the list goes on.
My eating disorder history is possibly the most traumatic event in my life, seconded only by abuse I've suffered. Until very, very recently, I was still tempted to purge, to starve, and to deprive myself of daily sustenance as a means of molding my body to a standard. Weight loss images bring me back to the point in my life when I felt most psychologically damaged by unattainable standards of beauty. In those moments, I hate myself the most. I become aggressively angry and depressed, which then culminates into a prolonged period of dieting.
Personally, I don't care about the effort someone placed in their weight loss: That information is insignificant compared to the fact that before-and-after photos are extremely destructive. Pseudo-health — or genuinely healthy — journeys should be private because the imagery coming out of the industry re-emphasizes the damaging health narrative that attributes worth and success with body image. These pictures serve no purpose whatsoever other than as tools for voyeuristic consumption.
Women are already bombarded with enough dehumanizing body image symbolism without adding weight loss pictures to the mix. This symbolism is even more destructive to either racialized bodies, those struggling financially, or both. For example, think of the mythology of the fat Black woman. Think about just how much more dehumanizing these images are for POC.
Don't get me wrong, a person's excitement about their accomplishment is infectious. I love seeing people who've overcome a problem they found debilitating. In fact, if we're being exceptionally honest, I have been the person I'm criticizing in this article! I've lost weight, I must have shared it online, and I've talked extensively about my weight loss with friends. But I've realized that by posting weight loss images, I was also contributing to an already destructive and marginalizing discourse.
Seriously, I am that chick. I know her well.
When I gained the weight back, I subsequently triggered my eating disorder after spending hours analyzing photos of me as a slimmer person. Our dieting culture exists in an unending paradox, an abyss wherein we women are confined to perpetually gain and lose weight (for the sole benefit of the capitalist health industry). Scrap that mythology of health — it's bull crap! No one's body should define their happiness.