Occasionally, I use a popular fitness app to work out that’s definitely designed more for the younger set. The instructor, for example, sometimes talks about her new nail color for the day (can you imagine having time to change your nail color daily?), and I sheepishly look at my chewed nails and un-manicured toes and want to say to the peppy, chic instructor “Doesn’t she know that au natural is the new ‘color’ of the season? She also mentions things like studying and exams without nary a reference to potty training or sassy kids.
Nevertheless, the reason I keep the app is simple: The workouts are challenging and free (the app is free to download as well), and they also incorporate a lot of Pilates, something myriad health professionals have encouraged me to continue to do as I tirelessly attempt to rehab the injury-that-will-never-go-away*.
The app also comes with recipes, workouts, and a forum. I never paid much attention to the forum component, but a few months ago we were on a longer car trip and I started perusing through the “Before & After” section. I will tell you right now that if you struggle with your body image (or ever have), or you have suffered from an eating disorder in the past, this is probably not the best place for you. I’m not sure it’s a great place for any woman to spend much time, given how it’s so body-centric and gives girls a chance to compare themselves to hundreds of half-dressed women.
To be fair, there were some women who really seemed to be using the before and after photographs as healthy motivation. They have lost the weight and/or toned up in a healthy, balanced manner. The community was also mostly very encouraging. There was one young woman who only posted a “before” picture along with the comment “my body is disgusting, but I’m going to change that.” Someone immediately responded, “Your body is not disgusting. It’s going to be hard to make healthy changes if you don’t love yourself first.” Agreed. There were also girls desperately trying to achieve what seems to be the Holy Grail of Beauty right now – the elusive thigh gap. But for every young woman lusting over one, there were two or three telling her this is an unrealistic goal for most women and is based more on bone structure than fitness.
So the “Before & After” section certainly wasn’t exclusively black hole of negativity. What’s more, taking a before and after photos as you embark on a healthy lifestyle makeover rather than fixating on the number on the scale can be quite beneficial, but I would recommend keeping the photos private. Of course, for some sharing progress with others helps hold them accountable. In fact, the idea of a “social media diet” is growing, thanks to websites and apps like My Fitness Pal and Lose it! to But like so many things in life, you have to know yourself, your temptations, and be vigilant about ensuring what may have healthy potential doesn’t morph into something that leads you to unhealthy comparisons, vanity, and/or obsessiveness.
Personally, while I could recognize some good coming out of this particular social media “Before & After” forum, I also saw a whole lot of bad. Somewhere in the back of mind, I started to look at one young woman’s enviable midsection and wonder why my efforts to strengthen my core were not resulting in that streamlined, muscled look. (Ironically, my “efforts to strengthen my core” have been successful even if you don’t see it based upon how long I can hold a plank these days without earthquake-like body tremors.) If you clicked on the username, you would learn that the “woman” was all but 15. A mom of four inching closer to 40 every day was actually comparing herself to that of a 15-year-old in a moment of absurdity. I wasn’t the only one making unwise comparisons. Many of the girls on the forum were asking questions like, “How did you get your thigh gap?” and “What can I do to have abs like yours?” All of these girls were looking to others for inspiration instead of looking within themselves and asking themselves, What can I – with my own gifts and natural design – do to live the fullest, most healthful life possible?
I don’t like admitting that I was actually on a fitness “Before & After” forum comparing myself to adolescents, but I can bet I’m not alone. Maybe most women don’t go so far as to seek out a forum full of fitness photos, but most of us fall prey to comparing ourselves to someone somewhere. Perhaps it’s someone in the media or on the cover of a magazine you glance at while checking out at the grocery store. Or it’s the fit neighbor who runs by your house every day. Or it’s the beautiful mom who doesn’t look like she just had a baby whom you meet at a playdate. Or it’s the “friend of a friend” on Facebook who posts her smiling, lovely face and her status update: “Soaking up the Mediterranean sun and getting the tan of my life.” Or maybe you’re looking at pictures of you – maybe it’s the “thin” you from that day long ago when you didn’t have varicose veins or maybe it’s the “current” you who’s just a bit too soft – and you’re comparing yourself to what you could be, once was, or should be.
Stop it. Stop it right this very second.
You are more than a paper doll to be dressed up, scrutinized, and criticized.
I wish all those young girls on that app knew this. I almost thought of leaving comments such as these after some of the posts.
I nearly did comment after a post that made me pause. There was a picture of a young girl with a lovely, round face. She wasn’t smiling. Actually, it almost appeared as if she was trying to make herself look as miserable as possible. Beneath her picture, she wrote, “I hate my round face. What can I do to make it thinner?”
I had an answer for her. “Age, my beautiful girl. The aging process will siphon all that collagen from your face, so that one day it’s no longer round and all angles, and you’ll realize your the face of your youth was perfectly fine just as your aging face is lovely as well, and its ’roundness’ was had everything to do with being young and full of life, and your wrinkles now have everything to do with living a full life.”
See, once upon a time I was a chubby girl who got teased and called names like “Miss Piggy.” Then one day some crazy hormones started finally coursing through through her body and – viola! – she slimmed down. She felt like the ugly duckling turned swan. The very boys who teased her started flirting with her; girls asked her what her “secret” was (once again, it was simply aging and hitting puberty later than others). So the swan preened her feathers and flaunted them, believing all she had to offer the world was skin. She embraced a warped view that to be thinner was to be better and even more loved. She started to exercise rain or shine, sick or well. She started to eat shards of lettuce (hold the dressing, please) for her “big” meal of the day. She grew thinner and yet, she felt that her face stubbornly remained round.
If there had been social media in her day, she would have most certainly become obsessed. She would have seen the girls with hip bones jutting out and hollowed-out faces and wonder why she wasn’t as “strong” as them.
This girl was me. I hated my face. I hated how “fat” it looked.
Now I look back on those photos and I see nothing but youth. I used to sift through photos of my “chubby” self (my “before”) and compare them to my “after.” I was mostly pleased with the way my clavicle was a noticeable ridge and one of the first things you noticed when you looked at my photo, but that face of mine never seemed to change. I put so much effort into trying to change the outside of me while the inside atrophied and was consumed by thoughts of what to eat and what not to eat, how to smile in a photo or tilt my head so that plump face of mine wouldn’t look so full, how to get rid of those nasty calories I’d taken in, how to be thinner, and in my twisted mind “better.”
If I could turn myself inside out, what would my internal before and after look like? There would be a girl – a silly girl who loved writing in her journal, reading, drama, and horses – who was shutting out all the beauty that longed to radiate from within by becoming preoccupied with weight and changing a face that would one day change all on its own.
More recently, I was with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in quite awhile, and we started talking about what we were up to. I admitted that I was in a bit of a slump, but that I was learning something very valuable through it all. I noticed her new Garmin watch and complimented it. “I love it,” she said. “I use it all of the time.”
“I used to use mine all of the time, too,” I said just a tad wistfully. Just call me Eeyore.
“But you don’t anymore!” Madeline, the ever-eavesdropper, added.
Nope, I don’t, and for some reason I started to consider all of the time I’ve invested in trying to rehab my tendons and my lopsided pelvis, and I thought of my lackluster soul, how it’s been mired in what feels like an interminable dark night for too long, and in need of some serious rehab as well. I thought about how going to weekly Mass really isn’t enough to nurture a living faith or to resuscitate a flagging soul. I need to enfold myself into a stronger chrysalis to change: prayer, more confession, more hope.
“You know,” I told my friend. “What I’m going to focus on right now is just trying to be a better person. I’ve spent so much of my life achieving and trying to meet goals, but what if I just poured most of my efforts into being a better person? I know it sounds cliche….” I trailed off.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “Not at all. It sounds like something we all should do.”
And so I’m working on pursuing a different kind of before and after. Here’s my before: Here’s a woman who God just won’t give up on despite her doubts, her fears, her struggles that are suddenly resurrecting after years of peace and wholeness. Her soul is beautiful, but it’s in need of a makeover. It’s not as radiant and trusting and hopeful as it should be – or as it once was. But that’s okay. There’s no reason to despair or to give up or to compare herself to others who diffuse peace and kindness and unwavering faith.
Because after weeks, months, a lifetime of ups and downs and effort, and grace-seeking and mercy-begging, here’s her after: This soul of hers is resplendent. It can’t stop shining. It is a grateful soul. It has a few blemishes, yes, because this is a soul of a human, but look at the way it sings and shines and gives and joyfully receives and loves.
That’s the “after” I’m going for. Hold me to it.
*I met with a new specialist yesterday and am very hopeful about overcoming this injury and getting back to running, but I am determined to find peace no matter what happens.