W.One day when I was walking home from stores, I saw a large advertisement for a local gym that was posted on the side of a building. “Flatten the curve in 2021,” it shouted. Fascinating, I noticed how it alluded to last year’s collective trauma while signaling its intrinsic fat phobia. After all, advertising should first trigger our insecurities and fears and then take advantage of them.
We all agree that the past year has been tough on the body. Lockdown restrictions and an increase in work from home have pushed most of us into a sedentary lifestyle. In addition, there is the closure of rooms where we would sweat out the gluttony of our week: gyms, pools, even nightclubs. In the past 12 months we’ve even learned about concepts like “Covid Kilos” – extra body weight gained from surviving a deadly global pandemic.
It was tough, but January takes the cake. The month itches with the crumbs of 2020 and is kneaded by meager attempts at reinvention as New Year’s resolutions tempt us to redistribute our behaviors, decisions, and priorities. Stricter diets and increased exercise are routine on most lists.
My local gym (surprise, I’m not immune) uses a familiar tactic. The promotional feed sees before / after photos of members who explicitly state how many pounds they shaved.
And when I scroll down on Instagram, I notice that many of us have become mules for the Diet Industrial Complex and publicly share the success of our body’s journey from before to after. And why shouldn’t we? Exercising and low-calorie dieting are examples of a discipline that certainly deserves recognition.
But when it comes to health, are body transformation photos really the best metric to weigh up? Are or maybe are performance characteristics before and after photos a symbol of our wider society’s obsession with weight loss and tight body images?
In our pursuit of publication, do we prioritize individual forms of physical performance over the collective well-being of our online communities? Why, I wonder, do we continue to see weight loss as an explicit phenomenon worth celebrating?
At this point, many readers will scorn. They will quote statistics on that growing rate of obesity in Australia’s adult population. They will list the comorbidities: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke. Weight loss is inextricably linked to health.
But as HuffPost’s Michael Hobbes reported in 2018, “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong”. Through a variety of interviews and scientific papers, Hobbes claims that weight loss is not as simple a science as one might assume. Some will have a much, much more difficult path to losing weight due to their unique individual factors. The long-form piece closes with the argument that mitigation efforts must be shifted from personal responsibility and intervention to a focus on systematic issues such as poverty, food management and regulation.
The piece also highlights a massive threat to fat people: our attitudes towards them.
Fat phobia and the shame, stigma, and bias associated with it can also occur cause serious health complications in fat people. New podcasts like Maintenance phase are doing important work to debunk our assumptions about wellness and weight loss.
Our clear celebration of thinness does not help. In May 2020, Adele emerged from a social media blackout much leaner. Editor of Bitch Magazine, Evette Dionne was careful with all the fervent praise: “In a culture that often equates thinness with moral goodness, weight loss is worth celebrating no matter how it’s received or what it signals about what’s happening to our bodies.” Dionne reminds us that we don’t know the details of Adele’s weight loss – and neither should we – but we are comfortable projecting our own virtues onto her new figure. The fact that we so uncritically assign positive attributions tells us everything we need to know about how we see and value bodies.
It’s personal. A decade ago I lost a significant amount of weight due to my own eating disorder. I was told I look great; but at what cost? Meals quickly became math equations, calculating exactly how many calories were on my plate. My body became a game where there was no clear winner. When would I start living happily with my own life?
My difficulty with body transformation photos is that we are all somebody before and somebody else after in a system that values only a narrow margin so brutally. The crowded online environment feeds us with a crowded source of images that reveal the hierarchy of the body: Here, one person’s success can all too quickly become the source of another person’s shame. In addition, we are sold universal dreams (“flatten the curve”, “you could lose that weight too”) that stretch to the real limits of our bodies – or worse, we choose to go beyond them.
In July 2018 Lena Dunham shared an Instagram before / after that was astonishingly different. In the past, she was thinner, “praised all day and suggested by men and on the cover of a tabloid about diets that work.” In retrospect, it was bigger, “happy, joyful and free, only supplemented by people who are important for important reasons”. She is honest with her thoughts: “Even this warrior of OG body positivity sometimes looks longingly at the picture on the left until I remember the impossible pain that got me there and on my proverbial knees. As I type, I feel my back fat roll up under my shoulder blades. I lean forward. “
The past 12 months have taught us that we need to be kinder to ourselves in order to relieve arbitrary pressures and expectations.
We need to develop a new language around our bodies and their unique capabilities and limitations. We need to prioritize the internal circuitry of our bodies – both physical and mental – to be serious about our health. We need to uproot our internalized fat phobia. Above all, we need to recognize that everyone – every body – deserves dignity and respect.
• Dejan Jotanovic is a freelance writer based in Narrm, Melbourne. Twitter: @heydejan