We are finally exiting beach season, which fortunately means that celebrities looking hot or not-so-hot in bikinis will stop being news-worthy events. Unfortunately, who lost the baby weight, who gained ten pounds since the last Emmys, and who wore it best are year-round concerns. This fixation on celebrity fitness produces an interest in the infamous before-and-after photos. Think of the multiple photos of the newly slimmed Jennifer Hudson or Jessica Simpson or the before-and-after-and-before-and-after cycle of Oprah Winfrey or Kirstie Alley photos. These pictures always cause me a degree of discomfort because they attempt, through their highlighting of difference, to create binarized categories of “normal” and “abnormal”—which tend to be equated with “thin” and “fat.”
As a girl and a woman who was considered obese for most of my adolescence and early adult life, I tend to have strong yet conflicting feelings about weight loss. While my weight vacillated quite a bit, I weighed 225 pounds when I began my weight loss journey six years ago. My decision to eat healthier and begin to work out regularly was partially born out of a desire to live a more well-rounded life, but my true motivation derived from a place of deep shame created by my own self-doubt about my worth, a culture which tends to defined beauty in narrow (and thin) terms, and a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. I am very proud of my 80 pound weight loss: I love the invigorating feeling that comes from a brisk fall run, and am increasingly pleased to discover the active things that my body can now physically do. Though that is true, with time and distance, I have also grown to be proud of the woman I was before. Simultaneously feeling proud of my “new” body and learning not to hate my “old” body makes me ambivalent when it comes to thinking about debates around weight loss. Do I believe that weight loss is necessary if one medically registers as overweight? How does this relate to dominant ideologies of beauty? Am I reinforcing these ideologies by feeling pride in my own weight loss? How do my feminist politics complicate this?
My ambivalence derives from the fact that I don’t necessarily see myself fitting into a pre-defined identity category such as “overweight, “obese,” “fat” “formerly fat,” or “thin.” These categories seem to have a universalizing effect and potentially speak for experiences that are not mine. There’s no such thing as the experience of the fat girl. I can only tell you about my experience, an experience that is bound up with conflicting feelings of guilt, shame, and pride.
It feels scary to feel ambivalent about any topic in a field that relies on making strongly argued and well-supported claims. Though that is true, I think that this ambivalence is important because it gives one the chance to parse out the complexities of experience as it relates to actual bodies. We interact with texts and theoretical ideas, but it’s important to remember that what we write and what we theorize have the potential to affect discourses and the ways actual bodies experience the world. My body, like countless others, is one that resists universalizing and needs to be thought of in terms that transcend categories that, like my old blue jeans, don’t quite fit.
Editor’s note: Because this post is framed with a consideration of the ideological implications of before and after photos, the author has elected not to link to outside websites containing before or after photos or to include her own.
Staci Stutsman is a fourth year PhD student and teaching associate in the English department. She will be taking her qualifying exam on film and television melodrama this fall. She teaches introductory level film and popular culture courses and spends her free time binge watching TV, board gaming, and working out.