Recently on Instagram, I noticed a hashtag floating around called, “#gainingweightiscool.” Each picture under the tag displayed a different kind of before-and-after photo than you may be used to: instead of displaying weight loss, perhaps one of the most common New Year’s Resolutions in modern times, women were posting photos of their weight gain.
The participants varied greatly in their backgrounds. Some were female body builders displaying weight gain after drastic weight loss for a competition. Some were women in recovery for anorexia. Others were simply women who had, at one point, been very thin and unhealthy, and gained weight in order to gain health. All of them expressed the same message in the captions under their pictures: “I’m happier now, healthier now, and this body serves me better since gaining the weight.”
Immediately, I was enamored with the hashtag’s goal: to show that weight gain isn’t necessarily something we should all fear. One of my greatest issues with the way media and society influences women is the ubiquitous idea that losing weight will always make you more attractive, more respected, and happier. For the extremely overweight or obese, losing weight may be part of the journey to health, but for others, this kind of message can be hugely detrimental. Women with no weight to lose find themselves caught up in the game of extreme dieting and over-exercising, all in pursuit of not only an “ideal” body, but the promised happiness that comes with it.
It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon that’s worth looking into. Our culture’s preoccupation with losing weight and taking up less space is a relatively new idea. Not too long ago, dietary supplements aimed at women promised weight gain, not weight loss. Vintage ads from the 1920s and 1930s, in fact, promote the idea that being skinny is undesirable and unattractive to men.
How interesting it is, then, that not even a hundred years later we’re seeing advertisements that promote the exact opposite. And in fact, the message that thinness inherently equals attractiveness and happiness isn’t limited to overt advertising, it’s promoted through the celebrities we see in movies, the models we see on the runway, and the idealized women we see adored by thousands on social media.
Take “Skinny Tea” for example. “Skinny Teas” or “Detox Teas” are an enormous trend on social media that emerged in recent years. While the teas are usually fairly harmless and natural, simply containing a natural herbal laxative, they’re promoted as being pure magic that will transform you from a bloated schlump into a toned and tanned fitness model simply by drinking it a few times a day. No different than any tea you could find at a normal grocery store, these teas have gained a massive following not for their benefits, but for the celebrity endorsements they’ve received. Everyone from popular fitness bloggers to Kardashians have posted about one of the countless brands of skinny teas, closely linking their fame and sex appeal with the use of the product, whether or not it’s the secret behind their desirable figures.
Comparing these two contrasting products and their advertised benefits reveals one striking thing: it’s all arbitrary. The trends of today ebb and flow, and even today we’re seeing an idolization of not just thinness, but thinness plus curves in all the right places plus muscles (but not too many muscles) plus a laundry list of other caveats and check boxes. And yet, we’re being sold products meant to “fix” our bodies in exactly the same- and highly effective- way.
We’re associating how we look with how happy and successful we are.
It’s not just that the Kardashians have nice bodies. It’s that we associate their bodies with the fame and glory and wealth that comes with being a part of the Kardashian empire. It’s not just that bikini fitness models have toned and tanned bodies, it’s that they’re showered with love and affection from the countless Instagram followers they’ve attained. We’re being sold the idea that by meeting certain physical standards and ideals, we will be successful, adored, and, above all else, finally happy.
You don’t seek to look a certain way unless you think that it will make you happy. You don’t Yo-Yo diet or over-exercise to “feel better” or “get healthy.” You do it because you believe, thanks to a lifetime of exposure to toxic media ideals and products that promise more than they could ever deliver, that if you look a certain way, all of your problems will be gone.
I’ll tell you right now: that’s a flat-out lie.
When I was in the thick of my eating disorder, and really beginning to struggle, I didn’t immediately look sick and emaciated. No, at one point, I was slender and petite. I had the “thigh gap” that was, at the time, glorified and promoted as a beauty ideal. I had the protruding collarbones that sick and disordered girls obsessed over on pro-ana websites. I was a size 00 and women often said things to me like, “Well, with a figure like yours, you could wear anything!”
I wasn’t happy. I was sick. I was miserable. I wasn’t nourishing or respecting my body. But I was thin.
And so people assumed I was happy. And I was left feeling dazed and confused because everyone around me thought I should be happy. I had every reason in the world to be: I was doing well in school, I had a nice house and nice things, I was fairly well-liked and had close friends. I even looked to my body, the one that women would say they were jealous of or the one that made dressing room employees say I was “thin enough” to wear a certain dress, and asked myself, “Why do I still hate being me?”
I’ve come to learn, in a slow and ever-evolving process, that if you don’t love yourself in every moment- the thin ones and the not-so-thin ones- you won’t be happy even if you reach that “ideal” body. Happiness doesn’t exist in some magical land ten or twenty pounds from now (in either direction), it exists in every moment. It’s up to us to find the joy in being ourselves, separate from the skin that we’re in. We are not our bodies. Our bodies are simply vessels we use to explore and experience the wonders that exist in this world.
That’s why it’s up to us to care for and love our bodies. It’s like maintaining a car: you put gas in it, you keep it moving and running, you take it in for regular tune-ups and check-ups. You try to keep it mostly dent-free and not completely banged up, but at the end of the day, as long as it gets you to the places you need to go, you don’t need to obsess over the little scratch on the side of it. And chances are, if you’re not happy with who you are and what you’re doing with your life driving your dinky little Honda Civic, you’re not going to be happy behind the wheel of a Tesla, either.
When I saw the #gainingweightiscool hashtag, I posted this:
I wrote about how gaining weight was necessary for me to strengthen my body, to do the things that I love like yoga and weightlifting. I wrote about how when I was thin I was suffering from amenorrhea, my hair was thinning and dull, my bones and joints ached, and I was always cold and exhausted. I wrote about how we so often receive the message that losing weight always means being healthier, and how that simply isn’t true. My biggest message was this: we are all on our own journeys. My path to health doesn’t look like your path to health. Some of us need to gain weight, some of us need to lose it, some of us need something in between or not-at-all. And comparing ourselves to other people serves no one.
However, I was conflicted about posting my contribution to the hashtag. For a long time, I’ve been somewhat against the idea of “before-and-after” pictures. I think they tend to focus on our appearance too much, and they seem to imply that we are somehow inherently “better” in the after picture and something was “wrong” with us before. I think it’s important to emphasize that happiness and self-acceptance should be sought after in every stage of our journey, and that’s hard to convey in simply a side-by-side photo comparison.
I threw together two photos to emphasize one of my biggest issues with “before-and-afters,” the fact that they’re often dramatized by lighting, posing, and other flattering affects to make the “after” seem extra-adherent to the idealized body standards.
In one photo, I’m popping my hip out and making my torso seem longer and my waist seem slimmer. My pants are rolled at the waist line to add even more length to my torso, and my hips are cocked back to make my thighs appear smaller. In the other, I’m relaxed. My hips are neutral or slightly forward, my posture is pretty poor, and my belly is soft. They were taken ten seconds apart, and yet, they look pretty different. And if I were to reverse the order and tell you a few months and some strict eating and exercise were in between them, you just might believe me.
But I’m the same person in both. My body is just positioned differently. And, perhaps most importantly, I’m just as worthy and happy in the “relaxed” photo as I am in the carefully posed and positioned photo. But if I’d just posted the posed picture, you may be left with the impression that I look like that all of the time, even if that simply isn’t true.
With fitness culture absolutely exploding on photo-based social media like Instagram and Snapchat, we’re constantly exposed to people’s highlight reels. I’ll be honest, posting the photo of my belly all relaxed was kind of nerve wracking, even though I’m years into my body-acceptance journey. It’s no wonder that most people never post anything but the most flattering photos of themselves- determining what is “flattering,” of course, by what our society is selling us at any given moment.
That’s why it’s so important for me to see more transparency on and off social media. Without authenticity in how we present ourselves, we feed into the toxic culture of comparing ourselves all of the time to someone else’s highlight reel. What we don’t see are the dozens of outtakes, flattering lighting, and careful posing that happened behind-the-scenes: we see one photo. One smiling person. One photograph that may-or-may-not reflect how they feel inside.
Let’s change the conversation. Let’s change the way we see and think about our bodies. Let’s remove comparison from the equation.
Gaining weight is cool. So is losing weight. And maintaining weight. And never even thinking about our weight because we’re too damn focused on living our lives. You are not your neighbor. You are not a pawn in the game of selling products aimed at insecurities. You are you. And you are so worth the beauty that life has to offer.