Before and After Acceptance

Lynne Murray says:

This year’s Academy Award ceremonies showed a major Joseph Campbell influence, complete with a video clip celebrating cinema heroes and how greatly we value their journeys.

No one at the Oscars would say this, of course, but the superficial road to heroism, in a very Hollywood manner, intersects with the worship of a certain style of camera-ready physical appearance. Those of us not born into that narrow range of acceptable looks (i.e, everyone), we have to decide how hard to chase them. Scam artists stand ready to take our money by providing the illusion that we can turn ourselves into suitable (looking) heroes of our stories, sometimes with huge efforts on our part and sometimes by the scam artist’s magic pill or nostrum.

I have written before about how Before and After weight loss photos often include image manipulation to the point of outright fraud. I’ve also reported on how my own quest for an acceptable body size led me slowly into fat acceptance and how that somewhat resembles religious conversion.

What distinguishes religious conversion from more humdrum experiences of change is depth. Human beings quite normally undergo alterations of character: we are one person at home, another at work, another again when we awake at four in the morning. But religious conversion, be it sudden or slow, results in a transformation that is stable and that causes a revolution in …those other parts of our personality.

Thinking about both hero’s journeys and religious conversion struck a chord that resonated with a recent small study (PDF at the link) that has the potential to turn the “Before and After” idea on its head.

Sociologist Maya Maor explains in her abstract:

Conducting a comparative analysis of Before-and-After weight-loss articles appearing in an Israeli online health magazine, I examine how these narratives marginalize fat people by presenting fatness as temporary and changeable. I then compare these narratives to life narratives produced by Israeli-Jewish women, who self-identify as fat. …

In a world that valorizes slenderness, being fat is considered a failure caused by individual faults. If these faults are corrected, the fat individual can become a thin person. When fat-acceptance activists argue that fatness is is genetically determined, they are challenging exactly this notion that being fat is a transitory state than can be altered through individual choice.

The visual presentation of the same protagonist as fat and as thin implies that body size is transitory; presenting the ‘‘thin’’ protagonist as successful, attractive, and popular and the ‘‘fat’’ protagonist as ugly, miserable, and an outsider implies that the fat body should be replaced by the thin body. …

Challenging the belief in the necessarily temporary and changeable status of fatness is a crucial step in mobilizing fat activism.

Even though the participants in Maor’s study were socially recognized as thin during their “Before” fat acceptance years, they found themselves obsessed with avoiding weight gain.

Tali: “…it was my [entire] existence … for almost 30 years, I used to get up in the morning and the first, first thing I would be thinking about was: is that what I ate yesterday? Wow! I was so bad.” …

While these efforts were aimed at avoiding weight gain rather than at losing weight, they were narrated by participants as attempts to ward off fat stigma, in advance. In a society where fatness is extremely stigmatized, the prospect of gaining weight is alarming for many people, women in particular.

All of Mora’s participants got help from “alternative social and activist communities” as they found their way from the “Before” of anxious, obsessive dieting to the “After” of calm acceptance:

“After” the transition, participants described their present identities as fat women, and the advantages they found in embracing this identity. Despite their increasing deviation from the thin ideal, participants experienced a greater degree of self-acceptance and a deeper connection to their bodies and identities:

Tali: “Today I feel the best I ever have regarding my body and I’m the fattest I have ever been … I was brought up for 30 years to think of it as a paradox…. I don’t experience it as a paradox but as a marvelous sensation.”

It is important to note that the participants do not argue that they are “naturally thin” and choose to fatten themselves out of ideological motives. Rather, they choose to stop constant attempts to diet that caused them pain and frustration.

I can testify to having a similar experience of serene body acceptance. Truly our bodies respond and function much better when we listen to what we really want and need rather than torturing and starving ourselves to achieve (or maintain) body weights that did not come naturally. Thus, the hero’s journey is not to an ideal body or perfect weight; it is to genuine, unforced acceptance of who(ever) we are.