That Time When “Before and After” Wasn’t a Nightmare
Trigger warning: Discussion of diet culture and before and after photos.
In general, “before and after” photos are the bane of a body positive existence because they imply that the body in the “before” image is not beautiful, noncompliant, and not worthy of being lived in, while the “after” photo — usually a thinner version of the same person — signifies triumph, beauty, and commitment to diet culture.
In my life, there have been many times when I stood against a wall in one diet center or another and posed for a “before” picture. In all honesty, in those moments I was happy — I was all revved up and excited because each time I was sure that this was going to be the time that the dieting worked.
As you know, dieting rarely works — particularly for me, but also for most. So a few months down the road, that “before” shot was not only a testament to my failure, it was also a reminder that the body I lived in was nothing worth loving.
The point I am trying to make is that normally when you pose for a “before” photo you aren’t thinking to yourself — “Wow, my body is amazing, worth loving, and all-around badass.” You just aren’t. In fact, in most cases the people taking the “before” photos are counting on your self-hatred to keep you coming back and buying more of whatever snake oil they’re selling… unless you are sitting in Alexis Lawson’s studio.
Alexis is a portrait photographer who primarily photographs women. Her goal is to show women that they are beautiful now — not someday off in the distance when they have changed, but right now. Alexis calls her work “couture portraits,” but what she really does is expose the reality that “beauty” as defined by American mass media isn’t about size or shape. It’s about presentation. It’s about the way we photograph and pose bodies. It’s the makeup we put on. It’s a dance and, if you’re willing to spend time dancing, than anyone can replicate the cultural idea of beauty whenever they want to.
Now, as many of you know, I don’t think that beauty is a quality that women need to have to be worthy. In fact, I think that our culture’s emphasis on female beauty is one of the ways that women are kept from feeling capable and achieving success. That said, sometimes knowing that everyone has the potential to emulate what the culture deems as “beautiful” can be really eye opening and maybe even transformational in terms of moving beyond a focus on beauty.
Like all the diet centers that I went to years ago, Alexis takes a “before” shot. Only as I posed for this “before,” I was struck by the reality that nothing about me or my body needed to change before we shot the “after.” Sure, I was going to wear more makeup than I usually do and get my hair done, but these were all things that I could do at any size. In other words, the before and after were both me — taken on the same day.
Here’s a full-body shot:
All in all, it was a really interesting experience and an overall reminder that beauty is a construct — a game that we could all play if we felt like it — but it was also an experience that I think many would enjoy. It’s powerful to see yourself all glammed up and looking pretty through the camera lens. It reminds you that the story the culture is selling — that you are somehow unworthy because you don’t wake up camera ready — is bull and that you were born amazing and can own that reality at any size.
P.S Alexis put together this video of my session. What do you think?