Here’s the sneaky thing about dieting and the human experience of having a body — we want to believe there is a way to fix how our bodies look and feel. We tell ourselves if we find the right diet, the right gym, the right clothing, there will be a day when we look in the mirror and think “Perfect. Flawless. No notes.”
Of course, that’s not how a journey to acceptance and comfort in one’s own skin happens. I was reminded of this fact as I read Alex Light’s “You Are Not a Before Picture: How to Finally Make Peace with Your Body, for Good“ (out Aug. 16). As a former beauty editor at the UK’s Hello! magazine and a woman with a history of eating disorders, Light has written a frank, comforting book. And if I’m being honest, I was kind of dreading this one. After a year and change of reading self-help books and writing this column, the idea of yet another cis white woman influencer getting a book deal to tell me to love myself starts to feel . . . tiring.
Fortunately, Light has done her homework. I think I was expecting a very general, surface level “You go girl!” kind of book, and I was pleased to discover there’s much more here than that. The book starts with an introduction to the concept of diet culture, which is, in Light’s words “a set of beliefs that puts thinness, shape, and size above all else and equates it with health, success, happiness, and moral virtue.” She traces the word diet throughout history, and talks about the ways specific body types were favored in different parts of the world at different times. I found it particularly gratifying that Light, now a social media influencer, took the time to delineate how diet culture is a way of controlling women’s bodies, and that there was (and still is) racism embedded in the idea of what an “ideal” body looks like. “Fatness was more identifiable in Blackness, therefore thinness was seen as more ‘evolved’ and ultimately more desired,” she writes.
Light includes ways for the reader to think about how they’ve been conditioned by diet culture, and offers tips and thought starters around things like the accounts we follow on social media. She asks us to really notice what we’re engaging with. And because she is deeply aware of the ways we’ve been trained to think of beauty as white, straight, and cis, she asks the reader to actively seek out content from people who are marginalized. “Being exposed to a range of bodies reminds us how varied, different, and beautiful the human race is.”
I love a book that not only gives me information, but provides a framework for how and when to use it. As a woman on the Internet who writes about bodies, Light is no stranger to trolling, whether that be straight up nasty comments or what is known as “concern trolling” — comments that are disguised as concern for your health. She offers ways to combat those responses, as well as a reminder that sometimes, the best medicine is to simply walk away from social media. Light wraps up on a hopeful but realistic note, reminding all of us that the journey to acceptance of our own bodies is a long road. “I believe these little lapses are critical to our progress: they are where we gather more tools with which to arm ourselves, so we come back stronger.”
“You Are Not a Before Picture: How to Finally Make Peace with Your Body, for Good,” by Alex Light, HQ, $28.99.