Before and After: My Lena Dunham Photo Binge

By Cara Getches

Earlier this month, Lena Dunham attended the opening of celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson’s new flagship studio in New York City. Much of the night’s media coverage centered on Dunham’s apparent weight loss. People described her as “fit” and “amazing,” CNN remarked on her “svelte” figure, and ET Online reported that she was “happy and healthy.” I only heard about the event after Dunham’s Instagram response popped up on Facebook. Next to a photo of herself from the shoulders up, Dunham explained the changes in her body and encouraged her followers to focus on more urgent matters. In part, she wrote…

Right now I’m struggling to control my endometriosis through a healthy diet and exercise. My weight loss isn’t a triumph and it also isn’t some sign I’ve finally given into the voices of trolls. Because my body belongs to ME–at every phase, in every iteration, and whatever I’m doing with it, I’m not handing in my feminist card to anyone…I refuse to celebrate these bullshit before-and-after pictures.

The directness and confidence of her language was electric. When I read the phrase “in every iteration” I got goosebumps on my forearms and felt a buzz at the base of my spine. I had the impulse to give someone a high five, an action I’m normally categorically against.

Then, I entered “Lena Dunham weight loss” into my computer’s search bar and fell into a deep dark hole of bullshit before-and-after pictures.

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During my first year of college my friend and I committed to a crash diet in preparation for spring break, and we carefully prepared for our month of near starvation. We rid our dorm room of high calorie foods, developed a rigid exercise schedule, and purchased a disposable camera to document our changing bodies. On the first day of our diet, we took our “before” photos from three angles: the front, side and back. I spun around in a cotton bra and boxer shorts with black and pink polka dots. When the camera flashed, I didn’t hold in my stomach for the first time in eight years. As the weeks of dieting passed, we would fantasize about what our “after” photos would be like. Do you think I’ll be able to see my spine? I hope my cheeks are more defined. What if my legs don’t touch anymore?

One month later we had our answers. We hustled to a drug store a couple blocks from campus and waited for our photos to develop. Once I was alone in my dorm room, I sat on my bed and closely analyzed the images as if their staticness held a truth that my moving reflection in the mirror did not. I could see a difference in every inch of my body—in the sharpness of my shoulders and the narrowness of my thighs. The curve of my back was gone, replaced by a hard, sleek triangle. In the “after” photos I was wearing the same dotted shorts, only I had to hold them up with both hands since my shrunken hips could no longer do the job. I loved having clothes that were suddenly too big and, even though I threw the photos away years ago, I still remember the proud smile on my face. It’s the expression of someone who had no idea that within a week, losing those first 20 pounds would not feel like nearly enough, that I was only 30 days into a seven-year battle with an eating disorder, and that the “after” photos were only the beginning.

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I scrolled through photo after photo of Dunham, studying them with the same intensity I’d studied my own before-and-after photos over a decade earlier. I saw pictures of her with short blonde hair and flowing brunette locks. I flew past images of her dressed in a turtleneck and some where she was barely covered in elegant sage green lingerie. I even clicked my way through the before-and-after photos that her Instagram post so eloquently condemned. I stared at her arms and legs, her chin, and her hips. Was she thinner? Had she lost weight? How much? Did she look better? Worse?

After losing myself in Google’s visual library of Lena Dunham for a half hour, I closed my computer and felt like shit. I recognized the distinct sharpness of guilt. It’d creep up after I gossiped about a friend or forgot not to sing along to “Blurred Lines” on the radio. This time, my indulgence of a needy, shortsighted impulse objectified Dunham and bolstered our culture’s commitment to sexism. My clicks would help sell ads and encourage media outlets to continue generating harmful and reductive content focused solely on the size of women’s bodies. I’ve felt the same powers of temptation swirl around the tabloids in grocery store checkout lines, and flow over my keyboard when I examined the photos of my skinny friend’s beach vacation a little too closely.

One of the reasons before-and-after photos are so seductive is because they give us a succinct dose of closure. It’s “happily ever after” captured in one simple frame. Of course, that closure is nonsense. Despite our best efforts, our bodies continue to evolve. Dunham herself acknowledged this during a recent taping of Ellen when she said, “I just understand that bodies change. We live a long time. Things happen.” This is especially true when it comes to weight loss. Studies have proven time and time again that diets do not work, and mine was no exception. Within a year of losing those initial 20 pounds, I gained back every ounce and fell into a painful pattern of binging and purging. I was heartbroken my “after” body did not last. Now, five years into recovery, I’m still learning to tolerate the inevitable nature of change.

For me, recovery is a state that requires near constant tending. When I notice a celebrity or friend has lost weight, I immediately begin to question my own choices. What is so wrong with losing weight anyway? They look happy. Why can’t I diet? Should I buy this Groupon for a three-month CrossFit membership? Sometimes, the energy required to assure myself that recovery is worthwhile feels like too much. In those moments, it’s easier to see Dunham in her bright leggings and cool T-shirt and become convinced she has it all figured out, which is likely untrue and entirely unfair. I’ve fallen into the same trap analyzing Adele’s meal plan or America Ferrera’s triathlon training regimen. On a deeper level, I know the bodies of these women owe me nothing. It is not their job to tell me how to treat my body, it’s mine.

None of this is to say that viewing images of other people is inherently negative. Seeing women on social media document their unedited forms with cellulite and stretch marks has provided sustenance for my recovery on the days I need it most. Watching Dunham’s body in Girls broke open my belief that beauty ideals were absolute truths. Unlike contrived before-and-after photos, these images are not perpetuating a false narrative of “then” and “forever more,” or stripping the subjects of agency through unwanted context or distribution. I’ve found that consuming these more ethical visuals can actually work to upend our culture’s ingrained sexism and lead to healing, rather than hurting.