Yesterday at Bally’s, when I was pushing myself through Day 11 of Jillian’s workouts, I shared the exercise room with a group of about a dozen seriously overweight women being led through a routine with a trim young red-haired female trainer. At the end, the women crowded around the trainer and asked for her advice about exercise and diet.

“Have you always been this thin?” one eager voice asked the trainer, and some quality about it stopped me in my tracks.

Well, perhaps it was the eleven squat jumps I did “to muscle failure” that stopped me in my tracks. But the question was so plaintive, so full of yearning, and hope, and doubt. I kept turning to look at the group, and a couple of them eyed me back. The girl mumbled something to the effect that yes, well, she more or less always had been, and some of the faces around her fell just a little bit. I realized they had no idea that someone could ever go from looking like themselves right now, to looking like her… or me.

So much is tied up in all of this, so much more than health or fitness, so many things about who we are and what we can be and how we portray to the world. It’s about being asked to the dance; being chosen for the team; being surprised and proud of what the mirror or camera say, instead of cringing from them. I’ve been on both sides of those things. People say worrying about it is superficial, but I don’t think it’s superficial to want the outer you to match the inner you, which is how I always thought about it back when I was struggling.

I wanted to go up and break into their little cluster and say, “I used to weight forty pounds more!” I wondered if that would even help, since most of them need to lose far more. I also knew that while they might believe me, they would be unable to picture it.

In the end, I didn’t say anything. It seemed socially awkward; forward and uninvited. And I was in the middle of my workout, and needed to keep my heart rate up. I envisioned getting caught up in a conversation that could last quite awhile. Later, I looked for the trainer, but I could not find her.

Last weekend, I’d finally located the “before” pictures I’d had Mom snap around my twenty-ninth birthday in 1994, when my weight was up again, after my first year of working full-time after dropping out of grad school. I don’t even remember what the plan was at the time — but I knew I’d kept those pictures. Unfortunately, not only are they the least flattering shots on earth, to the extent I possibly should burn them and say no more about it. But they were also taken in my underwear (I ain’t saying lingerie here, either), and there’s no disguising it. At twenty-nine, I look years older than I look right now, and slightly mentally challenged. Nothing is helped by the fuzzy perm I was experimenting with, which has shortened my shoulder-length hair to a brown block around my face.  The biggest revelation was that my body did not look all that much bigger than now, or have any obvious rolls of fat. I was simply soft.

“Boy, that running has done wonders!” said Dad when I showed him the 1994 underwear vs. 2012 bikini shots this weekend. “I remember this.” Never mind that it’s probably as much or more the strength training as the running!

“I always said I needed to lose weight,” I said. “But what I really needed was more –”

“– muscle!” finished Dad.

My own favorite source of inspiring before-and-after pictures are the Body for Life books and site. These people have completed a 12-week challenge and completely transformed themselves. I was never able to complete their program, because I always ended up intolerably sore and starving to death around week three. Instead, I chose the gradual transformation route! But it’s a great link to click for the idea of how much difference you can achieve, how far you can really go through diet and exercise, no matter where you start.

My very favorite thing about the photos is how beautiful and handsome everyone’s face is once their bodies are in shape — it’s true in every single case! My other favorite thing is how everyone has the same “problem areas” when they’re done, big thighs or hips or whatever, but once they’re in shape, it doesn’t look bad anymore.

I decided, on the spot, that I would show those overweight ladies my humiliating “before” underwear pictures if I have the chance.  It’s important to understand what you can do, to know someone else has done it — and to really see it.

And in the interest of walking the talk, I’ll show you, my readers, one before-and-after view — with blocked-out underwear, of course.

Age 29 (1994) vs. Age 46 (2012)