Have you heard about Adele’s weight loss? What about Rebel Wilson’s? I bet you have, because it’s virtually impossible to avoid headlines about either. The media loves, loves, LOVES a celebrity weight loss story.
And also, have you seen the other ever-present headlines that enthusiastically applaud thin, conventionally attractive celebrities for *SPEAKING OUT AGAINST OPPRESSIVE BODY STANDARDS!*?
There’s clearly a lack of critical reflection there. It’s just like when outlets (looking directly at you, Women’s Health Magazine and Today.com) talk about body positivity while also publishing an endless stream of weight loss success stories. In fact, it’s exactly like that, just with celebrities as the focal point.
And look, as a media person myself, I understand that there are pressures to put out as much content as possible. Plus, people love BOTH weight loss success stories (even though they’re also super triggering and unrealistic) and body-positive messages (even if they’re mostly from the perspective of thin women who don’t really face much oppression due to their body size). It’s hard, from a business perspective, to stop publishing a type of content that people so clearly like to read.
I’ll also admit that someone asked me to write a story related to Adele’s weight loss. And while my first instinct was, “hell no,” I ended up saying yes. Why? Because the story, as I pitched it and agreed to it, was about how unrealistic (because celebrities are rich and famous, and also because even they often can’t actually maintain weight loss long-term) and stigmatizing these celebrity weight loss stories really are.
Of course, that message got incredibly watered down in the editing process, because, apparently, it was too complex and “not really very positive.” Lesson learned: Don’t agree to write anything about celebrity weight loss for another outlet, because the media machine tends to water down messages that criticize weight stigma and fake body positivity. (Because, duh, they’re some of the biggest perpetrators.) But I digress…
What I want to tell you is that the only way that these celebrity weight loss stories will go away is if audiences stop reading them. No business person would ever discontinue a best-selling product, but most business people would discontinue something that stops performing. And in a more immediate sense, refusing to read them is a way to protect your own relationship with food and body, wherever that relationship may currently stand.
Honestly, though, the more important part of this conversation is the other side of it: the fact that we’re all so excited to talk about body positivity, but only when it comes from the mouth of someone whose body we find “acceptable.” What started me down this rant-y path earlier this week was Glamour UK’s October 2021 digital cover, shown below.
The cover girl is Jesy Nelson, a British singer and former member of the girl group Little Mix. (You might recognize the name from other recent headlines — she’s currently being torn apart for “blackfishing,” defined by Vogueas “the process of white women embodying/borrowing/parroting the aesthetics of Blackness.”) The Glamour UK is centered around Nelson’s past struggles with mental health. She recalls how being a member of Little Mix alongside three women in much thinner bodies (although hers is still small) completely destroyed her self-esteem, and that she subsequently struggled with depression and an eating disorder. At her lowest, she attempted suidice.
Now, she says, she’s finally beginning to feel happy again. Which is fantastic! She talks about being in therapy, which is also fantastic, because there’s still some stigma around therapy and celebrities have a lot of power to help lift it. There’s actually a lot to like about the article. It doesn’t shy away from difficult mental health topics, and it gives insight into how truly awful and violating it can feel to be famous and have your body (and your life) constantly up for debate.
But. BUT. The way that the magazine has framed it — like this gorgeous celebrity is just so brave for being able to stop it with the diets and the lip fillers and the corsets — is problematic. Yes, she’s brave! But she’s also not facing extreme oppression and marginalization because of her body size and the way she looks. Yes, she’s brave, but holding her up as the example of this kind of bravery really ignores the fact that people in much larger bodies, who aren’t considered conventionally attractive, are also struggling to accept themselves. And the world doesn’t typically applaud them when they do. In fact, the world usually tells them that they’re wrong to accept themselves. That they “owe it to their health” to try harder to change their bodies. That what we’re calling bravery in the case of Jesy Nelson is just laziness in the case of someone who doesn’t fit into our false idea of what someone “should” look like.
And then when a famous person in a larger body gets thinner, we APPLAUD THEM for conforming to the same pressures and ideals that Nelson is BEING APPLAUDED for saying that she rejects! It’s lunacy.
I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about all of this, but what I’m mostly trying to say is that if we’re going to celebrate people who reject oppressive body standards, then we should really start thinking about how we also reinforce those oppressive body standards in other cases. If you don’t accept all bodies, then you’re not actually body positive.
As always, feel free to reach out with any questions, comments, or concerns!
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