Content warning: This newsletter contains references to fatphobia.
“Hello, Adele! 😍 The Grammy-winning singer showed off her dramatic new look while expressing her gratitude to fans for their messages in honor of her 32nd birthday.”
“Adele just broke the internet with her new look on her 32nd birthday 👀🎂”
“Um, HELLO?! Adele shared a rare picture from her birthday and is a skinny mini in her LBD! Link in bio for the shocking photo!”
Those are actual Instagram captions (from People, ET Canada and Hollywood Life, respectively)—and they’re only a small selection of the posts and comments I saw about Adele’s body as I scrolled through the app on Wednesday morning, after the singer had posted a photo of herself on Instagram thanking fans for their birthday wishes and frontline workers for keeping us all safe and healthy during the pandemic.
It was a pretty run-of-the-mill post that probably wouldn’t have garnered that much attention if not for one thing: the singer had lost weight since the last time we’d seen her. Suddenly, the internet was obsessed. Account after account reposted the photo, many with the same type of celebratory commentary about her appearance. It was kind of jarring to see how completely the conversation had taken over my timeline.
So, to answer my own question… yeah, kinda. Or at least, it’s proof that we live in a world where the size and shape of our bodies matter. Automatically assuming weight loss is good news, or something to be praised or celebrated, is inherently fatphobic. That’s just logical. If you believe losing weight is always positive, then weighing more has to be negative. Do not pass go, do not collect $200—and do not pretend that your preference for thinness is about health or wellness, because that’s not backed up by science. University of California Irvine professor Sabrina Strings, whose 2019 book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, traces the origins of fatphobia to slavery and Protestantism, points to several different studies that have found the health impacts of a high BMI are “overblown.” “The bottom line is this: BMI is a poor measure of health outcomes. Rather than trying to make people conform to a (flawed) weight standard, we can do much more to improve health outcomes in our communities by addressing systemic issues such as food security, neighborhood food availability and access to potable water,” she says.
That’s why, in an ideal world, the right way to talk about Adele’s weight loss would be to… not talk about Adele’s weight loss. Like, at all. Because as my friend Lora Grady, a body-positive writer and beauty editor in Toronto, points out, Adele can’t win this one. On one hand, much of the commentary about her birthday photo positions weight loss as if it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. On the other, some of her fans will feel disappointed that she bowed to conventional beauty ideals. (Though she has always been a conventionally attractive white woman, it’s important to note.)
“When you see someone in the spotlight who you can relate to, it feels like a big win. It feels like we’re making progress,” Grady says. But when those people lose weight, “sometimes people jump to the conclusion that this person caved to the pressure. They gave in to Hollywood’s demands. They did what everyone was telling them they should do for all of these years. And that can feel like a loss of connection for some people.”
But that’s not fair, either. “It’s really easy for me to sit out here as a not-celebrity and say, live your best life and live in your body,” she says. “But I don’t know their journey with their body, and I don’t know where the pressures are coming from. Quite frankly, I think Adele at some point did say, ‘You know what, you don’t know the pressure that I face.’”
Scaachi Koul made a similar observation earlier this week, in a piece that argues since Adele hasn’t said anything about her body one way or the other, we shouldn’t either. But the fact that she hasn’t said anything actually makes it easier for us to assign meaning to her body, one way or the other. “Her body is both the medium and the message,” Koul writes. “Like most things, our response to Adele’s weight loss says more about us than it does about her. If we’re cheering her on, it suggests a kind of misery we already have about our weight and our relationship with our own body. If we’re gloomy about it, it’s because she reminds us of our own struggle with conventional beauty and the ways we don’t fit in. Adele can’t win, and neither can we.”
In some ways, this news cycle reminds me of the plastic surgery rumours that dogged Renée Zellweger for years after she attended Elle’s 2014 Women in Hollywood event. At the time, New York Times columnist Alex Kuczynski wrote, “Zellweger’s forehead was as smooth as a packed ski slope, and her eyes as crystal-blue as ever, but they appeared, in some images, wide and round as pennies… What is new—and plainly shocking to some—is that Ms. Zellweger now looks like someone not even related to the quirkily pretty, Kewpie-doll star who had us at hello. However the method, she has changed herself into someone who looks like the manicured socialite, the moderately successful commercial actress, the benign political wife. Ms. Zellweger looks beautiful but does not look like Ms. Zellweger.”
As in the case of this Adele photo, there were lots of posts and articles talking about Zellweger’s new face, and lots of posts and articles defending the actor from the conclusions being drawn. I distinctly remember reading a piece that essentially said, if she did have plastic surgery, it was because people spent years talking about her appearance, and now that she’s changed her appearance, those same sexist assholes are talking about that, too.
But even though I agree that we should all have less to say about women’s appearances, as a journalist and someone who writes about pop culture, the idea of not acknowledging a change that we can all see is… weird. Grady agrees. “Ideally, I would probably say ‘Well, yeah, you could post about [Adele] and not acknowledge it.’ But even as a reader, I would look at that and think, ‘Something’s different here.’”
Not that weirdness is a good reason to maintain the status quo, of course. I would very much like to get to a point where someone losing (or gaining) weight means nothing, both in the world of celebrity and for every person, everywhere. I just don’t think we’re there yet. We can pretty easily make the case that people should stop implying, much less saying, that being fat is bad. But in our current, celebrity-obsessed world, it’s not reasonable to ask people not to even notice that someone in the public eye suddenly looks drastically different. Yes, some of us have become frustrated with rich, privileged stars while we’re in lockdown, but we haven’t stopped paying attention.
So, what do we actually do? Neither Grady or I were sure, to be honest. She noted that, if we were talking about someone we knew in real life, she’d follow their cues. But that’s not possible with celebrities. So we decide it’s about language. When we’re talking about Adele in our group chats (or in the stories we write, if we’re journalists) we can’t start with the assumption that all weight loss is good. We should acknowledge that we don’t know why she lost weight, or how she feels about it. And we can’t assign value to her body. Basically, if we’re going to talk about her weight loss, we also have to acknowledge that her weight loss even being a story is bullshit.
Or, as Grady puts it, “you kind of have to dismantle the narrative around it, instead of creating one.”
And Did You Hear About…
This fantastic Curbed article about the false promises of a Nancy Meyers Kitchen™.
The new Twilight book. (Although… do we actually need Twilight from Edward’s point of view? We do not.)
This great tweet thread about culinary appropriation, and what happens when you divorce technique and flavour from culture context.
This week’s backlash against Tyra Banks/America’s Next Top Model. ANTM was super problematic, so that’s not so surprising. I’m more fascinated by the fact that this exact conversation pops up at fairly reliable intervals. (Ahem.)
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