Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the “It’s Not Just You” newsletter at Substack.com.
Still, I understand why gushing over someone else’s weight loss is so fraught. I wasn’t surprised when Oprah Winfrey asked Adele last week how she was coping with the intense, emotional debate over her new body. The British singer has lost nearly 100 pounds and people are arguing over how to talk about it — and even whether to talk about it.
After being the most revered plus-size role model on the planet (other than Oprah herself), Adele now finds herself on the flip side of the body positivity movement. “I feel bad that, you know, it’s made anyone feel horrible about themselves,” she told Oprah, adding almost apologetically that she had not intended to lose weight, and had just wanted to get stronger after her divorce.
In a cover story for the November issue of Vogue, Adele said she understood why some fans were hurt; “visually,” as she put it, “I represented a lot of women.” Commenters pointed out that praise for thin Adele can seem like a rejection of heavier Adele and those who resemble her. But Adele also pushed back on the ‘’brutal conversations” being had by other women about her body, noting that she was being objectified by all sides.
These exchanges reveal a chasm between our empowerment talk and the real-world expectations women face. Lots of us are stuck in the middle, talking woke, but knowing that conventional beauty ideals still have a hold on us. It’s like a cultural bardo — between a Kardashian present and a brave Frances McDormand future.
Even Beyoncé, an icon of confidence, has to navigate the tension between how we want to see ourselves and how the world treats us. She wrote “Bootylicious” to reject comments about her weight when she was 19. And later, in her documentary “Homecoming,” filmed after she had twins, Beyoncé gets on a scale and the camera zooms in on the number between her feet: 175. “This is every woman’s nightmare,” she says.
There are millions — no billions — of #BodyPositivity posts, TikTok videos, ads, and articles in which we reassure ourselves that every woman is beautiful and sexy at every size and age. But here’s the catch: Even when we’re posting photos of our belly rolls to say we embrace them, the subject is still our bodies. And even as we fight to expand beauty standards, we are still connecting female appearance to female value.
It’s so much easier to embrace body positivity for others than for ourselves. Someone posts about self-esteem struggles and we respond with hearts and cries of “you’re beautiful just the way you are!” Meanwhile, we’re looking in the mirror fretting over back fat.
All this positivity hasn’t put a dent in the market for beauty treatments. We still download diet apps in droves; cosmetic procedures remained popular during the coronavirus pandemic when we weren’t even going to the dentist.
And despite progress with more diverse models and clothing options, those who’ve grown up in the body positivity age are not necessarily more liberated from insecurity than their mothers. The selfie generation has surely spent more time contemplating their own image than any other. Eating disorders are on the rise among Gen Z. And Meta research revealed that Instagram exacerbates teen girls’ negative feelings about their bodies. Social platforms are made to encourage comparisons and connect looks to likes, which is toxic for self-esteem.
I’ve walked this confounding tightrope long before there was language for it. I thought by now, I’d have stopped caring about my size or my grays, but I still do, which is embarrassing. I’ve gained and lost the same 30 pounds at least three times since I was 16. The weight comes and goes like ballast for stressful events such as a divorce or the death of a parent, or a new job.
I should probably say here that I’m the same inside at any size. But when I look at whichever set of clothes is too big or too small at the moment, it seems like they belong to another me. I try to keep my laments to myself these days, so as not to spread the virus of self-consciousness, and to avoid getting dinged by my kids, who will surely keep showing me the way.