How to Undermine a Woman’s Success: Talk About Her Body

·8 min read

It took six years for Adele to create the masterpiece that is her feverishly anticipated fourth album, 30, which came out last week. It took approximately three seconds for critics to start turning the focus from her epic achievement to her weight. 

Okay, to be fair, it took closer to four hours, which was about how long the New York Post needed to publish a recap (that Jezebel called “almost comically stupid”) of last Sunday's Adele One Night Only concert and interview. The pièce de résistance of the story was served right up front, courtesy of the headline “Adele’s Oprah concert proves she didn’t lose her voice with those pounds.”

“Yikes” doesn’t even begin to cover the face-palm-inducing cringey-ness of a take so shallow and far removed from the point that it would be hilarious if it weren’t so familiar and reflective of a relentless reduction of women to the size, shape, and arbitrary attractiveness of their body. As a society, we love to pat ourselves on the back for all the strides we’ve made toward female empowerment and gender equality, not to mention the normalization and acceptance of body diversity. And yet headlines like that one are still assaulting us with alarming regularity, allowing the focus on women’s bodies to overshadow or even undermine our successes. 

This topic is anything but new (in researching this very article, I rediscovered a dishearteningly similar story I wrote about Australian swimmer Leisel Jones five years ago). But there’s a renewed sense of urgency to squash this rhetoric once and for all, thanks to political moves like the Texas abortion law threatening the lives of women by revoking their bodily autonomy in archaic ways. It’s not a stretch to say that the casual body commentary Instagram trolls and media outlets spew about women’s bodies directly relates to the incessant gender inequality that keeps women from fully achieving comparable footing to cisgendered men. It isn’t just irritating and stale—it’s dangerous.

This—obviously—isn’t the first time Adele has faced scrutiny over her body, and she’s just the latest in an exhaustingly long list of celebrities who have seen their accomplishments dimmed or diminished by body commentary. As she recently told British Vogue, “My body’s been objectified my entire career.” Halsey gave birth in July, released their first film and fourth album in August, and was overwhelmed by postpartum body commentary by October after performing on Saturday Night Live, prompting them to speak out in an Instagram post, writing, “No matter what I do people are going to talk about my body.” Lena Dunham also felt compelled to take to Instagram to address strangers’ vocal observations that “my body has changed since I was last on television” (due in part, by the way, to four years of sobriety and the ambition to live “as someone who aspires toward health and not just achievement”). 

Over the course of her meteoric rise to fame, Jennifer Hudson, who was literally handpicked by Aretha Franklin to portray the legendary singer in her biopic, has repeatedly been reduced to nothing more than a weight-loss success story (Hudson, by the way, has an Oscar, a Golden Globe, two Grammys, six NAACP Image Awards, and too many other accolades to list here).

In all of these cases, the public discourse around these women’s bodies has effectively obscured their exciting, unprecedented professional and personal achievements. But this handful of examples doesn’t even scratch the surface of the egregious minimization of women’s successes in favor of dissecting their physical appearance. It’s hard not to wonder how this behavior will continue to trivialize monumental wins for other women. 

To be clear, normalization of body commentary—both positive and negative—doesn’t affect just celebrities. The cultural custom trickles down and impacts women from all walks of life.

As Taylor Swift continues to dominate the music industry by reclaiming control of her masters, will headlines once again start picking apart her body? In the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, Swift said there were times she’d see “a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or…someone said that I looked pregnant…and that’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit—just stop eating,” and she talked to Variety at length about the need to “accommodate everything toward praise and punishment, including your own body.” 

As Britney Spears becomes a free woman for the first time in 13 years, do we have to brace ourselves for the commentary to come about how she's “bounced back” from a previous physical iteration of herself that people arbitrarily deemed unacceptable? Let’s not forget how Spears was viciously attacked for her appearance after her now notorious 2007 MTV VMA performance, prompting outlets like today.com to ponder, “Did Spears, lest we forget a mother of two, deserve to be held up against the standard of her once fantastically toned abs, sculpted by sessions of 1,000 tummy crunches? Or was she asking for it by choosing that unforgiving black-sequined bikini?” The brutal remarks she’d encountered throughout her career inspired the lyrics to 2007’s Piece of Me (“I'm Mrs. She's Too Big Now She’s Too Thin”).

Telling someone they look amazing now implies there was something wrong with how they looked before; insinuating someone looks like they’ve “let themselves go” not only is fatphobic but overlooks the myriad reasons that weight fluctuations occur.

To be clear, this normalization of body commentary—both positive and negative—doesn’t affect just celebrities. The cultural custom trickles down and impacts women from all walks of life, and I’ve experienced it firsthand for the better part of three decades as I’ve navigated the tumultuous road of eating disorder recovery. I’ve heard everything from “I’m so jealous of your discipline!” when I was in and out of intensive outpatient programs to “You look healthy now!” when I was heavier but still suffering the mental anguish of anorexia. 

The latest incidence of unsolicited commentary occurred on the heels of publishing the most deeply personal and vulnerability-hangover-inducing essay of my life, regarding my compulsive exercise habits. During a perfectly average dinner of tacos and margaritas, a perfectly average situation ensued, meaning a stranger felt entitled to comment on my body. In this particular instance, while I—a person with an eating disorder so old it could've legally been taking tequila shots with me—attempted with all my might to eat my tacos without agonizing over their carb content, our waiter felt compelled to approach our table of four and gesture at my arms. 

“You work out a lot,” he said. Still raw from writing about my workout compulsions, I glanced at my boyfriend and gave the waiter a dumbfounded stare that I am now ashamed to realize morphed into a polite smile because I had no idea how to respond. “Flex for my friend over there,” he said without hesitating to call the attention of his colleague, manning the cash register. “Flex for him now.” I laughed and gave a half-hearted biceps curl before immediately wanting to drown in a vat of salsa. All things considered, it was a mild form of uninvited commentary, given the horrific harassment women face daily. He was, after all, attempting to pay a compliment—or something? But the situation left me feeling uneasy, and even violated, particularly after being so vulnerable about my body and the impact of others' (very vocal) opinions on my perception of it. 

For anyone who’s ever struggled with their weight or body image in any way, commentary of any kind is, at the end of the day, not helpful. 

We know that catcalling sucks, but why is the practice of publicly commenting on women's bodies (and expecting them to perform on demand: “Flex!”; “Smile!”) still so normalized? And why do women have to keep continuously drawing boundaries and reclaiming their bodies in light of this relentless norm? 

Unwelcome body commentary is of course not exclusive to women—Jonah Hill made headlines last month for asking the public to stop offering their opinions on his physical appearance. “I know you mean well but I kindly ask that you not comment on my body,” he posted on Instagram with a heart emoji. “Good or bad I want to politely let you know it’s not helpful and doesn’t feel good. Much respect.” 

And that’s just it: For anyone who’s ever struggled with their weight or body image in any way (which is very likely the majority of human beings), commentary of any kind is, at the end of the day, not helpful. Telling someone they look amazing now implies there was something wrong with how they looked before; insinuating someone looks like they’ve “let themselves go” physically not only is fatphobic but overlooks the myriad reasons that weight fluctuations occur (and also—who cares if they do occur?). Hill’s request was rightfully celebrated, but why did it take a cis man making this request for so many people to take notice and applaud the sentiment?

When I initially wanted to write about this topic following my latest personal experience, I told my boyfriend I needed to find a new and relevant example of how this phenomenon continues to affect other women. As soon as news of Adele’s concert special broke, he said, “Just wait and see how quickly people make it all about her body.” I’m grateful the opportunity presented itself to speak out on the topic. But I would’ve been more heartened by the state of our society if he’d been wrong. 

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco–based freelance journalist who has written for a number of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Shape, Teen Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine. 

Originally Appeared on Glamour