As singing icon Adele is being celebrated worldwide for her significant weight loss, the body positivity world is grappling with what it means when a “full-figured” icon no longer fits the bill. That’s a lot of responsibility, and she never asked for it. Without posting any side-by-side comparison pics or discussing her health or her strategies for undergoing a “body transformation,” Adele has become an involuntary before-and-after image in our collective consciousness.
Whether it is body positivity advocates who championed her “before” body or everyone else fawning over her “after,” both represent ways she is objectified and reduced to her body — even if one serves the good cause of normalizing and appreciating size diversity. This represents the trap we fall into when we think that we can place women with larger bodies on a pedestal as examples of body positivity — thriving or surviving despite their less-celebrated appearances — and think we won’t get hurt when she falls or gets pushed off that pedestal (by losing weight, promoting a diet plan, or saying something negative about her larger size). When she comes crashing down from her #bopo pedestal, our feelings and hopes about our own similar bodies come crashing down along with her.
Have you found your body anxiety being triggered by seeing Adele’s smaller body, and seeing it receive so much praise and attention? We understand why you might be feeling that, and we want you to see it as an opportunity to rethink the ways you might view and value bodies — your own and others’.
Your body image may have taken a blow seeing the headlines about Adele’s weight loss because she was one of very few so-called “plus size” female celebrities. With so few women of diverse body sizes represented positively throughout mainstream media, it’s easy to pedestalize women who don’t fit prescribed beauty ideals as body positive icons. But if we place women like Adele, Melissa McCarthy, Shonda Rhimes, Beanie Feldstein, Jennifer Hudson, or Mindy Kaling on pedestals as brave heroes of body positivity, we are resting our hopes and values on their bodies — other people’s dynamic human bodies that grow and shrink and change for an endless list of reasons inside and outside of our control.
These people didn’t choose to be our guiding star in the uncharted land of trying to love our less-celebrated body sizes and shapes — we put that on them because of how they look. They didn’t claim that status, and yet we hold them to our standards as body positive queens and pin our hopes of confidence, love, and success to their inspirational examples. Then, when they lose weight or disparage their larger bodies or promote a new diet, body positivity advocates see them as traitors to the cause while the general public champions them as weight loss success stories, testaments to the power of motivation and self-discipline as the keys to anyone’s body transformations from not to hot. In the end, whether they’re larger or smaller, we’re still talking about them as bodies first and people second. We are objectifying them.
You may have also taken a hit to your body image as you read all the “She’s never looked better!” and “Revenge body?” and “She’s unrecognizable!” commentary, which reveals how much people value thinner bodies over fatter ones — at any cost. Our culture’s fear of fat is real, and it comes to the forefront in the way we praise and shame people. We don’t know how or why Adele lost weight, and it isn’t anyone’s business, but we do know that not every weight loss story is a happy or healthy one. Many people are sick and suffering and praise for their weight loss is unwelcome and harmful. Eating disorders are rampant, dangerous diets and pills and addictions abound. (See a few examples as proof here for motivation to stop complimenting peoples’ shrinking bodies).
How do we make ourselves more resilient in the face of Adele’s weight loss trending online and the accompanying body image blows that result from the heaping praise toward her (among the other daily disruptions to our body image)?
If we really want to ground ourselves in positive body image and rise up against objectifying ideals that hold women back in every way, we have to learn to take our attention off of bodies and appearance — for others and for ourselves. We can’t heal our own body image and reduce our self-objectification by praising and pedestalizing other bodies, even if they look like ours and we feel so grateful they do. We heal our body image by seeing and valuing ourselves and other women as more than bodies. Having positive body image isn’t believing your body *looks* good, it is believing your body *is* good, regardless of how it looks. It’s time to give women their humanity back, and reclaim our own humanity in the process.
Body positivity — or learning to value all bodies as beautiful — is a good first step, but this Adele phenomenon shows us how it can fall short when we rely on validating the appearance of someone else’s body in order to validate our own. It helps to see another body that looks like yours being validated, but what happens when it changes or stops being praised or she disparages her own body? As people who value body diversity and don’t want to be loved or hated for our size, shouldn’t we be the first to unravel someone’s value from their body — whether they are large or small? Instead of fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable, let’s fight for women to be valued as more than bodies to view.
Let’s fight body shame at its source: the idea that the appearance of our bodies is the most important thing about us. The real problem is *not* that only certain women’s bodies are valued, it is that women’s bodies are valued more than women themselves. When we try to promote body acceptance by focusing on how beautiful women’s bodies are, we inadvertently perpetuate the idea that women are bodies first and foremost and that feeling beautiful is of utmost importance.
Positive body image doesn’t come from believing that your body looks acceptable. While that is a good feeling, and perhaps even one step closer to healing your relationship with your body, that boost is fleeting, and when the power to determine how you feel about your body is determined by outside forces, it can be taken away as quickly as it is given. In order to really move forward individually and collectively, we need to recognize how severely the objectification of female bodies has stunted girls and women. The epidemic of self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance (whether you like your appearance or not), has held back generations of women who could have used that mental and physical energy for much more meaningful and joyful pursuits. We can’t escape that harm by focusing on the beauty of all women’s bodies and relying on celebrity or influencer examples to convince ourselves our bodies look good too.
It’s not that your body is acceptable because Adele’s or Lizzo’s or any other larger-bodied woman’s is acceptable; it’s that your body is acceptable, period. You live inside it. You grew up inside it. Your body acceptance can’t hinge on how anyone else looks or how anyone feels about how anyone looks. It can’t hinge on other bodies looking like ours or being validated because those bodies are subject to change and so is public opinion about them. Your body acceptance can only hinge on your own choices, actions, and experiences inside your own individual body. Our popular mantra can help you re-envision what body confidence looks like in your own life: Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.
As you prioritize your experience inside your incredible body over the appearance of your body, you take your power back. Your power is internal and self-determined. What does your body allow you to do? What do you appreciate about how it works? What do you want to do, feel, experience? Take opportunities to move your body, challenge yourself, feel the rush of endorphins, step out of your comfort zone, and experience that state of flow of being fully immersed in something without your self-consciousness holding you back. Always prioritize your experience over your appearance.
It makes sense that body positivity advocates and everyday women adore the few highly successful women who confidently represent larger sizes in the mainstream. But the front page newsworthiness of Adele’s weight loss is a massive testament to the need for greater size diversity (and all diversity) in media, as much as it is a testament to the absolute objectification of women who are able to become stars while being fat (or fatter than the mainstream ideals). If we could see more women in media, and not just the ones with idealized body types, one musician or actor’s size wouldn’t become the number one trending news topic in the world (in the middle of a global pandemic!). And no one woman’s body would have to be our ray of hope for our own body love, or our body shame trigger when her size changes along with the public’s love for her size.
Not defining people by their body size is possible! We know that because we’ve never heard anyone talk about DJ Khaled as a body-positive icon or praise James Corden for daring to show up as a husky hero for our time. Men in media get to be valued for and defined by lots of things outside of their appearance, like their talent, humor, intellect, charm, etc. Male stars’ weight loss is newsworthy at times, but men are never celebrated as heroes for living in larger bodies or constantly defined by their ability to thrive despite their size. Their bodies aren’t the most important thing about them. Ours aren’t either.
We are all more than bodies. We have to learn to see more in ourselves in order to be more than people who self-objectify our days away, preoccupied with our looks and the looks of those around us. If your body image is founded on the truth that you are more than a body, it can’t be broken by anyone’s changing body and the accompanying praise and shame. Your body image can be unshaken in the midst of objectification because you know the truth about yourself: You are more than a body, and when we can see more in ourselves and others, we can be more. Much more.
If you want more guidance on this stuff, we worked for years to develop and test our online Body Image Resilience course that is available to individuals 14+. Through an in-depth 8-week video course (that also includes full text, graphics and audio), participants can learn how to 1) recognize harmful messages in media and culture about female bodies; 2) reflect on the ways those ideals have impacted your life; 3) redefine the ways you think about beauty, health and individual worth; and 4) develop resilience through your own path that utilizes four sources of power.