CW: This article contains discussion of body image and eating disorders that some readers may find triggering or disturbing.
“Adele’s transformation is a kind reminder that you can achieve anything you set you mind to”, the tweet reads. And as I follow the words along my screen, I can feel something growing in the pit of my stomach that I’m yet to put a name to.
If you use social media, you would have had to have taken a very long hiatus to miss the recent buzz: Adele posted a picture in which she looks noticeably slimmer than we are used to her looking. For what feels like weeks, the internet has been alive with words of praise for her weight loss. The comments read: “Losing weight isn’t easy but you did that sh*t and you deserve every bit of it”, “if this doesn’t motivate you to eat your greens and pump some iron nothing else will”. Others are harsher when delivering their ‘kind’ comments: “shame on people shaming her for achieving a body that takes hard work”, “it seems a lot of fat and lazy people are jealous of your achievement – you have worked hard to achieve a perfect body”. And for me, it is the phrase ‘a perfect body’ that finally clicks in my brain and makes me realise everything wrong with how the world has reacted to this image.
Some have felt the discomfort of this reaction, too, and have attempted to articulate what’s wrong with it. One account writes, “the fact she’s a 15x Grammy award winner and y’all think being skinny is her greatest accomplishment”, and they raise a fair point. Is it reasonable for us to equate changing your life style and losing weight to being one the most successful recording artists of all time? And while this does seem like part of the problem, it doesn’t really stand on it’s own two feet. It is true that changing your lifestyle and setting healthy goals can be incredibly difficult to achieve mentally and should be celebrated for those who are able to follow through. These people feel the discomfort, but they’ve missed the mark on what makes this overwhelming praise problematic.
The problem that has sparked so much debate, with Adele being the unfortunate catalyst, is that people believe that being skinny is the same as being healthy.
Diet culture is no new phenomenon. In 2009, when Kate Moss declared “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” it caused outrage amongst a society who were in the grips of an anorexia epidemic. The increased prominence of supermodels in the media in the 1990s – with British Vogue’s 1990 cover of Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Tatjana Patitz earning them the title of the ‘original supermodels’ – left a significant hangover once the glamour of the industry started to dull. In 2006, there was just four months between the deaths of models Lusiel Ramos, who passed away due to heart failure after not eating for several days, aged 22, and Ana Carolina Reston, who died from complications arising from anorexia and bulimia nervosa, aged 21. The shock of their deaths cast an illuminating eye on the fashion industry at the time, with campaigns against the ‘size-zero trend’ starting to rise up around the world. In the same year that Kate Moss had praised being skinny over eating, it was reported that hospital admissions for teenagers with anorexia had risen by 80% since 1999.
So, 11 years on from this nightmare, we would hope that perhaps there has been some progress in terms of how we understand body image. Regrettably, it would be hard to say much has changed if you took this incident in isolation.
In recent years, Adele has very noticeably retreated away from the public eye, with her social media channels being a lot less active than you might expect of a 15 time Grammy award winner. A side effect of this is that we have not been included as part of her weight loss journey – we have no idea what diet she is on, no idea of her fitness regime, how she takes care of her self mentally and physically, no idea at all that she has even approached any of these things in a healthy way. To be precise, we have no reason to believe that this weight loss is healthy. And, so, the grand assumption being made is that because Adele is now slimmer than she used to be, then she must be healthy.
Of course, being skinny can be healthy. Just as being curvy can be healthy, being much more shapely can be healthy – the difference is you will struggle to find the number of comments about how healthy someone looks on an image of a curvier person than you would of a thinner person. What the public are lacking to understand is that being healthy is not about how your body looks, it’s about how you treat it. Instead of hailing healthy eating, regular exercise and loving your body for how it’s built, the internet is hailing a specific body type. They are applauding the ability to wear clothes from the petite section of the shop, how you can visually see a loss in mass and how pronounced her jawline is. This post is not, as so many seem to think, a testament to being healthy – it is a testament to being thin and the issue is that the public see those two things as one and the same. We are treating skinny as king, skinny as the ultimate goal and skinny as the only indication of good health.
We are falling into the danger zone of what was so appalling about the ‘size-zero’ trend in the first place – weight loss is being promoted heavily without any advice of how, or even if, it can be achieved healthily attached to the images that we worship.
It’s interesting to note that this reaction is not had when we notice a celebrity gain weight. Taylor Swift’s own discussion around body image in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana reflects this difference. In the documentary, she speaks candidly about having struggled with an eating disorder. At one point she talks about the unhealthy lengths she went to to maintain her figure, stating, “I would have defended it to anyone…’ of course I eat, it’s perfectly normal, I just exercise a lot’. And I did exercise a lot but I wasn’t eating.”. She goes on to talk about her recovery and states she is a “size 6 instead of a size 00” and at the time she was struggling she “[didn’t understand] that [being a size 00] wasn’t how my body was supposed to be”.
Taylor Swift’s body has undergone a very noticeable transformation over the years, with her gaining weight and becoming healthier. And, yet, I struggled to find the amount of online praise for her that I found for Adele. It speaks volumes. It says that we, still, struggle to see gaining weight as evidence of a healthy lifestyle and we can’t stand to praise someone who looks bigger than they have done previously, even when they openly admit they are healthier for it. We have a societally determined idea of how a body should look and, for a shocking number of people, the idea of dismantling that notion is absurd.
It would be unfair of me to claim that nothing at all has changed in the last 10 years. In 2009, the Guardian reported that only 15% of people with eating disorders, when surveyed, felt that their GP understood their condition and knew how to go about treating it. A decade later, in 2019, Dr Jacqueline Cornish (the National Clinical Director Children, Young People and Transition to Adulthood in NHS England) responded to claims that the NHS 10 year plan disregarded children. She stated that the plan would deliver comprehensive care to children and young people, with a ‘turn of the tide’ for mental health treatment, claiming that ‘the majority of children [will] get eating disorder treatment when they need it’. The charity Beat also reported, in 2019, that the government planned to increase funding for treatment of eating disorders, with £41million to be allocated in 2019/20, rising to £53million by 2021/22. The tide is, somewhat, changing. Conversations around mental health are far more prevalent, complex and respected than they were when nothing tasted as good as skinny felt and, so, it would be unfair to give no credit to those who have pursued a change in attitude.
We cannot, however, ignore the faults that still exist in our system. In 2019, it was reported that some adults in the UK can wait up to 41-months to receive treatment for an eating disorder, and waited on average around 30% longer than under 18s. The quality of care has also been dubbed a ‘postcode lottery’, with many being discharged based purely on reaching a certain weight, with no indication that their mental health had also recovered. If the downfall of the NHS is not shocking enough, disturbing statistics regarding the real, drastic effect that social media can have on body image have also found their way to the surface. In a survey, 40% of teens say that images on social media have caused them to worry about their body image, with 20% of adults saying the same. 37% of teens are said to have felt ‘upset’ about their body, while 31% are said to have felt ‘ashamed’.
What we have seen on social media over the past few months is not the fault of Adele herself. She has become an unfortunate centre of this debate, after so clearly attempting to keep herself away from public attention – but this debate has been necessary to cast light on the public’s attitude towards body image. 11 years after Kate Moss faced backlash for her statement and we still glorify skinny. For the system to change, we need to change our own perception of what a ‘healthy’ body is. Noticing that there are nearly 300 million more results for ‘weight loss’ on Google (1.7 billion, as correct May 2020) than there are for ‘healthy weight loss’ (1.4 billion, as correct May 2020) is the easiest way to understand where we’re going wrong. If we can collectively decide that we will not attribute being skinny to being healthy and stop making assumptions of physical health based on purely what we see in an image, then we’re on the right track.