The perils of lauding Adele's weight loss: It's not harmless

The perils of lauding weight loss

Adele

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and yet one of the top ‘stories’ across major news sites this week was Adele’s “stunning weight loss”. 

The picture that launched a thousand articles was posted on her Instagram account accompanied by a comment expressing gratitude towards essential workers. She made zero reference to her size or weight change in the caption and yet?

Here’s a taste of how it was reported: 

“Adele breaks the internet with unbelievable weight loss pic”

“How Adele lost 45kg and became ‘unrecognisable’”

“How to use Adele’s birthday picture as inspiration instead of frustration”

It’s worrying but entirely unsurprising that this has captured public attention in spite of everything else that’s going on. Our culture’s obsession with weight is all-consuming. 

The overwhelming response to Adele’s photo has been praise and celebration for her smaller body. Of course it has. In western cultures we’ve been conditioned from birth to see thinness as the holy grail for health, beauty and happiness, and there’s nothing we love more than a fat person’s redemptive journey into a thin body.

When we praise weight loss, we’re communicating some powerful underlying messages. That thin bodies are better. Healthier. More beautiful. That their bigger body wasn’t as acceptable. Their weight loss is a huge ‘achievement’. Everyone wants to be smaller. And to stay smaller. To avoid fluctuating back into their previous size.   

These assumptions are not only inconsistent with the latest research around weight and health but deeply disturbing, especially when you consider the far-reaching impacts of weight bias.  

A client of mine was battling a debilitating illness a few years ago. Before she was diagnosed, as the illness ravaged unchecked in her body, it caused significant weight loss. Enough for people to constantly and invariably comment about how ‘amazing’ and ‘healthy’ she looked. She wasn’t.

Her story takes on a more sinister lens when you consider the experience of Hanne Blank, who presented to her doctor with severe abdominal pain, and was congratulated for the associated weight loss she’d experienced and told to ride it out. She was later admitted for emergency stomach surgery. 

Or Rebecca Hiles, who came down with bronchitis and walking pneumonia at aged 17 and for the next five years was told if she ‘lost weight, she wouldn’t have as many coughing fits’. She was eventually diagnosed with a tumor in her bronchial tube and had her left lung removed.

These aren’t isolated examples. A 2003 survey into weight bias in primary care physicians found that more than half viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant”. If we’re honest with ourselves, those are the attributes we, as a society, associate with obesity too.

In my personal experience, my body has never received more attention than when I was at the height of mental illness, consumed by disordered eating. I was eating so few calories I couldn’t make it through a flat 5km walk without resting, and 99% of my thoughts were about how I still wasn’t small enough.

Yet I was repeatedly told how ‘gorgeous’ and ‘healthy’ I looked. And as much as I craved that praise, those comments simultaneously drove panic and fear into my heart as deep down I knew how unsustainable my behaviour was. Indeed, the National Eating Disorder Association has found that the best known factor for developing an eating disorder is living in a culture obsessed with thinness.  

Weight bias has huge, unimaginable impacts, and we’re complicit in it when we laud weight loss or thinness. No matter our good intentions, when we comment on someone else’s body, we’re inadvertently contributing to: 

*Teaching our kids, particularly daughters, that only one type of body is beautiful and acceptable   

*Signalling loud and clear to our bigger friends and family members that their body size is undesirable

*Making incorrect assumptions about health based on a person’s size  

* Perpetuating the myth that weight and health are inextricably linked

*Praising a weight change that is unsustainable for a vast majority of people 

*Fostering a culture where kids as young as six years old hate their bodies and want to lose weight 

*Keeping women imprisoned in the cage of impossible beauty standards, spending precious energy and resources on shrinking their bodies 

Adele’s post has garnered worldwide attention and attracted over five times more comments than any of her other 362 posts. That one of the greatest and most popular artists of our time can be reduced to a number on a scale is horrifying.

What does that tell our daughters and other women about what we value? About where see a woman’s true worth? 

It starts with us. Lauding weight-loss is perilous. Enough is enough.

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