Why Is Celebrity Weight Loss So Complicated?

As recent conversations about Adele and Lizzo's detox diet show, we need to come up with more nuanced ways to talk about public weight loss.

On Dec. 13, the singer Lizzo posted on her Instagram story that she had done a 10-day, smoothie-based detox. She uploaded videos of her drinking “beauty water” and downing vegan protein bars in a diet overseen by weight-loss expert J.J. Smith. She also posted day-by-day images of her body, including a final before-and-after showing a slightly slimmer profile.

Lizzo didn’t say explicitly that she was trying to lose weight. And she has posted about her vegan lifestyle and workouts before, so the story wasn’t totally off-brand for her. But she’s been upheld as an icon of body positivity, a woman with a larger body who moved through the world with confidence and bravado in defiance of what our culture says larger bodies are supposed to do. She didn’t hide, she didn’t try to cover her body in layers and “flattering” silhouettes, and her upbeat music promotes self-love. Whether she asked for it or not, she was the face of a movement loosely defined by loving your body no matter its size.

And so she had committed what some see as a cardinal offense for plus-size influencers and celebrities — giving in to and promoting diet culture.

What came next was predictable, because it’s happened before. A debate unfolded about Lizzo and her body, and her actions were dissected from all sides. Some body-positivity adherents were upset and disappointed by Lizzo, feeling betrayed that she had seemingly turned her back on body positivity. Then the anti-fat crowd came bustling in, praising Lizzo for trying to gethealthy” and saying the people who were upset were, if anything, jealous.

Both extremes projected narratives onto Lizzo’s body that she never actually took part in. Lizzo eventually commented in an Instagram post, saying, “I detoxed my body and I’m still fat. I love my body and I’m still fat. I’m beautiful and I’m still fat.”

“These things are not mutually exclusive,” she added. “To the people who look to me, please do not starve yourselves. I did not starve myself. I fed myself greens and water and fruit and protein and sunlight. You don’t have to do that to be beautiful or healthy. That was my way. You can do life your way.”

But Lizzo is far from the first plus-size woman in the public eye to take part in diet culture and spark passionate discourse as a result. In 2016, Precious actor Gabourey Sidibe underwent weight-loss surgery. In 2018, Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay wrote an essay on her complex feelings after getting a sleeve gastrectomy: “I worried that people would think I betrayed fat positivity, something I do very much believe in even if I can’t always believe in it for myself. I worried that everyone who responded so generously to my memoir, Hunger, would feel betrayed,” Gay wrote.

Celebrities — like Rebel Wilson, Melissa McCarthy, Missy Elliott, America Ferrera, Ariel Winter, Sherri Shepherd, Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson, and Kelly Osbourne — have stepped out in smaller bodies over the years, fueling praise in tabloids and women’s health magazines and critical reception from plus-size communities. Most recently, Adele’s weight loss, as revealed on Instagram, sparked a major debate. The ways in which these women spoke publicly of their weight loss have varied, but the response has always come with short bursts of media obsession. Male celebrities, like Chris Pratt and Drew Carey, have transformed their bodies too, but they never seem to provoke such an extreme response.

Lizzo is far from the first plus-size woman in the public eye to take part in diet culture and spark passionate discourse as a result.

And it’s not just certified celebs. In the influencer world, plus-size names have also come under scrutiny for weight loss. Most recently, it was influencer Anna O’Brien, who goes by @glitterandlazers and tags herself as the “confidence queen.” She opened up about her weight loss to her 257,000 YouTube subscribers, 619,000 follows on Instagram, and 7.4 million followers on TikTok in July 2020 after being diagnosed with lipedema, a progressive disorder that creates deposits of fat and fluid in certain areas of the body, particularly thighs and buttocks. It can lead to pain, infection, and loss of mobility if not controlled, all of which O’Brien explained in her video.

As with Lizzo, there were fans who were upset, picking apart O’Brien’s words for the potential effect it would have on those who look up to her. Meanwhile, YouTubers who rail against “fat acceptance” saw her as a win for their side. Again, this is all nothing new. (O’Brien did not respond to an interview request.)

It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Being fat in the public eye means enduring a constant onslaught of messages that your body is all wrong. But while losing weight can bring praise, it also risks alienating the very communities who saw you as a role model of body positivity. For social media influencers, whose very jobs are about interacting with their communities, the stakes can be even higher. There’s also research suggesting that messages about weight loss on social media can provoke disordered eating, including in people who often go undiagnosed. So what does it mean to change your weight when everyone is looking?

Being at the center of such a debate is a painful but familiar experience for plus-size fashion designer Ashley Nell Tipton.

Tipton won Season 14 of Project Runway in 2015 and was the first to do so with a collection entirely designed for plus-size women. She told me that winning was such a high for her career, opening up new opportunities like a collection with JCPenney, but inside she was unhappy.

“My body was not allowing me to continue working at my fullest,” she said. At that time, she was at her highest weight. “My body was starting to take a toll where it wasn’t allowing me to mentally be healthy, be creative. I just felt like I was killing myself mentally and physically.” She ended up in the hospital with an infection in her skin folds and learned from her doctor that her metabolism wasn’t working as it should be.

She knew it would be a controversial choice, but in 2017 she elected to undergo gastric bypass surgery. For months, she kept her surgery behind closed doors as she adjusted to a new routine. “I saw how people tore Gabourey Sidibe to the ground for her weight-loss surgery, I saw how celebrities were being talked about if they’re getting too skinny, if they’ve had surgery. I was afraid of people’s opinions because they didn’t know my health,” said Tipton. “I just had to shut down all those opinions and worry about myself.”

In May 2017, she went public with a story in People magazine. “When I publicly announced it there was a lot of public backlash for me,” she told me. “The exact thing that I thought would happen happened.”

Along with reactions on social media, posts were written by plus-size community mainstays like YrFatFriend, Virgie Tovar, and Fat Girl Flow. Those pieces are all different and thoughtful in their own ways. YrFatFriend, for example, wrote of a friend who got weight-loss surgery and how, when public figures do it too, it can cut deep for fat folks. Tovar bluntly wrote, “I think we need to be fucking pissed right now.” What’s clear is that the impact of public weight loss extends beyond the person themself.

When Stephanie Yeboah, a plus-size influencer and the author of Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl's Guide to Living Life Unapologetically, first saw Lizzo’s posts about her detox, she thought it was a joke. “Like, is she for real? So then I watched it again,” Yeboah told me.
“And then I instantly felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment.”

Yeboah, a 31-year-old living in London, watched the discourse over Lizzo unfold on social media, offering her own thoughts in some tweets. She called for nuance and to do away with the simple narrative that fat women are mad because a fellow fat person decided to make their body smaller.

“Lizzo doesn’t owe us anything and she’s absolutely free to do whatever she wants,” Yeboah tweeted.

“I think the disappointment lies in a lot of us (especially fat, black women) seeing ourselves in a woman who was so proud and confident in her body,” she said, in another tweet. “It made us want to do the same to ours.”

Yeboah said part of her disappointment was due to being triggered as someone who has dealt with restrictive, disordered eating, as many plus-size women have. Eating disorders often go undiagnosed in patients considered to be overweight, even though research shows those with atypical anorexia (who don’t fulfill the requirement of being underweight) still face very serious health consequences. And, as Yeboah knows, being plus-size goes hand in hand with a lifetime of pressure to lose weight by any means possible.

“Even me being an influencer, and I don't even have like a 10th of the following [Lizzo] has, but the stuff that I do get on an everyday basis has been traumatic as well,” she said. She added that she also receives messages from followers concerned that she’s lost weight, checking in to make sure she’s OK. “You shouldn't comment on people's weight loss or weight gain, because you never know what the reason might be,” she said. “I now feel like I have to be very protective over the things that I choose to show online.”

Lizzo has previously posted about feeling ill at ease in her body and about the pressure she’s under to be a role model, and Yeboah is familiar with being put in that impossible position.

“I can kind of see why she would feel the need to be so defensive. Because if you are somebody that exists as the very antithesis of what the entertainment industry sees is beautiful, you are going to be subjected to a lot of harassment and articles and trolling and all of these kinds of things,” she said.

“You shouldn't comment on people's weight loss or weight gain, because you never know what the reason might be.”

Because there are so few fat women who reach the level of celebrity that Lizzo has, Yeboah said that means there’s also immense pressure on those women to be body-positive role models, whatever that means, whether they want to be or not. “People are looking to her as if, like, you have come to save us and you are the representation that we need,” she said. She even dedicated a chapter in her book to how much she loves Lizzo. “She has this huge pressure to constantly be like our Jesus in a sense. And that is absolutely unfair.”

For Tipton, the fashion designer, there were those who were immediately upset about her own weight loss.

“There’s people they think I’m pleasing, and there’s people that find it upsetting or triggering. Imagine the friend who says I can’t hang out with you anymore because of your lifestyle choices,” she said. Tipton said she never wanted to be skinny, just to feel comfortable in her body, but the things she was hearing from people made her question her decision. Her body had become fodder for discussion, instead of something under her own control.

“It’s so hard being an idol or an inspiration and then for me, physically, my body and my face is always out there on social media. For people to attack me, I wanted to hide under a rock.”

Although “body positive” has been a convenient catchall term, it’s been increasingly co-opted by corporations and people without marginalized bodies, said Tiffany-Patrice Hunter, a plus-size influencer and the creator of FatGirlRoyalty, a space she started for Black, LGBTQ, and fat femmes like herself that has morphed into a clothing line. She said she identifies more with fat liberation and fat acceptance, movements that center people whose bodies face discrimination, such as fat, racialized people. She said that the scrutiny over Lizzo and her Blackness are not unrelated.

“It's like, We have to be everything, especially with being a Black woman. I feel like (Lizzo) never gets that point in time to just be a human and fall on her ass. It's like, Damned if she does, damned if she doesn't,” Hunter told me.

“I don't think that we should just be like coming down on her with a hammer because we all fall victim to this. If you are a fat person, you have fallen victim to diet culture.”

Still, she understands why people get upset. If the world has always told you that your number one priority is to shrink yourself, and a person like Lizzo tells you it’s OK to like yourself as you are, it’s jarring to see any shift away from that messaging.

Part of the difficulty in these situations, Hunter said, is how celebrities and influencers talk about their weight loss, dieting, or exercise when they know a huge audience is going to see it. She sees no problem with someone choosing to change their body, but it may not just be themselves that are affected by those choices.

“I really, really, really hate the rhetoric of like, Well, I was big and fat and dusty, and nasty and disgusting. And now, I'm not because I lost weight,” she said. Lizzo hasn’t said anything of this nature, but it’s certainly the message seen in coverage of celebrity weight loss, such as Adele’s transformation. Articles talked about her “incredible feat.” She was called “stunning” and “unrecognizable.” It’s not hard to read between those lines. So when a celebrity or influencer loses weight and engages in diet culture rhetoric, people take notice.

It’s also not harmless, said Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager for the National Eating Disorders Association.

“It can actually be one of the most prominent external factors in triggering someone with an eating disorder,” she said. “Dieting and weight-loss messages can cause a lot of harm.”

According to the association, numerous studies have linked media exposure to disordered eating habits and poor body image. One study found a link between Instagram use and orthorexia nervosa, a disorder characterized by an obsession with “healthy” or “clean” eating.

Lizzo’s detox in particular hit a nerve because detoxes and cleanses are not backed up by science and are essentially just another form of restriction. “I don’t believe we should be shaming celebrities for wanting to lose weight. They grow up in the same culture as we do,” said Kronengold.

But, she added, “If a celebrity wants to lose weight, that’s up to them. But having a public platform, you’re in a position where what you do and what you say, you know that people follow and there may be ramifications.”

Da'Shaun Harrison is the managing editor of Wear Your Voice and the author of the upcoming book Belly of the Beast, which will be about the intersections of anti-fatness and anti-Blackness. Their tweets about Lizzo’s posts went viral. “Lizzo has never positioned herself as a fat liberationist. She has always been a Black woman who was also fat and therefore chose to love herself out loud, not someone who was committed to fat liberation by name. So the response to this is weird. Representation politics fail us,” they tweeted.

When I spoke to Harrison they told me they believe that weight loss is always inherently rooted in anti-fatness, but that doesn’t mean we need to tear down anyone who chooses to engage in weight loss. What we can do instead, they said, is change is how we talk about weight loss. Harrison added that people with large followings who discuss losing weight can aim to do less harm. They have no personal interest in weight loss, but said if they did they would still address the harms of diet culture, anti-fatness, and the racism within it, be honest about the guise of “health,” and make sure their entire feed wasn’t just “fat trauma.”

There’s no perfect solution, and no way to ensure everyone goes unscathed, but that’s just evidence of how nuanced and complex weight is. “The problem is anti-fatness, and the answer is that we still have more work to do to eradicate it. And so let's focus on that,” they said.

As for Tipton, the Lizzo incident resurfaced old feelings. She remembers feeling like her career was over because of her surgery and says she even lost contacts in the wake of her surgery. These days, she’s feeling better.

“It’s taken me until this year to realize that this is not over, it’s up to me,” she said. “I just want people to realize that nothing is wrong with them and just because there’s something about ourselves that we don’t like, it doesn’t make you’re less or better than anyone else.” ●

This story is part of our Body Week series. To read more, click here.

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