So, before I start here, I need to disclose that I don’t really know much about Lily Allen, other than what I read in the fatosphere last year when she posted a MySpace blog entry during a moment when she was feeling a lot of pain about her weight and her body. At the time, of course I thought it was very sad both that she personally should feel that way and that the pressures on young female celebrities to reach size 0 are so strong that you pretty much can’t avoid giving in to them eventually (see America Ferrara, Sara Rue, and of course the list goes on) but she quickly posted a follow-up indicating that the worst of the despair had passed and she was feeling better about her body. So I pretty much forgot about it from there.

So I was unpleasantly surprised when I opened the January 2008 issue of Harper’s Bazaar while I waited for my car at the dealership yesterday. I mean, unpleasantly in general; after reading HB for the first time, I was sure glad that I hadn’t before. I hadn’t read a women’s magazine in a while, so I had forgotten exactly how inane (I mean, I’m all for inane, but I prefer my inanity in a form that doesn’t attempt to make me hate myself) and body-negativity-saturated the copy would be.

But as I paged through it I also came across an article entitled “The Skinny on Lily,” which described Allen’s “transformation” from a UK size 12 to a UK 8 (US 4). Before I start in, I should point out that since reading the article I’ve discovered that Allen apparently became pregnant, suffered a miscarriage, and went through a breakup with her boyfriend, all in the last few months. So even if I had a problem with Allen’s own viewpoints, perhaps now would not be the time to pile on.

In addition, I do not necessarily expect a 22-year-old singer to have her life ironed out to an extent that she is capable of acting as the ideal body-acceptance role model, especially while trying to make it in the music world. A recent episode of the Style program How Do I Look (in which an anorexic but normal-weight musician is ultimately told she can still lose weight as long as she does it “the healthy way,” advice which is completely inappropriate for an anorexic person of any weight and only goes to show that, in the music business, even a potentially deadly eating disorder is considered preferable to being of normal BMI) illustrated exactly how difficult this must be in tragic, infuriating detail.

And really, Allen seems, in the article, relatively self-aware and body-accepting, which is a small miracle given the circumstances.

My main quarrel here is with the article itself and the way that, even as a celebrity piece in a fashion magazine, it seems to encapsulate some of the problems with the current state of weight loss/obesity “journalism.” You might hope that the author’s approach would be something less than completely unquestioning, or if you were especially optimistic you might even hope for a touch of criticism for the forces pushing yet another talented young person to succumb to arbitrary Hollywood standards that are totally unrelated to her ability as an artist. As you might imagine, however, this did not happen in Harper’s Bazaar. So the article contained numerous details ranging from mildly irritating me to making me want to throw the magazine across the room, except we were stacked in the waiting room like sardines and I might have injured someone with the 10 pounds of ads contained in the issue.

1. The perennial fat-person descriptor “jolly” (or actually “jollier”) is contained in the third paragraph of the article, immediately following a characterization of Allen’s former body-positive attitude that, to my eye, portrays the idea of loving yourself as you are as almost amusingly quaint and naive.

2. Later in the article, Allen admits that she still smokes. (No judgment for that here, I frequently thank god that I never took up smoking because I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to quit.) But she goes on to say that her weight loss is “not about losing weight, just being fit,” which would not seem to be compatible with smoking, but…wait for it… oh, there it is, as the article continues: “while conceding a not-so-secret pleasure in being able to fit into sample-size frocks at photo shoots.” There we go. Allen herself comments “Now that I do fit into those things, it makes me feel better, but actually it shouldn’t, really.” A good point. Kind of sad, right? But the author doesn’t have a whole lot to say about this except to perkily cheerlead Allen’s new shape at various points in the article as “slinky,” “sculpted,” and “Audrey-esque,” and sums up Allen herself as “The 24-hour party person who decided to get fit and healthy.” Yeah, because clearly that’s totally what this is all about.

3. The author takes pains to point out how much Allen eats (noting that she orders a beef sandwich during the interview, and insisting that she has “little interest in eliminating food groups,” instead favoring her mom’s homemade mac and cheese), contributing to the illusion that everyone in Hollywood is either totally healthy or “just lucky” and able to scarf cheeseburgers while staying thin. This attempt to deflect suspicion that celebrities might be starving themselves seems to surface pretty frequently. I don’t doubt that there are some celebrities who eat a sparse diet that happens to be appropriate for their personal needs, a moderate and nourishing diet, or even a hearty diet, and have no trouble maintaining a size-0, 2, or 4 figure via their natural metabolism. But for the majority, I suspect the reality is much more grueling, and pretending otherwise only serves to minimize the superhuman effort required for most people to achieve Hollywood size standards, which is harmful for everyone.

4. Again, I don’t really blame Allen here, but I do sort of blame the author for describing Allen’s following take on body image as “more sophisticated than you might expect”: “As much as we worry about the size 0 problem, we have to worry about the obesity problem. People get so depressed at not achieving what they are sold as the idea of perfection, they just eat themselves into oblivion. It’s really sad.” I think Allen deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that unrealistic ideals and diet culture are probably exacerbating, not reducing, any increase in average weight that may be occurring in US and UK society. There is also something about this comment that is much more empathetic with and humanizing of fat people than what you typically see in the media. However, Allen’s belief about the origins of the so-called obesity epidemic is by no means established fact; there is evidence that fat people don’t on average eat more than thin people, that fat people do not on a large scale suffer from psychological disorders that contribute to overeating (see Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata for more information about these points), and that it may be dieting that actually makes people fatter in the end. In any case, misguided or not, is it really “sophisticated” to introduce the idea that there may be larger social and psychological forces that contribute to obesity beyond fat people just being gluttonous and lazy? Or to show even the smallest modicum of sympathy for fat people as human beings? Give Lily a little credit here. I’m sure she has thoughts about body image that are even more “sophisticated” than these, cray-zee though even this sound bite may appear to someone immersed both in the fashion industry and in typical blame-the-fatty “obesity epidemic” media coverage.

5. The assertion that Allen “has too much going on these days to succumb to a major meltdown” seems pretty questionable. Aren’t most young celebrities most vulnerable to a “major meltdown” exactly when their careers really take off and they’re trying to handle all kinds of new career and social pressures at once?

6. This one I don’t know anything about, but it seems mighty interesting to me that her older (now ex-) boyfriend hit the scene just as the new, Hollywood-thin Lily replaced the “old” average-sized Lily.

On the whole, the unquestioning rah-rah coverage of any celebrity who loses any amount of weight by any means (Kirstie Alley, Ricki Lake, Carnie Wilson, etc.) is, and I know this isn’t news to anyone, getting really irritating. It just mirrors society’s larger attitude that weight loss is always the “healthiest” option for a fat or average-sized person, or really even for pretty much any thin person except at the thinnest extremes. (And of course Lily Allen was not particularly fat to start with, but she was fat in her environment and reality, which I suppose is another post). This type of coverage carries the allure not only of the subject looking “better” (which is of course what it’s actually all about) but also the false, morally loaded weight of “health,” making its claims even more difficult to question in the midst of the obesity panic. So the few journalists who currently actually are daring to question the relentless weight-loss cheerleading in the media could sure use some additional company.

Advertisements