Taylor Swift released a new album – and sparked a conversation on body image in the process.
The singer-songwriter’s latest opus, “Midnights,” is a 13-track deep dive through familiar themes for Swift’s music, such as love, loss and internal emotional struggle. (And for the record, it’s freakin’ great.) The first single from the album, “Anti-Hero,” came with its own video – which came with a problem.
Parts of the video depict two versions of herself interacting, with one Taylor functioning as the personification of a negative internal monologue – a storytelling device used to portray some of her “nightmare scenarios and intrusive thoughts,” as Swift described it in a tweet. In one such moment, the “other” Taylor steps on a scale. In the original version of the video, rather than a number, it registers one word: “fat.”
It’s a small moment, admittedly, but one that stuck out to many. Beyond passionate social media discourse on the subject, that bit became a point of reflection for pieces in major publications, from The Cut to The Huffington Post. Another contingent of her fans, in response to the frustration, came to Swift’s defense by citing her struggles with eating disorders as an explanation. But at times, some supporters would engage in the very sort of anti-fatness others were speaking out against, further widening the rift in perspectives.
In the end, we’re all getting hurt by the same damn thing.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I began taking diet pills.
I’ve never been thin – but at that point of my life, I desperately wanted to be. Those pills made me feel, to borrow from the parlance of younger generations, completely unhinged. My heart pounded, and my mind and blood raced constantly throughout my days. I felt on edge, and frequently grew moody. I often struggled to calm my thoughts enough to fall asleep at night.
And when asked by my doctor and parents whether I was experiencing side effects, I said there were none to report. Because those pills also caused me to lose an extreme amount of weight in mere months. And when I experienced the reactions to my transformation – from friends, from family, from teachers – I couldn’t have cared less about how awful I actually felt.
I was hooked on the high of benefiting from the value our society places upon thinness. Everyone treated me differently – better – and I never wanted it to stop. (And no, it wasn’t my adolescent imagination. Research shows that fat individuals grapple with discrimination everywhere, from doctor appointments to dates.)
This is the lens from which I, and others, viewed the “Anti-Hero” video. I’ll admit that it’s hurtful for someone to describe the idea of living in my body as a “nightmare scenario.” Especially from someone as savvy and detailed as Swift, who weaves layers of meaning into every song, every video, every social media post – you can’t simply write this off as an oversight.
But there’s more than any one individual’s feelings to consider here. “I’m the problem — it’s me,” Swift sings in the song’s refrain. But the thing is, I don’t agree. No, her mistake is one symptom of broader sicknesses: anti-fatness and fatphobia.
Eating disorders are a plague. Millions of Americans grapple with them, and over 10,000 die as a direct result of them each year.
And they’re steeped in anti-fatness. It’s not just a matter of a misalignment existing between what Swift, or anyone, sees in the mirror, and what they actually look like. It’s about the flat-out fear of being seen as fat – fear of being a plus-size person in the first place. And it’s about how that sentiment causes us to talk to and treat one another, and ourselves.
In the 22 years that have passed since that formative summer, I’ve gone on a lengthy journey with my body. I now feel more comfortable in it than I ever have. But I’m still not “there” yet, because pressures to conform are so fully integrated into every video, every ad, every interaction – into our very psyches – that it can sometimes feel impossible to parse out what we actually see when we see ourselves, and how to feel about it.
Our relationships with our bodies are already complicated. Our perceptions of ourselves are then unavoidably tinged by what we’re told is “beautiful” and “good.” Swift is no exception – proof that not even immense privilege can’t insulate you from it.
All of that said, she appears to have heard her aggrieved fans. While Swift hasn’t released a statement on the matter as of publication of this piece, the versions of the video that appear on YouTube and Apple Music have been edited to omit the shot of the scale entirely. It’s the latest instance of celebrities taking fans’ critiques of insensitive lyrics or imagery to heart and changing their products in kind, with both Lizzo and Beyonce removing ableist language from new songs earlier this year.
It’s not an act of aggression to bring up faux pas like this – it’s a reflection of a belief in others’ abilities to do better. As we’ve now seen several times over, that belief can be rewarded.
And maybe because of Swift’s choice to act, one fewer girl will feel the need to suffer in silence at the idea of being fat, as I once did, in order to contort her body into an uncomfortably small idea of beauty. Maybe she won’t have to wait until she’s approaching 40 to love her softness.
Maybe we needn’t sing of ourselves as problems, when we can so easily be part of a solution. ◼️