Adele is currently the number one trend in the UK on Twitter. What had she done to warrant this attention amid a pandemic? A new single, perhaps, or a livestream performance? No, she had posted a photo of herself on Instagram, wearing a black dress and heels outside a house (presumably hers), in front of a wooden circle decorated with garlands of roses. She looks happy.
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In the caption, there’s a small note thanking fans and friends for sending best wishes on her birthday, and also a message to key workers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Yet it’s the way Adele looks that has caused such an almighty kerfuffle. It’s also what’s caused me to confront a long-running struggle with the way I think about other women’s bodies, and my own.
Adele didn’t always look like this. When she first emerged in the mid-Noughties, she was one of a number of “gobby” singers, alongside Lily Allen and Kate Nash, to scandalise the tabloids with her “laddish” behaviour. She swore, she drank, she didn’t give a f***, basically. She looked different, too – put bluntly, she was fat. The media tiptoed around this by calling her “voluptuous”, “full-figured”, “curvy”. She didn’t seem to care – a 2009 interview in Vogue had her joking about having “three bums”, and commenting: “Fans are encouraged that I’m not a size 0 – that you don’t have to look a certain way to do well.”
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She proved that and then some. Her three albums have sold a combined 60 million copies worldwide, and she is of the most successful artists of her generation, with a cluster of Grammys and an Oscar to her name. She broke the record for the fastest-selling album in the US before she turned 30. In interviews, she was confident and clear in what she had to say. “I would only lose weight if it affected my health or sex life, which it doesn’t,” she said in 2011’s Adele: The Biography. She was warm-hearted and generous with her fellow artists – think back to the Grammys in 2017, when she insisted it was Beyonce who deserved the Album of the Year award. Yet somehow all of this has been forgotten by the media, because over the past year, her body has changed.
“Adele shows off incredible body transformation,” one squealed. “Adele looks UNRECOGNISABLE after massive weight loss,” another went. Her famous friends rushed to respond; the tone was congratulatory, but not because it was her birthday. “Why you won,” Lil Nas X wrote, as though losing weight is an achievement worthy of accolade. Even The Hollywood Reporter, an industry title that usually shies away from such sensationalist reporting, couldn’t resist: “Adele Returns to Social Media With Message for Front Line Workers, Shows Off Body Transformation.” You can almost hear the relief as these words are typed, essentially: “Great, now she looks the way a female pop star is supposed to look.”
These headlines come less than a month after Billie Eilish made a statement about the way her body is talked about by fans and the press. On the opening night of her world tour, she played a video where she commented: “While I feel your stares, your disapproval or your sighs of relief, if I lived by them, I’d never be able to move. Would you like me to be smaller? Weaker? Softer? Taller? Would you like me to be quiet? Do my shoulders provoke you? Does my chest? Am I my stomach? My hips?”
Writing in The Guardian, Laura Snapes observed that, while the media loves to pat itself on the back for “accepting” the likes of Adele, Eilish and Lizzo, turning an artist into some kind of spokesperson for body image is “its own kind of prison, one that preserves physicality as the ultimate measure of a female star’s worth – and the standard by which they can be undermined”. Though male singer-songwriters such as Lewis Capaldi and Ed Sheeran have been referred to as “chubby”, they receive nowhere near the same level of scrutiny, and often their appearance is made to sound endearing. Britney Spears addressed the impossible standards she was held to in her single “Piece of Me” – “I’m Mrs ‘She’s too big, now she’s too thin’.” For women in the entertainment industry, body image still feels like an unwinnable war.
While I’m not exactly a devoted fan of Adele’s music, I have always idolised her attitude to fame. My instinctive feelings about her weight loss have been troubling because, for me, it’s a stark reminder of the difficult relationship I’ve had – and still have – with my own figure. It’s only recently that I came to terms with the fact that I’ve had an eating disorder since I was 12 years old. Women like Adele inspired me because she was called, and called herself, “beautiful”. She wasn’t thin, but she was still glamorous, talented and fun. She was unafraid to express her opinions. So now, I have to check myself from feeling “betrayed” somehow by this new image. Her body is not mine, and what she does with it does not reflect the way I do, or should, treat my own.
On Twitter, fans seem hugely conflicted about both the pictures themselves and the way in which they are reported on. Many have correctly pointed out that Adele has always been beautiful and talented, regardless of what dress size she happened to be. Others have made jokes that compare Adele’s new photo with images taken when she was bigger, as though her younger self would be looking at her now with jealousy and self-loathing. More have expressed concern and anxiety at the media reaction, fearing the speculation over how Adele lost weight could be triggering for people suffering from eating disorders.
The Independent recently ran an interview with Lionel Shriver. I agree with very little the author has to say about issues on politics and society, but one quote struck me, as she discussed her exercise habits and how she felt she was “part of the problem” in making it the centre of her life. “I’m dubious that it is a very good, long-lasting answer to purpose in life,” she said. “The last thing I want to be remembered for is how many star jumps I did.”
The response to Adele shows how, for all the praise directed at Lizzo and others for “embracing their curves”, the entertainment industry would still rather its artists fit a certain mould. Society as a whole continues to place more value in a woman’s appearance than it does for their achievements in their chosen field. But as long as Adele is happy and healthy, that’s all that matters. Her weight, whatever it is, will not be her legacy. No one talks about Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald or Etta James – heroes of Adele’s and of mine – for their dress size. I hope Adele, and the media, remember that.
This content was originally published here.