Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
On Wednesday, Adele celebrated her 32nd birthday with a return to Instagram. The post paid tribute to front-line health care workers and also, undeniably, called attention to the singer’s pretty dramatic weight loss – hard to ignore as she stood in the center of a large wreath wearing a tight black minidress and towering heels.
Long celebrated – but also criticized – for her unstereotypical body (by the entertainment industry’s standard), Adele, it would appear, has gotten skinny. But, as usual when it comes to changes in a woman’s appearance, no one knows quite what to say.
At press time, over seven million of her 35.3 million followers have liked the post. Most of the comments are positive, including ones from famous friends like Rita Wilson, who wrote, “Looking gorgeous!” Others have responded less generously, with “kinda shocking,” and “I want the old Adele. chubbier prettier.”
When the singer was 23, she said in an interview with People, “I’ve never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines. I represent the majority of women and I’m very proud of that.”
Now, within the media, there are some who’ve suggested that praising Adele’s weight loss is fatphobic; that for all we know, it reflects something negative going on in her life (she’s recently divorced and has in the past publicly discussed her battle with postpartum depression).
The mixed reactions can’t be shocking to Adele, who has shown confidence in her weight throughout her career – at least in the public’s view. She was criticized for being too heavy by the media, by fans and by Karl Lagerfeld. Those who applauded her for having a body that defied expectation and didn’t cater to cultural pressure, meanwhile, were still focusing on her weight. Her last post to Instagram, in December, also revealed a weight loss at the very least in progress, and although she didn’t comment on it at the time, many others did. Earlier this year when she was out at a party, some wondered if she’d gone a bit overboard.
Given the fact that we are now in a pandemic, with many complaining about gaining weight during quarantine, Adele’s appearance on her birthday post may be especially jarring for many.
So let’s say she used the pandemic’s shelter-in-place mandates to continue getting fit. Would that be wrong – or even in bad taste? Certainly, Covid-19 has been devastating worldwide, with a global death toll surpassing 264,000, domestic violence on the rise, and an estimated 4 out of 5 workers being negatively impacted.
At a time in history where things feel terrible and out of control for many, getting healthier would seem to be a pretty decent use of one’s time and emotional energy. Anyone, sitting around drinking, eating, and not exercising isn’t going to change any of that. And science tells us that for many people, exercise or eating right, or both, makes them feel better and more in control. As Adele herself wrote in an earlier Instagram post, one from October which hinted at her weight loss-in-progress: “I used to cry. Now I sweat.”
But the reaction to Adele’s weight loss, or post about her weight loss, has nothing to do with timing. The pandemic is an easy scapegoat at best, and a clear example of the can’t-win culture in which we live. Consider all the many opinions floating around about how self-quarantine should be a time of great productivity – a perfect opportunity for discovering and developing a new skill, hobby, or perspective on life. Then consider all the counter-arguments that, in fact, we should be slowing down, reflecting more, doing less. Both perspectives come with judgment and shun individual preference or independent decision-making; both represent “shoulds” defined by other people. For every article about how to avoid the “quarantine 15” or “Covid-19” there’s another telling us not to exercise too much. For every piece celebrating quarantine bakers, there’s another calling them a “lockdown cliché.”
By the same token of non-judgment, it would be a lot to expect the culture to change simply because there’s a health care crisis going on.
Without a doubt, there’s absolutely no good time for a female celebrity – or, let’s face it, any woman – to debut a dramatic change in appearance, especially a big weight loss. Now is no better or worse than any other. There will always be criticism over kudos; there will always be chatter. Adele does not deserve our judgment. If anything, she deserves our empathy. It’s hard enough to come to terms with your own body as a woman not in the spotlight; for a woman who is, and whose weight has been a focus of that spotlight, for so long, it might nearly be impossible. Like most of the rest of us right now, we can – we should – only assume: She’s just doing the best she can with what she’s got.