Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion. She was spokesperson for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.
On Sunday, Nicola Coughlan, the Irish actor known for “Bridgerton” and “Derry Girls,” asked people on social media to stop commenting on her appearance. “I am just one real-life human being, and it’s really hard to take the weight of thousands of opinions on how you look being sent directly to you every day,” she posted on Instagram.
It wasn’t the first time she’s had to make this request. Last year, Coughlan replied to a Twitter user who wrote, “The fat girl from Bridgerton is wearing a black cardigan at the Golden Globes” with a 2018 article she penned for The Guardian, called “Critics, judge me for my work in Derry Girls and on the stage, not on my body.”
Coughlan’s request echoed a similar post by “Yellowjackets” star Melanie Lynskey. On Friday, Lynskey said she’d been inundated with messages from people shaming her over her body, a remark that followed news reports that she’d been body-shamed on set and that some of her co-stars had vociferously stuck up for her. “Most egregious are the ‘I care about her health!!’ people… B****, you don’t see me on my Peloton! You don’t see me running through the park with my child. Skinny does not always equal healthy,” she tweeted.
Lynskey said she was struck by online comments suggesting it was implausible that her character on ‘Yellowjackets’ would really have had an affair with a character played by the attractive Peter Gadiot. “I’m just like, ‘Wow, really? That’s where people’s heads are at, that the most important thing is being thin or young?’”
Of course, it’s not just women in the public eye who contend with this kind of abuse and concern-trolling. Many of us do. But Coughlan and Lynskey, who are known for playing women who exercise agency and control on screen, are uniquely positioned to call out this kind of body opining for what it is: a toxic form of misogyny that should no longer benefit from its camouflage as concern with wellness. Now, we all need to follow their lead – and demand that social networks do the same.
We’ve got to change the norms of socially acceptable behavior on social media. It’s long past time for people to stop commenting on the bodies of women in the public eye. A woman’s character has nothing to do with her appearance. And, to state the obvious, famous men just don’t contend with the same level of vicious scrutiny. So, like Coughlan and Lynskey, we should all call out any person who tries to reduce us to our bodies – and we should speak up anytime we see it happen to another woman (or a person of any gender, for that matter).
Of course, it’s not just users who need to change. We should also demand that social networks remove this kind of toxic content. For example, when Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s staff set up an Instagram account purporting to be a 13-year-old girl and indicated interest in weight loss, they found that Instagram’s algorithm actually recommended accounts with names like “eternally starved” and “I have to be thin.” (Instagram admitted the accounts shouldn’t have been allowed.)
But, ultimately, in order to change what’s said on social media, we need to change our society. In particular, we need to get over a major misconception: that weight is generally a reliable indicator of whether a person takes care of his or her (but, let’s be honest, usually her) health. It simply isn’t true.
As The New York Times has reported, “decades of studies have repeatedly showed that there are powerful biological controls over individual body weight. Adopted children ended up with body mass indexes like those of their biological parents, not those of their adoptive parents.”
So claiming that a woman isn’t taking care of her health because of her weight is wrong in both senses of the term – it’s inappropriate and it’s inaccurate. The distinction is important, because when women believe they need to lose weight or achieve a certain body mass index (BMI) – a measure of height and weight that is now recognized not to necessarily be an accurate barometer of health on its own – they can end up doing things that actually harm their health.
Cornell philosopher Kate Manne, for example, recently wrote in the New York Times that the only times she has had a BMI deemed “normal” was when she starved herself or severely restricted her diet. In order to lose weight, for instance, she did not eat food for 17 of 30 days one month. This can’t be healthy in the least.
BMI can be an especially unfair measure for women of color. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, conducted research with colleagues which found that, for BMI to reflect racial and ethnic differences in body composition, the threshold for Black women would need to be higher.
And believing that your worth is wrapped up in your weight – or that it’s necessarily your fault if you can’t achieve a certain number on a scale – stands to be devastating to the self-worth and broader mental health of women and girls.
It’s especially unfair that women receive extra social censure for appearing overweight when you consider that women take better care of our health than men overall: We are less likely to be overweight in the first place, more likely to visit the doctor regularly, and less likely to do harmful things like heavy drinking.
Of course, it’s a good idea for us all to take care of our bodies by eating healthy foods and, if we’re physically able, exercising. But you can’t tell whether a person is doing this by looking at them. What’s more, by shaming a person, you’re likely to cause her stress – something that we can be very sure is bad for her health. So, regardless of what internet trolls may outlandishly claim, they’re clearly out to harm women.
We shouldn’t let them. When people comment on the bodies of women, we all have to call them out. But, just as importantly, we also have to make sure women and girls know that these people aren’t just mean – they’re also deeply misinformed. Looking at a woman’s body can’t tell a stranger whether she’s healthy. But comments about her weight can reliably tell us that people are out to do her harm.