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Hey Drew Barrymore, Not Being Naturally Thin Isn't a Sign of 'Bad Karma'

Drew Barrymore is talented and accomplished by any standard — an actress since the age of 6, and a director and producer who owns her own production company. But as a woman who is not naturally a size zero in an industry that relentlessly holds women to a nearly impossible standard of beauty (rooted in extreme thinness, whiteness, ageism and ableism) her weight has been a topic of conversation for nearly as long as she has.

Throughout her career, Barrymore has had the experience that research tells us nearly everyone who attempts weight loss will have — losing weight for a while, then gaining it back again. Lather, rinse, repeat. This process, technically called “weight cycling” (often called yo-yo dieting) has seen her repeatedly gain and lose weight, with her messaging fluctuating with her weight as well — from co-opting the language of Size Acceptance activism at the higher points on her weight cycle, to embracing the language of diet culture during the lows.¬†For example:

December 2018, Instagram:

“You can tell my face is so much thinner! This takes me so much work. Diet and exercise and fighting like a lion for it! Damn you genetics!”

June 2019, People Magazine (when asked about buying into Hollywood’s pressure to be thin):

“Never have, never will. I think it’s bullshit… I’ve always been a big champion of embracing your own genetics because I was never naturally that thin,‚ÄĚ

August 2020, InStyle:

“I have to work so hard at not being the size of a bus… And it’s OK. That is just my journey. That is my karma. I don’t know, maybe I was thin and mean in a past life.”

This latest incarnation, in a cover interview with InStyle magazine for their August 2020 issue which they have entitled “The Badass Women Issue,” has all the hallmarks of post (temporary) weight loss Barrymore — praise of her current trainer, discussion of food (often including rigid rules and restriction) and an inflexible attitude around movement.

(Note, in researching quotes for this piece there are many I felt I needed to leave out because the way that she talks about food and exercise would be considered red flags for an eating disorder, and while I am in no way attempting to diagnose Barrymore that kind of language can be triggering for others. That’s also the reason links aren’t included.)

There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all Drew Barrymore’s body is her own, so she gets to do whatever she wants to do with it. It’s also not surprising that someone in one of the most fatphobic professions in a generally¬†fatphobic culture has internalized fatphobia, and it’s reasonable to have compassion for that.¬†On the other hand, she has a massive platform (her “damn you genetics” Instagram post has since been deleted but got covered in major media outlets internationally including the US, UK, New Zealand and India and a search for it reveals over 300,000 results.) Her choices about her body — and how she talks about them — don’t happen in a vacuum. So when she utilizes the major press opportunities she is afforded to weaponize that internalized fatphobia, my concern becomes greater for the people she is harming.

Her quote from InStyle is particularly damaging, but before we break it down let’s get a clear understanding of something. If you aren’t part of a marginalized community, then one of the experiences you are spared is constantly wondering if someone you stan will use their power and platform to dehumanize you and add to the shame, stigma, bullying and oppression you experience. That’s what I mean by weaponizing her internalized fatphobia.

While her choice to work “so hard” to avoid being heavier is her business, I don’t think she’d get so much positive press if she said that wanted to be similarly dedicated to becoming a little less short, so let’s acknowledge the internalized fatphobia that is at play here.

The big problem is the bit about “karma” and “maybe I was thin and mean in a past life.” What this indicates is that she sees not being thin (by a pretty extreme definition of thin) as such a bad thing that it could actually be karmic retribution. And that’s where we get into the weaponizing. The notion that the ultimate punishment for someone who was thin and mean in a past life is not to be Hollywood thin in this life is… problematic at best. The idea that a fat body is punishment for past wrongdoings is, to put it as delicately as I can, totally fucked up.

If you’re still struggling with why a celebrity lurching back and forth from the language of body positivity to diet culture is harmful, imagine instead that a celebrity was doing this around their sexuality. To be sure, comparing oppressions is a tricky business but as someone who is both fat and queer I find the comparison helpful.

First, understand that Drew Barrymore is often celebrated as a champion of body positivity. Now imagine a celebrity who spends years moving back and forth between claiming that they are proudly gay — telling People Magazine that they¬†“never have and never will” bow to homophobia —¬† and then the next year using a cover interview in InStyle to celebrate turning themselves straight and thanking their newest Conversion Coach for “healing them.” Do you think this would be celebrated in major news outlets? Do you think this person would be called a champion of queer rights? The only thing that allows Barrymore to promote fatphobia when it suits her is our culture’s commitment to oppressing fat people.

Using the language of Size Acceptance activists in between using the language of diet culture (which¬†is the reason that Size Acceptance activism needs to exist in the first place) is incredibly harmful — to the people harmed by diet culture, to the people doing the work to liberate us from it and to the work itself.

It further waters down “body positivity” which was originally created by radical fat activists, including radical fat activists of color, but has been taken over (and continues to be watered down) by slightly chubby white women using it for profit and pushing out those who created it and those who need it most.

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In some ways it may feel unfair to blame Barrymore. After all, she is just (repeatedly) taking advantage of an oppressive culture to get positive press, right? Except there are a whole lot of people who are not rich, white, cis, currently able-bodied and relatively thin (with or without the pounds she keeps gaining and losing) who face much more harm from the Hollywood stereotype of beauty and negative beliefs about fat bodies — stereotypes and beliefs that Barrymore has used her considerable platform and privilege to promote.

A platform that brings money and fame also brings responsibility. Taking advantage of diet culture to increase one’s fame, wealth and press coverage does real and direct harm, especially to those with less privilege.¬†Regardless of what she does with her own body, Drew Barrymore can and should do better with her public platform.

To see more from Ragen, visit her site Dances With Fat.

Image via Wikimedia Commons