How to Undermine a Woman’s Success: Talk About Her Body

In all of these cases, the public discourse around these women’s bodies has effectively obscured their exciting, unprecedented professional and personal achievements. But this handful of examples doesn’t even scratch the surface of the egregious minimization of women’s successes in favor of dissecting their physical appearance. It’s hard not to wonder how this behavior will continue to trivialize monumental wins for other women. 

As Taylor Swift continues to dominate the music industry by reclaiming control of her masters, will headlines once again start picking apart her body? In the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, Swift said there were times she’d see “a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or…someone said that I looked pregnant…and that’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit—just stop eating,” and she talked to Variety at length about the need to “accommodate everything toward praise and punishment, including your own body.” 

As Britney Spears becomes a free woman for the first time in 13 years, do we have to brace ourselves for the commentary to come about how she’s “bounced back” from a previous physical iteration of herself that people arbitrarily deemed unacceptable? Let’s not forget how Spears was viciously attacked for her appearance after her now notorious 2007 MTV VMA performance, prompting outlets like to ponder, “Did Spears, lest we forget a mother of two, deserve to be held up against the standard of her once fantastically toned abs, sculpted by sessions of 1,000 tummy crunches? Or was she asking for it by choosing that unforgiving black-sequined bikini?” The brutal remarks she’d encountered throughout her career inspired the lyrics to 2007’s Piece of Me (“I’m Mrs. She’s Too Big Now She’s Too Thin”).

To be clear, this normalization of body commentary—both positive and negative—doesn’t affect just celebrities. The cultural custom trickles down and impacts women from all walks of life, and I’ve experienced it firsthand for the better part of three decades as I’ve navigated the tumultuous road of eating disorder recovery. I’ve heard everything from “I’m so jealous of your discipline!” when I was in and out of intensive outpatient programs to “You look healthy now!” when I was heavier but still suffering the mental anguish of anorexia. 

The latest incidence of unsolicited commentary occurred on the heels of publishing the most deeply personal and vulnerability-hangover-inducing essay of my life, regarding my compulsive exercise habits. During a perfectly average dinner of tacos and margaritas, a perfectly average situation ensued, meaning a stranger felt entitled to comment on my body. In this particular instance, while I—a person with an eating disorder so old it could’ve legally been taking tequila shots with me—attempted with all my might to eat my tacos without agonizing over their carb content, our waiter felt compelled to approach our table of four and gesture at my arms. 

“You work out a lot,” he said. Still raw from writing about my workout compulsions, I glanced at my boyfriend and gave the waiter a dumbfounded stare that I am now ashamed to realize morphed into a polite smile because I had no idea how to respond. “Flex for my friend over there,” he said without hesitating to call the attention of his colleague, manning the cash register. “Flex for him now.” I laughed and gave a half-hearted biceps curl before immediately wanting to drown in a vat of salsa. All things considered, it was a mild form of uninvited commentary, given the horrific harassment women face daily. He was, after all, attempting to pay a compliment—or something? But the situation left me feeling uneasy, and even violated, particularly after being so vulnerable about my body and the impact of others’ (very vocal) opinions on my perception of it. 

We know that catcalling sucks, but why is the practice of publicly commenting on women’s bodies (and expecting them to perform on demand: “Flex!”; “Smile!”) still so normalized? And why do women have to keep continuously drawing boundaries and reclaiming their bodies in light of this relentless norm? 

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