Jennifer Lawrence and Body Shaming. Really?

Cant_WIN_by_dopey_templerozThe latest on Jennifer Lawrence, whose praises I and others have sung as a positive role model for a healthier body image, is this: her refusal to diet, her openness about loving to eat, and her insistence that her Hunger Games character, Katniss Everdeen, not be skinny as a rake–it is all a thin cloak over the body shaming reality.

This blog post on Jenny Trout/Abigail Barnette’s blog Sweaters for Days quotes Jennifer Lawrence as saying, “I’d rather look chubby on screen and like a person in real life.” And then Trout says:

Let’s concede the point here that she is, perhaps, a size or two above the Hollywood accepted norm. Let’s also concede the point that it’s admirable, being the star of a movie franchise aimed at teens, that she is concerned about the effect a too-svelte appearance might have on her audience, who are already bombarded with negative body messages every day. I’m not making this post to attack Jennifer Lawrence. I’m making this post to attack the rabid fandom that has grown around her.

I’m not going to cover the fact that it’s fucked up that a girl like Jennifer Lawrence has to justify her perfectly gorgeous body to every single media consumer in the world. We all know that’s fucked up. Let’s focus instead on the fact that in order to appease our own self-doubt about our weight, we, the internet, have decided to ignore how body-shaming the entire image of JLaw, “Spirit Animal” to fat girls everywhere, really is.

She added the bold type because people were pouncing on her in the (rather nasty) comments.

The post gets really interesting when she brings in a comparison with Melissa McCarthy, who does not express, and arguably would not so easily get away with expressing, a love of food and eating and a refusal to diet.  There is no question that thin privilege allows Jennifer Lawrence, who may not be as thin as they come in Hollywood but who still fits into a cultural norm of relative slenderness, to promote the “radical idea” that women and girls should not have to lose weight to have acceptable bodies.

But I do think it’s unfair to call her out for body shaming.  The comments on that blog post make it clear that people still assume that Jennifer Lawrence can eat as she does because she works out, and that Melissa McCarthy must not work out at all (in fact, one of the comments says exactly that–the comments are astonishingly mean-spirited). Genetics have a lot to do with it. Some people are just going to be larger than others even if you hold activity and food intake constant.  It’s not a simple formula that determines size, shape, and body fat percentage. Melissa McCarthy saying that she doesn’t understand why she’s not thinner than she is is a very good demonstration of the frustrating facts.

After I posted a link to the body-shaming blog post on my Facebook page, a friend commented that women just can’t win. And she’s right.  What would we rather Jennifer Lawrence do?  Here’s a young woman who recognizes that she has influence with girls and young women because she plays a popular character, and makes a conscious choice to use that influence in a positive way. Should she just stay silent?

And while it’s perceptive to note that it’s easier for her body-positive message to be heard by the mainstream because she has the appearance of someone who we perceive to be fit and strong, it’s still important that women hear what she has to say. Jenny Trout has clarified that she is not attacking Jennifer Lawrence, but rather the media for lauding Lawrence as a role model.

But the fact is, she is a role model.  Girls care what she has to say.  If the staggering statistics about girls and dieting are true, then even average-sized girls feel pressure to lose weight and to diet.  If Jennifer Lawrence can successfully nudge them away from the idea that they should cave into the pressure to diet, then that’s a good thing.  She has been widely quoted as saying, “If anybody even tries to whisper the word ‘diet,’ I’m like, ‘You can go f– yourself.”

That’s a great quote. It would be something special to hear teenaged girls all over the place saying that instead of being in a perpetual state of body hatred and attempting to drop a few pounds.  As for the quote about looking chubby on the screen and like a person in real life, I’m not sure what to make of it other than that I’ve heard her interviewed and read a lot of other things she’s said, and the overall gist sounds body positive. If she consistently said things that gave us a reason to think she is secretly trying to body shame people who are larger than she is, that would be a different matter.

So despite that I think Jenny Trout provides an interesting perspective in pointing out that thin privilege is at work here, I’m not ready to agree that the media should stop reporting on Jennifer Lawrence’s anti-dieting and body-accepting attitude. And while I don’t deny that Melissa McCarthy can’t offer quite the same narrative, there are other positive body image role models. Adele, for example, has said that she isn’t preoccupied with her body. Her body, she says, isn’t stopping her from doing anything she wants to do. She recommends: “The first thing to do is be happy with yourself and appreciate your body– only then should you try to change things about yourself.”

The more celebrity women who can influence girls and women to be more accepting of themselves, the better.  Average-sized women like Jennifer Lawrence can contribute constructively to this conversation as much as larger women like Melissa McCarthy and Adele.  Why? Because it’s not only women who are larger than the average who struggle with body image and who feel pressured from a very young age to diet.

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