Lizzo isn’t just one of the world’s most popular musicians: She’s also one of music’s most prominent icons for body positivity and self-acceptance. Known for sending her audience messages of self-love like, “go home tonight and look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you, you are beautiful, and you can do anything,’” she also often speaks publicly about the challenges she has faced in accepting her body. Lizzo is not shy about citing bullying, negative media images of women who look like her, racism, and misogyny as factors in the difficulty she experienced in coming to love herself and her body.
“I don’t think that loving yourself is a choice. I think that it’s a decision that has to be made for survival; it was in my case,” she wrote in an April 2019 NBC News op-ed. The importance of self-love is an idea that has resonated with many fans who have struggled to accept themselves. “Her messages about strength and her body-positive image are having an impact on people everywhere,” as fellow musician and collaborator Big Freedia put it in a December 2019 article about Lizzo in the Los Angeles Times.
But fitness celebrity Jillian Michaels has a different view of things. During an appearance on BuzzFeed News’s AM2DM show on January 8, Michaels challenged co-host Alex Berg’s praise for the open body-positivity from celebrities like Lizzo and plus-size model Ashley Graham. Berg said, “I love that they’re putting images out there that we don’t normally get to see, of bodies that we don’t get to see being celebrated.”
“Why are we celebrating her [Lizzo’s] body? Why does it matter?” Michaels responded. “Why aren’t we celebrating her music? ‘Cause it isn’t going to be awesome if she gets diabetes. I’m just being honest. Like, I love her music. Like, my kid loves her music. But there’s never a moment where I’m like, ‘And I’m so glad she’s overweight!’ Like, why do I even care? Why is it my job to care about her weight?”
Let’s be clear: This is not some feminist re-frame of a comment about Lizzo’s body, an attempt to take attention away from evaluating Lizzo’s appearance and refocusing it on her accomplishments. Instead, Michaels is claiming that Lizzo’s “overweight” body shouldn’t be celebrated, based on assumptions about her current and future health status. These comments are stigmatizing fat bodies in effect, if not in intent.
Michaels’s comments instantly drew criticism from celebrities and Twitter users, who slammed her as fat-phobic and body-shaming. Lizzo has not directly responded to Michaels’s comments, although many have taken her recent body-positive comments on social media to be an indirect response.
While standing by her comments, Michaels posted a clarifying statement on social media: “As I’ve stated repeatedly, we are all beautiful, worthy, and equally deserving. I also feel strongly that we love ourselves enough to acknowledge there are serious health consequences that come with obesity — heart disease, diabetes, cancer to name only a few. I would never wish these for ANYONE and I would hope we prioritize our health because we LOVE ourselves and our bodies.” In a January 10 interview with People, Michaels made clear she wasn’t backing down from her take on Lizzo and people with bodies like hers — saying that “there’s nothing beautiful about clogged arteries.”
But it’s not Michaels’s job to care about Lizzo’s weight. She is not Lizzo’s physician, nor (as far as we know) has Lizzo approached Michaels to be her personal trainer or to coach her through weight loss.
And by publicly speculating about Lizzo’s susceptibility to diabetes or other chronic diseases, Michaels is doing more harm than good. While Michaels says she is trying to encourage Lizzo and others to take better care of themselves and their health, her comments have a different effect. She is implicitly stating that Lizzo needs to change her body through weight loss, based on assumptions about Lizzo’s lifestyle and health, and is stigmatizing fat bodies in the process. Weight stigma is known to have negative health effects while also encouraging less healthy behaviors, which calls into question the wisdom of deploying it as a tactic to improve anyone’s health. Comments like these, especially from someone with Michaels’s fame and public stature, undermine one of Lizzo’s central messages: making people feel comfortable in their own bodies is a matter of survival.
Weight is not synonymous with health
Michaels’s comments about Lizzo’s weight reflect a widespread belief: that all fat people face serious health risks purely because of their weight. This view is bolstered by a lot of research showing that there are health risks associated with carrying “excess” weight — including heart disease, some forms of cancer, and, yes, diabetes.
But that is not the end of the story, and research on the connection between weight and health is more complicated than it seems. While body mass index (BMI), the most common measurement used to assess if a person is a healthy weight, is correlated with metabolic health in population studies, there are many people with a “normal” BMI with cardiovascular and metabolic issues, while many in the “overweight” and “obese” range are metabolically healthy. Furthermore, the causal mechanisms linking obesity to chronic illnesses aren’t always well understood. For example, the psychological distress that can result from being overweight or obese in a society in which it is stigmatized can cause inflammation and negative long-term health effects.
Moreover, a number of scholars have argued that both the medical community and society put too much emphasis on the effects of weight on health, obscuring the importance of numerous other factors, such as blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and aerobic fitness, that together paint a more informative picture of a person’s health than BMI alone.
Put differently: It is quite difficult to get an accurate picture of someone’s health merely by looking at them, whether you’re a trained physician or a fitness trainer. In fact, it’s irresponsible to try and do so.
Expressing concerns about fatness is a kind of bias, not brave truth-telling
The controversy about Michaels’s remarks about Lizzo is unfolding in a context where many critics, including Michaels, are concerned that body acceptance has gone too far, to the point where we are ignoring the dangers of unhealthy body weights. While Michaels is receiving a lot of heat for going after Lizzo, this is far from the first time she’s made comments like this. Last year, in Women’s Health UK, Michaels charged that “obesity in itself is not something that should be glamorized. But we’ve become so politically correct that no one wants to say it.”
That no one today can say that obesity is associated with negative health outcomes is patently, laughably false. Being overweight or obese is not only frequently positioned as a serious health risk, it’s also often considered to be a moral failing, a product of laziness, or a lack of personal responsibility.
Shaming fat people for their health, not to mention their appearance, remains an incredibly pervasive form of discrimination, one that research shows is detrimental to people’s health in and of itself. Weight discrimination by physicians causes many who are overweight and obese to avoid going to the doctor. Weight stigma is associated with bullying, employment discrimination, and education discrimination; these and other chronic stressors put people at risk for many of the diseases people like Jillian Michaels are concerned that about.
What Michaels derisively calls “political correctness” is actually an attempt to reduce the harm done by these messages, to fight back against an ocean of negative messages about fatness. The claim that you can love yourself and your body, and enjoy your life now rather than after you lose weight — the core of the “body positivity” movement — can be more helpful to people than yet another admonition about their weight and health risks.
While Lizzo is often positioned as “this generation’s queen of body-positive pop,” she has been critical of the common claim that she is “brave” for loving her body, telling Glamour, “If you saw Anne Hathaway in a bikini on a billboard, you wouldn’t call her brave.” Lizzo also worries that body positivity, which she described in Time as “a form of protest for fat bodies and black women,” has become about “going to the spa, getting your nails done or drinking a mimosa.”
At the same time, Lizzo believes that seeing people who embrace their body at any size can be an important part of making peace with your own body. Her own journey stems from painful personal experiences. “When I was younger I didn’t see myself in the media. I didn’t see myself in fashion. I didn’t like how I looked because of what I saw on television,” she said in an interview with Paper Magazine. “I was working out a lot and not eating. I took a picture and sent it to my mom and she was like, ‘Are you OK? You don’t look OK.’”
Lizzo’s public persona is aimed, in part, at helping girls and women who look like her avoid this sort of unhealthy behavior. That makes Lizzo’s open praise of herself incredibly important — and Michaels’s public attack on it deeply troubling.
It’s Michaels, not Lizzo, who needs to change her behavior
If Michaels is truly concerned about Lizzo’s health — and the health of others deemed overweight and obese — she should start by rethinking the approach she’s taken throughout her career.
Her media career began with the NBC series The Biggest Loser (which will be returning this year on USA without Michaels’s involvement), a reality show in which contestants were subjected to a barrage of drastic weight loss practices that, in most instances, did not lead to sustained weight loss. In fact, the show’s practices of daily workouts that were 10 times what is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine, and purposeful dehydration prior to weigh-ins, are very far from healthy. While Michaels left the show in 2014, she seems to have done so because she didn’t like how she was portrayed, rather than ideological differences with the approach of the show to weight loss more generally.
Instead of the intense and lengthy workouts that Michaels and the other Biggest Loser trainers encouraged, research unsurprisingly shows that people are more likely to enjoy a less intense workout, and this difference in forecasted and remembered pleasure can have an impact on whether people stick to an exercise routine or not. Physical activity, while often associated with weight loss, is not all that helpful to a lot of people who are trying to lose weight. Furthermore, physical activity has numerous benefits aside from weight loss, and it would be unfortunate if people lost out on those benefits because they were not losing weight.
Treating weight and health as if they are synonymous can encourage unhealthy weight-loss strategies, and can cause people to lose sight of the benefits of activities that do not lead to weight loss. But people like Michaels who denigrate Lizzo’s body-positivity message don’t seem to be considering these kinds of health consequences. They are so focused on the potential health risks of obesity that they’re unwilling to think through what our society does to overweight and obese people.
Meanwhile, body acceptance at any size has health-protective effects that can also encourage people to live a healthier lifestyle. But its effects can be more fundamental than that. For Lizzo, finding ways to accept and love yourself in a culture that devalues you is a matter of survival. As she wrote in her 2019 NBC News op-ed, “Loving myself was the result of answering two things: Do you want to live? ‘Cause this is who you’re gonna be for the rest of your life. Or are you gonna just have a life of emptiness, self-hatred and self-loathing? And I chose to live, so I had to accept myself.” This is an important message for fans: that loving yourself is the only way to live your life, even if it’s hard. The time to love your body is now. Instead of disparaging this message, Michaels should examine how her own biases, instead of helping, may harm people’s health.
Katelyn Esmonde is a Hecht-Levi postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.