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Taylor Swift’s “fatphobia” controversy: the parasocial aspect of celebrity culture

By Ana Negut

Ana weighs in on a controversial scene in Taylor Swift’s Anti-Hero music video.

Content Warning: Mention of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and grooming.

Taylor Swift’s new music video for Anti-Hero has generated controversy, leading to the artist having to remove a scene in which she steps on a scale displaying the word “FAT”. 

Anti-Hero allows the listener to glimpse the chaos inside her head, with the entire Midnights album continuing the trend of the songstress shedding her layers and becoming increasingly more candid with her audience. With few exceptions, a large part of Swift’s earlier discography places the protagonist of her albums as a morally sound main character who is largely victimised by external actors. Her new record symbolises a switch from her earlier narratives to an outward admission that her own person might be problematic. This flipped, refreshing take on Swift’s persona is contained within a record which flirts with several darker, more sensitive themes such as grooming (“If I was a child did it matter if you got to wash your hands”) and eating disorders (“I hosted parties and starved my body”).

In the age of social media, it is apparent that fans make sense of today’s politics and social issues through the lens of the celebrity persona. Throughout her career and especially after her political “coming out” in 2018, Swift has noted this phenomenon and spoken out in support of several issues and interests, notably the widespread sexism of the music industry. Swift as a “celebrity politician” and influential figure has established a fanbase who are more than mere consumers of her music. Due to the parasocial aspect of celebrity, her fans have come to evaluate the artist’s forms of expression as more than an expression of Taylor’s persona. Swift’s messages are rather perceived as meant for each individual fan, which is where controversy often ensues.

Taylor Swift’s “political” persona is perceived by fans as humble, liberal, and informed on the issues she speaks out on. Swift’s controversial visual statement on body dysmorphia has, in my opinion, tested the limits of Taylor as an informed social advocate. Is it enough for her to reference her limited experiences with body image as a thin, able-bodied white woman in order to generate awareness? I would argue that Swift’s sincerity cannot wholly absolve her of reproducing a harmful message which is consequently propagated to the general public.

Swift has arguably internalised fatphobic narratives during her time in the music industry, her visuals candidly articulating fatphobic intrusive thoughts. In my opinion, the problem lies with Swift overly simplifying the struggle with body image within a 5-second scene in a pop music video. The attempt comes off as misguided and largely misinformed in its portrayal of fatness as a moral failure and its casual use of charged language. Most notably, the video lacks any attempt at unburdening oneself from the importance of their size. Swift clumsily reinforces a focus on appearance and hints at her struggles. She declares what she thinks of her body. But where do we go from here?

As someone who has loved Taylor Swift since I was 11, I have often found myself consuming her appearance-focused content and experiencing increased body dissatisfaction. In the context of her new body of work, I appreciate her taking a step to acknowledge the unrealistic beauty standards that women are subjected to and that she fails to achieve herself. Although tactless, her first attempt at visually representing body dysmorphia reflects a larger trend of creating mainstream conversations around fatphobia which is long overdue.

Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to expect Swift to issue a perfectly crafted statement on fatphobia. The singer-songwriter is but one individual with isolated experiences in a world where women are conditioned to continuously evaluate their appearance. Taylor is truthful and straightforward: her coping mechanisms are toxic, she has a complicated relationship with her body, and she deals with depression – she is “the problem.” It is somewhat paradoxical to expect a thoughtful, unproblematic reflection from the flawed narrator of Anti-Hero, just like it is paradoxical that we expect politically articulate messages from isolated celebrity figures. Swift words it best in Dear Reader: “You wouldn’t take my word for it if you knew who was talking.”


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