Rebel Wilson’s ‘unrecognisable’ weight-loss photos are toxic and depressing

The headlines implied she’d found a cure for Covid or won an Olympic medal, not lost 18kg

One of Rebel Wilson’s Instagram photos

One of Rebel Wilson’s Instagram photos

 

Rebel Wilson is known for lots of things: her superb comic timing; her roles in Pitch Perfect and Bridesmaids; delivering what is arguably the funniest speech in Bafta history; successfully suing a media conglomerate, Bauer Media, for articles calling her a serial liar, although the size of the award was later overruled.

But all of that pales into nothing beside her latest achievement, at least if the number of headlines and social media shares devoted to something is a measure of its global significance.

In a photo posted on Instagram at the weekend, the Pitch Perfect actor is seen standing by her front door in a blue dress that is reportedly several sizes smaller than a different blue dress she wore previously. She is three quarters of the way through a “year of health” that she embarked on in January, and doing what the tabloid headlines refer to as “flaunting” her “stunning” weight loss in a “skintight” blue dress.

One of Rebel Wilson’s Instagram photos
One of Rebel Wilson’s Instagram photos

I’ll spare you the effort of clicking: she has lost 18kg, reportedly by following the Mayr Method diet plan of eating high alkaline whole foods very slowly, aiming to count out 30 chews per mouthful.

She does look lovely, and surprisingly cheery for a person who has spent the past nine months chewing everything 30 times. To my eyes though, she has always been gorgeous. “Thanks for all the love so far on my ‘Year of Health’ journey – when I was reaching for the candies last night after dinner I thought to myself ‘hmmmm...better not’ and had a bottle of water instead x 8kg’s to go until I hit my goal – hopefully I can do it by the end of the year x,” she wrote on Instagram.

Wilson has clearly worked hard to improve her fitness and is happy with how it’s going. Good on her.

But the volume and tone of the 2.9 million headlines – plus the 17,000 comments and 1.1 million likes on her latest Instagram post – seemed to imply she had won an Olympic medal or found a cure for Covid-19 or rescued raccoons from burning to death in the Californian fires, rather than simply changed her dress size.

“Well done. You look amazing,” said Jelena Dokic, the former world number 4 tennis player. “Keep the good fight! You got this!” said someone else. “You look stunning but better yet, I bet you feel so strong and healthy! It shows in your glow!” “We don’t recognise Rebel Wilson,” went one headline in a tone that left readers in no doubt that not being recognised is hashtag bodygoals.

It’s depressing how much of the coverage of Rebel Wilson’s weight loss invoked the terms “shrinking” and “unrecognisable” as compliments. Since when did “shrinking” become a desirable beauty standard?

What kind of toxic society tells women that looking good means looking nothing like themselves? Would the ultimate “weight loss success story” need to involve vanishing altogether?

Rebel Wilson at the Australians in Film Awards in 2016. Photograph: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File
Rebel Wilson at the Australians in Film Awards in 2016. Photograph: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File
L to R) Ashley (SHELLY REGNER), Stacie (ALEXIS KNAPP), Fat Amy (REBEL WILSON), Aubrey (ANNA CAMP), Cynthia Rose (ESTER DEAN), Beca (ANNA KENDRICK), Lilly (HANA MAE LEE), Denise (WANETAH WALMSLEY), Chloe (BRITTANY SNOW) and Jessica (KELLEY ALICE JAKLE) are The Barden Bellas in Pitch Perfect
Rebel Wilson (third from left) as Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect

It’s hardly news by now to point out that the bodies of women – especially famous women – are seen as public property, political statements, morality tales and weapons.

“Fat” as Caitlin Moran wrote in her 2011 memoir is “not just a simple, descriptive word, like “brunette” or 34. It’s a swearword. It’s a weapon. It’s a sociological sub-species. It’s an accusation, dismissal and rejection.”

Since then, with the arrival of social media, the tyranny of selfies and face tuning apps, the pressure to conform to one, rigid body type has only intensified.

When one of the rare, non-conforming famous women in the public eye – women who take up more space on the planet and aren’t obviously engaged in extreme shrinkage tactics – does eventually turn up in a smaller dress size, the relief is almost palpable.

We’re invited to read all about Adele’s “incredible weightloss journey” or enjoy the endless “before” and “after” slideshows of Rebel Wilson wearing different size frocks.

The toxic, retrograde subtext is that the person in the “before” is a portrayal of tragic, unrealised potential and misery, while the “after” represents success, fulfilment and happiness. The truth is, of course, we don’t know what’s going on in anyone’s life in those images.

The body positivity movement – which started out with the very worthwhile intention of redressing that balance – has become yet another tool to beat women with. Alongside all the patronising “you go girl” commentary on Wilson’s social media is another stream of commentary telling her sadly that she looked better before, which seems to entirely miss the point.

One of the most appealing things about Wilson was how she remained blithely immune to all attempts at Hollywoodification. She was unapologetically rude, relentlessly funny and, or so it seemed, comfortable with herself. She played the role of Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, cleverly subverting the “fat best friend” trope. She didn’t ask for anyone’s approval.

So what happened? “For some reason, even though we’re in a very imaginative industry, it’s difficult for people to imagine me as a serious actress and I feel that physically I have to show you that I am different. I am somewhat transforming myself in order to help transforming my career,” she said in a characteristically frank statement on the matter earlier in the summer. She explained that she had previously been paid “a lot of money to be bigger”, but now, if she wants to be a “serious actress”, she needs to be thin.

“I still love comedy and I will obviously still work in the comedy space, but I did train originally as a dramatic actress … which people forget.”

It actually doesn’t matter whether you think Rebel Wilson looked better before or looks better now. In a healthy society, her current dress size or the numbers on her weighing scales shouldn’t be news at all. Nor would anyone else’s perception of her state of health. 

The real story here isn’t how many kgs she has dropped, her diet plan, or her new dress size. It’s that our culture is still selling a stereotype that only small people can be taken seriously. 

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