Was Taylor Swift wrong to use the word ‘fat’ in a video? That’s how I used to feel whenever I weighed myself | Arwa Mahdawi

Want to watch Taylor Swift magically lose fat overnight? No, of course you don’t – you’re not a weirdo. But if you are just a little curious about what I am talking about, then have a look at Swift’s music video for the single Anti-Hero from her new album, Midnights. There is a scene in it in which the musician steps on some scales and looks up sadly as her doppelganger shakes her head in disgust. This visual would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that it was hastily swapped in a week ago, just days after the video’s initial release, to replace the controversial original. In the first version, Swift gets on the scales and, instead of numbers, she sees the word FAT pop up. This upset a lot of people who decreed that, by using the word “fat”, Swift was being “fatphobic”. Swift decided not to risk cancellation or prolong the controversy by explaining herself or defending her artistic choices; instead, she just quietly altered the video.

Perhaps you are confused by all the fuss over the word fat. You don’t need a degree in Swiftian studies to glean that the singer, who has described the video for Anti-Hero as a depiction of her insecurities, was referencing her own body issues, not trying to offend people. While Swift has never explicitly said she has suffered from an eating disorder, she has been open about her experiences with disordered eating. In her 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana, she talks about how constant media scrutiny caused her to have an unhealthy relationship with her body. “It’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day,” she says in a voiceover during the film. There were times, she says, when the constant media commentary on her body would trigger her to “just starve a little bit – just stop eating”.

If you are feeling empathic towards Swift after reading that, then stop right there. Swift’s feelings and experiences are not what’s important here. What’s important, it seems, is whether she has expressed her lived experiences in ways that people with large followings or access to influential platforms deem politically correct. And I am afraid to say she didn’t pass that test.

A Teen Vogue writer complained that by using the word fat, Swift “made a choice to explicitly name her demon, the fear of being called fat, which is fatphobia in its most literal sense”. A writer for New York Magazine’s The Cut wondered why Swift “couldn’t think of a … less triggering word” than fat. A snarky viral tweet read: “Taylor Swift’s music video, where she looks down at the scale where it says ‘fat,’ is a shitty way to describe her body image struggles … Having an eating disorder doesn’t excuse fatphobia. It’s not hard to say, ‘I’m struggling with my body image today’ instead of I’m a fat, disgusting pig.”

I suffered from anorexia and bulimia as a teenager and, let me tell you this: it is very hard to stand on bathroom scales when you have an eating disorder and calmly say: “Oh dear, I guess I’m struggling with my body image today.” Every time my formerly skeletal self used to stand on the scales – multiple times a day at one point – it would feel as if the scales were screaming FAT back at me. I wasn’t fatphobic for feeling that way; I was just ill. It is a shame if Swift has felt pressured into not expressing her lived experience in the way she wanted to because it offended some people.

Having said all that, it is also important to note that artists listening to feedback and adjusting their art accordingly can be a very good thing. Lizzo and Beyoncé changed offensive lyrics (both had used a derogatory term for spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy) in their songs this year after pushback from their fans. And, in many ways, what Swift did was laudable. She saw that some people were hurt by her art and modified it quickly without any fuss – or commercial sacrifice – on her part. Swift, after all, has just become the first artist in history to claim the Top 10 slots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US. “10 out of 10 of the Hot 100??? On my 10th album??? I AM IN SHAMBLES,” the 32-year-old pop star tweeted. Excuse me ma’am, but have you ever considered the feelings of people who suffer from shambles? Sounds like shocking shamblephobia to me.

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