Like millions of others, I have eagerly awaited the release of “Midnights,” the newest album from Taylor Swift. While I’ve always liked Taylor’s music, my obsession really only kicked into full gear with “Folklore” and “Evermore,” her two 2020 albums.
In fact, I combined the two into a playlist I called Everlore. I pre-ordered “Midnights” on vinyl, and then a lavender version was pre-released at Target and, I mean, purple is my favorite color and my recently purchased Victrola turntable is lavender, so yeah, I might’ve ordered that one, too. (Apologies to my husband Thomas for finding out this way.)
We’re currently on a major road trip, so I probably won’t listen to it until we get home, but I had to watch the video for the song “Anti-Hero” on my phone this morning as soon as I got up. And I mostly loved it! (Taylor bleeds purple glitter pen ink, and I’m here for it.)
Like I suspect so many of us will, I deeply related to these lyrics. “Midnights become my afternoons when my depression works the graveyard shift,” just as an example, should be my next tattoo. (It won’t be, but I profoundly feel ― and live ― these words at times.)
There’s a definite sense of deep self-loathing and doubt in this song’s lyrics. I love that Swift wrote about these feelings, that she’s willing to let people see that you can have what looks like everything you could want, and still feel depression’s insidious whispers.
Depression isn’t a measurement of a happy, fulfilling life. You can have both. You can have neither. The more people with major platforms openly talk about their mental health struggles, the less stigma there will be, and the more people will be willing to talk about their own struggles ― and, hopefully, seek help for them.
Swift has spoken in the past about her issues with body image, so it is not surprising this would come through in these lyrics, where she sings, “I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror.” Again, I expect this to resonate with many of her fans all too well.
Unfortunately, this is where we take a detour from my love of the music video, because at one point, the “Anti-Hero” version of Swift, who clearly represents her worst inner critic, has her get on a bathroom scale. When the real Taylor looks down, the scale reads “FAT.”
Sigh. The worst part of this is that the moment she got on that scale, I knew. Before the word popped up, I felt it coming in the pit of what’s left of the stomach I had partially surgically amputated just to be more easily able to get an MRI. Because fatphobia is this pervasive in our culture.
Taylor Swift is not, and has never been, even remotely fat. In fact, some of the negative criticism she’s faced related to body image was about being “too skinny.” Swift has admitted this bothers her, but she has also talked about how she’s seen comments speculating about her maybe being pregnant, and how those comments have resulted in her not eating.
But “fat” isn’t a bad word (to be clear, neither is skinny). It’s a descriptive word society has turned into an insult. It took a lot (therapy, time, support from other fat activists) for me to be able to use “fat” to describe my body in a neutral way, and I’d be lying if I said there are never days when it doesn’t still pop into my head in exactly the same way this video means it to.
The obvious difference is that unlike Taylor, I’m not just fat; I’m often the fattest person anyone knows. I’m “superfat,” and that comes with a lot of baggage that I didn’t pack, yet still have to carry. Someone who looks like Taylor will never understand how actually being fat feels. They might “feel fat,” because our culture has turned body size into feelings, and because even thin women are harmed by our society’s insidious and painful messaging about bodies, but it is not the same as actually being fat. There are millions of lived experiences erased by this message, including mine, and it sucks.
There are so many other words that this scale could have displayed that would have better conveyed the feelings Swift has experienced related to body image, without making it about fatness ― or for that matter, thinness. Because to be clear, I wouldn’t support this scale saying “too skinny,” either. (But it didn’t, and there’s a reason “fat” is what her brain tells her is the worse word here.)
Alternative words this scale could have displayed: Unworthy. Unlovable. Hated. Terrible. Bad. This list could go on and on. The point would then be that the scale cannot measure your worth, but if you let it, it will lie to you about your value. For her millions of fans, I would’ve loved this to be a message of, “Your body size isn’t what’s most important.”
Instead, we see a thin woman being told she’s fat by the scale, which sends the dangerous message that even thin people (especially women and femmes) are actually not thin enough. While I’m writing this from the perspective of a fat person, I want to be clear that this message harms thin people, too. That’s not a maybe, not in a video that already has 16 million views and 1.4 million likes in less than two days.
I’m not trying to “cancel” Taylor Swift. If anything, I feel very sad that with all of her success and talent, weight gain is still one of her worst fears. But it’s not hard for me to understand.
She was only 15 when she became famous. (At 15, I was hospitalized for my eating disorder for seven weeks.) She’s literally lived more than half her life, starting as a young, impressionable teen, in the spotlight. She’s grown up in an industry where she’s lucky to still have the major career she does, especially as a woman, because so many young artists don’t maintain this level of success for so long.
I am not sure there’s anyone who can live in (let alone grow up in) her world without absorbing these messages on a profound level. Becoming fat could quite literally end her career ― because that’s how insidious fatphobia is in the world in general, forget about the entertainment industry. Let that sink in for a moment.
However, this is exactly why I would love nothing more than for Taylor to change this scene in the video. Edit it out, or change the word. Either works. There’s a responsibility that comes with a platform her size, and given how many of her fans are young, sometimes second generation Swifties, this is truly something that could have a powerful, positive impact. But as it stands, it’s a profoundly negative one ― especially for her actually fat fans of all ages. It also allows her industry to perpetuate the very attitudes that led to her feeling this way.
When Lizzo was recently called out for using a word in her lyrics that is an insult for many disabled fans, she changed the lyrics. Beyoncé used this same word, and also changed it. That was incredible to witness. These two brilliant, talented women listened to fans and didn’t just respond. They acted.
Given that most people view fatness as a choice, I don’t expect much, if any, outrage over this moment in the video, at least outside of the fat activism community which has been trying to start a dialogue about this scene. But if it happened… well, that would send a very potent message to millions of people.
I don’t want anyone to suffer from an ED, but fat people have eating disorders, too, including anorexia. We already struggle with getting treatment for these potentially deadly conditions ― our pleas for help unheard, lost in the clamor of voices screaming about how our fatness itself is a disease. We’re celebrated for losing weight, even if we’re ― as Taylor said she did ― effectively starving ourselves, skipping meals or engaging in other harmful behaviors. We’re supposed to be trying to be thin, at any cost … even if it’s slowly killing us, the same as it kills our thin counterparts. That’s why this matters so damn much.
I won’t be awake at midnight obsessing over or expecting this scene to be changed or removed… but I’ll still daydream that it could happen.