My Fat Body Is Not A Punishment, No Matter What Drew Barrymore Says

Being fat, getting fat, staying fat: These are things that have no inherent moral value.
Drew Barrymore on the cover of the August edition of InStyle magazine.
Drew Barrymore on the cover of the August edition of InStyle magazine.

In the August issue of InStyle, between discussing life during COVID-19 and her upcoming talk show, cover girl Drew Barrymore also made some (to me) startling comments about her body, saying, among other problematic things, that she has to diet and exercise so she’s not “the size of a bus.”

“I eat really clean and healthy, and I do an hour of Pilates at least four days a week,” she told the magazine. “I have to work so hard at not being the size of a bus. And it’s OK. That is just my journey. That is my karma. I don’t know, maybe I was thin and mean in a past life.”

The whole quote strikes me as off-brand for Barrymore, who generally comes across as a relentlessly positive if kooky everywoman with a feminist bent and enough of a wild child past to thumb her nose at the conventions of “celebrity.” Her image of hippie-ish serenity is reinforced by the interview’s accompanying images, in which she makes the peace sign and poses with a live chicken tucked under her arm.

It also reads to me like something from the realm of women’s media 10 to 15 years ago, before we banished terms such as “bikini body” from our glossy cover lines and replaced them with Tess Holliday. Sure, diet culture is alive and thriving, and the watered-down lip service version of “body positivity” is now being used to sell us things, but I still thought we’d come a little further than this.

There are LAYERS of things to be upset about in Barrymore’s answer, starting with the fact that when asked a fairly innocuous question, she conflates “taking care of herself” with regulating her body’s size. Eating nourishing food and moving our bodies can certainly be self-care. But thinness and striving for thinness are not inherently good for you. In fact, the pursuit of thinness quite often results in behaviors that are the opposite of providing loving care for yourself.

Then there’s the term “eat clean,” which reinforces the damaging idea that what a person chooses to eat has some kind of moral value. Food isn’t good or bad, clean or unclean. Food is just food, and the choices we make about what to eat don’t say anything about our value as people. (Not to mention that the foods we consider “clean” are often the foods that are least accessible to those in lower-income brackets.)

There’s the fact that Barrymore refers to her strenuous efforts to maintain a smaller body size as “her journey,” which frankly just makes me sad, even if she’s being glib. What a depressing thing to consider your journey, a lifetime of struggling to be thin.

But what bothers me most of all is the idea, expressed in Barrymore’s joke that her body type is her “karma” for being “thin and mean in a former life,” that gaining weight, or simply having a fat body, is some kind of punishment.

As Barrymore said of herself, I have the kind of body that resists thinness. I was a fat kid, I was a very fat adolescent, and today I’m a slightly less fat but still plus-sized adult. The “less fat” was “achieved” in college through low-carb dieting, and the almost two decades after my more than 100-pound weight loss were punctuated by periods of restrictive dieting. Periods that, by the way, were always followed by the slow regaining of whatever weight I’d lost, because that is generally how diets work ― or rather, don’t work.

Like Barrymore, and probably most women (and many men) who haven’t done the hard work of dismantling and unlearning fatphobia, I still have deeply internalized but unwanted ideas about weight and my body, driven largely by diet culture. Diet culture wants me to live my life on a forever diet, hating myself and hating my body. It wants me to believe that I am worthless if I gain a pound and morally superior when I lose one. It wants me to believe that I will only be healthy and happy at a smaller size because it wants me to buy things I believe will get me there.

So while I think it was irresponsible of Barrymore to uncritically express those thoughts in a publication, I don’t think she’s a villain so much as a victim of that same culture that tells us gaining weight or having a larger body is inherently bad.

But just as with food, there are no good or bad bodies. There are just bodies, in their myriad shapes and sizes, with the vast weight of cultural assumptions we put on them.

Being fat, getting fat, staying fat: These are things that have no inherent moral value. My body, which is larger than Barrymore’s, is not a punishment. The bodies of those who are larger than me are not a punishment. The punishment, in fact, is living while fat in a society in which fat is treated as retribution for bad behavior, while thin is seen as a reward for the saintly pursuit of self-deprivation.

We’re living a moment in which a lot of our cultural hang-ups about weight are awkwardly on display: the Instagram influencer who crafts a caption simultaneously apologizing for and pretending to embrace her quarantine weight gain, the people so desperate to get back to their gym routines they’re working out in plastic pods. As a society, we’re so uncomfortable with the idea of weight gain that we’re agonizing over a few extra pounds during a global pandemic.

It seems like a particularly fraught time to be reinforcing the idea, even jokingly, that fat is something that happens to bad people.

“Taking care of yourself” is not defined as shrinking your body or maintaining a smaller body size. In fact, we cannot begin to truly take care of ourselves until we opt out of a system that tells us our worth is determined by a number on the scale and make peace with our bodies, sans judgment or shame.

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