Last summer, my 20-year-old daughter was looking for new pants when the salesclerk described one pair as “very slimming”. My kid turned and asked with a raised eyebrow: “Why would I want that?” Why, indeed.

he was right to call out our assumption that slimmer is always better. As a woman raised on self-deprecation and Jane Fonda workout videos, I know I’ve got work to do on this front.

Still, I understand why gushing over someone else’s weight loss is so fraught. I wasn’t surprised when Oprah Winfrey asked Adele last week how she was coping with the intense, emotional debate over her new body. The English singer has lost nearly 45kg (seven stones) and people are arguing over how to talk about it – and even whether to talk about it.

After being the most revered plus-size role model on the planet (other than Oprah herself), Adele finds herself on the flip side of the body positivity movement.

“I feel bad that, you know, it’s made anyone feel horrible about themselves,” she told Oprah, adding almost apologetically that she had not intended to lose weight and had just wanted to get stronger after her divorce.

In a cover story for this month’s issue of Vogue, Adele said she understood why some fans were hurt. “Visually”, as she put it, “I represented a lot of women.”

Commenters pointed out that praise for thin Adele can seem like a rejection of heavier Adele and those who resemble her. But Adele also pushed back on the “brutal conversations” being had by other women about her body, noting that she was being objectified by all sides.

These exchanges reveal a chasm between our empowerment talk and the real-world expectations women face. Lots of us are stuck in the middle, talking woke, but knowing conventional beauty ideals still have a hold on us. It’s like a cultural bardo – between a Kardashian present and a brave Frances McDormand future.

Even Beyoncé, an icon of confidence, has to navigate the tension between how we want to see ourselves and how the world treats us. She wrote Bootylicious to reject comments about her weight when she was 19.

Later, in her documentary, Homecoming, filmed after she had twins, Beyoncé gets on a scale and the camera zooms in on the number between her feet: 79kg. “This is every woman’s nightmare,” she says.

There are millions – no billions – of #BodyPositivity posts, TikTok videos, ads and articles in which we reassure ourselves that every woman is beautiful and sexy at every size and age. But here’s the catch: Even when we’re posting photos of our belly rolls to say we embrace them, the subject is still our bodies. And even as we fight to expand beauty standards, we’re still connecting female appearance to female value.

It’s so much easier to embrace body positivity for others than for ourselves. Someone posts about self-esteem struggles and we respond with hearts and cries of: “You’re beautiful just the way you are!” Meanwhile, we’re looking in the mirror and fretting over back fat.

All this positivity hasn’t put a dent in the market for beauty treatments. We still download diet apps; cosmetic procedures remained popular during the coronavirus pandemic when we weren’t even going to the dentist.

Despite progress with more diverse models and clothing options, those who have grown up in the body positivity age are not necessarily more liberated from insecurity than their mothers.

The selfie generation have surely spent more time contemplating their own image than any other. Eating disorders are on the rise among Gen Z and research revealed that Instagram exacerbates teenage girls’ negative feelings about their bodies. Social platforms are made to encourage comparisons and connect looks to likes, which is toxic for self-esteem.

I’ve walked this confounding tightrope long before there was language for it. I thought by now I would have stopped caring about my size or my greys, but I still do, which is embarrassing. I’ve gained and lost the same 13kg at least three times since I was 16. The weight comes and goes like ballast for stressful events such as a divorce or the death of a parent or a new job.

I should probably say here that I’m the same inside at any size, but when I look at whichever set of clothes is too big or too small at the moment, it seems like they belong to another me.

I try to keep my laments to myself these days so as not to spread the virus of self-consciousness and to avoid getting dinged by my kids, who will surely keep showing me the way. (© The Washington Post)

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