CW // disordered eating; diet culture

Lizzo, the American singer and songwriter whose album Cuz I Love You reached the top 5 of the US Billboard 200 in 2019, has recently faced swathes of backlash on social media, after posting a series of Instagram stories centred around a 10-day smoothie cleanse.

The stories, which she subsequently posted as videos onto her Instagram page, show her talking through her experience of the cleanse and her reasoning behind it: Lizzo wanted to “detox”, and reset her stomach after a trip to Mexico in November, on which she says she ate and drank in excess.1;2  

So what’s the problem with that?

The reactions have been mixed. Many were disappointed by the posts, accusing Lizzo of feeding into, and perpetuating diet culture to her (mainly) young fans. Others have suggested that Lizzo was irresponsible in promoting “detox” smoothie cleanses, with Dr Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) pointing out that there ‘is no such thing as a detox diet’ in response to the posts. Some have praised Lizzo for her shift towards being “healthier”.

I believe that the problem with these posts, and Lizzo’s smoothie cleanse, lies not so much with the actual content (she can do whatever she likes with her body after all), but with how she presented the experience of the juice cleanse itself.

In the caption to the videos, and in the videos themselves, Lizzo advertises the Instagram of JJ Smith, a self-proclaimed “fast weight loss” expert, who has a website selling programmes, with one claiming to help you lose ‘up to 20 pounds in 4 weeks’ by going keto.  The programme alone costs USD$199.99.  

The much bigger issue at hand here is the diet and fitness industries profiting off of people’s insecurities regarding their weight. As a cog in a much, much bigger machine, this is not something Lizzo should be specifically blamed or berated for. 

What Lizzo did do wrong, however, was advertise this diet to her 9.7 million followers. Eating disorder charity Beat has said that as many as 1.25 million people in the UK alone suffer from eating disorders, with that number rising each year3. With such a big platform, Lizzo has a responsibility to be mindful, at the very least, of the impact which her posts may have on her audience. The before-and-after photos she posted, the lack of a content warning, and the link to JJ Smith’s extreme diet plans, could have triggered relapses into disordered ways of eating, or contributed to their beginning. Such posts also fail to acknowledge the role that personal trainers and nutritionists play in many celebrities’ lives. In my opinion, Lizzo could have used her post to create a conversation about dieting and detoxing, specifically dieting as a fat woman.  

Lizzo has always been brilliantly, unashamedly fat. She has come to be seen as the pinnacle of body positivity, with many looking up to her for her inspiring confidence in being bigger. As a result, many were disappointed specifically because it was her doing the juice cleanse, rather than any other celebrity. Her song ‘Tempo’ rejoices in the movement of her being a ‘thick bitch’ with a bigger body. So when Lizzo shared her smoothie cleanse with her millions of followers, many saw this as a renouncing of her fatness and body positivity, not recognising that the two ideas (dieting and body positivity) need not be mutually exclusive. 

The expectations we place on celebrities are often unrealistic. Whilst Lizzo has often been hailed as a heroine of the body positive movement, she herself has taken issue with it, believing it to be too “commercialised’ and “cool”, as well as lamenting the number of traditionally beautiful, smaller, white bodies which have hijacked the Instagram tag, pointing out that being fat isn’t always analogous to being body positive4. Bigger bodies have still not been normalised within the public eye, and this is something Lizzo strives to change.  

The “white feminism” often encapsulated in the body positivity movement, which still prioritises the body of  ‘the white, slender, able-bodied cis-women’5, further demonstrates the problem with completely criticising Lizzo for her juice cleanse.  Whilst previously bigger, white celebrities such as Rebel Wilson have been praised for their weight loss, which has been described as “impressive”6 and “stunning”7 by the media, Lizzo has been berated, and faced tirades of backlash online, accusing her of selling out.  Miski Muse (@musegold), a hijabi model, raised this issue on Twitter, highlighting the different treatment that Lizzo has faced at the hands of the media: 

Marverine Cole in the Guardian discusses the impact of the strong black woman trope8, one which seems to be at the forefront of why Lizzo has been criticised so heavily. Studies have shown that Black women are often burdened with the expectation of being strong; something which can negatively impact their mental health9. Here then, is the expectation of Lizzo to be a strong role model, to shoulder the expectations of her millions of fans, only to face backlash when she “fails” in the eyes of the Internet.

Ultimately, Lizzo can do what she wants with her body, and I believe, as ever, that no-one should be commenting on her weight-loss, or how she has failed her fans by “buying” into diet culture. I do believe, however, that she should have addressed the question of “detox” smoothie cleanses with more nuance than she did – but hey, everything is a learning experience, right?