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Social Justice

Taylor Swift & the Anti-Hero controversy

Updated April 5, 2023
A pink background with a green weigh scale that, instead of having numbers, reads STILL WRONG.

By now, the Swifties among you already know that last weekend, T Swizzle released Midnights, her latest album in an embarrassingly prolific stream of albums (embarrassing for those of us who find it difficult to produce even ONE of any given thing that they get paid to produce). The album’s first video was for the instantly catchy tune, Anti-Hero. Controversy quickly followed when disappointed fans and fat activists argued that a scene where Taylor steps on a scale that then reads “FAT” is fatphobic. Further controversy then ensued when Taylor took that scene out of the video within a few days of its original release.

At stake were several questions that could fuel a media studies class for an entire year. 

On one hand, context is everything, right? The video’s visuals and lyrics are about an “anti-hero” version of Taylor (“I’m the problem, it’s me”), the destructive side of ourselves that embraces binge drinking and alienating others. As anyone who has experienced an eating disorder or disordered eating knows, it is this destructive, shame-fuelled side of ourselves that takes over our relationship with food. And that’s what the video seemed to depict: the anti-hero Taylor admonishing the other, “regular” Taylor for her weight, pleased by the shame she feels over it. (NB: The musician discussed her restrictive [aka disordered] relationship with food in the 2020 documentary about her, entitled Miss Americana.) It was self vs self.

On the other hand, we had legions of actual fat people—something Taylor is not and never has been—feeling harmed and targeted by the use of the word FAT in an extremely pejorative way. Being FAT, it’s clear from the video, is BAD. Taylor herself had said about the video (which she wrote and directed herself) that it depicts “nightmare” scenarios for her, of which the possibility of feeling or being fat is one of them. For a lot of people, this is profoundly insulting and harmful.

When a whole community of people is coming forward and explaining how and why harm has been caused, it’s important to listen to them. It’s beautiful and remarkable that Taylor did just that. But even though I am a member of said community, I have to admit that when I first saw it, I didn’t find the video harmful or offensive because Taylor’s POV is, to me, a mere statement of fact: fat, for many people, is a literal nightmare.

The reason why I felt that way has everything to do with my work as a coach. My clients, being people who have varying degrees of disordered eating, are among those people who feel that way. I have enormous compassion for them (and anyone else who has a disordered relationship with food). How could I coach them otherwise?

It’s a compassion that’s rooted in the self-compassion I had to locate when I was doing the hard work of healing my super messed up beliefs and rules about food. Back then, the thought of gaining weight was terrifying because it threatened loss: a loss of control, a loss of respect, a loss of love-ability, a loss of attractiveness, a loss of power and pretty privilege. Today, I know it doesn’t have to mean those things at all (but it does mean having to put up with a lot more bullshit from the world, which can get pretty tiring).

But in order to get to a point where I knew I could coach clients safely, I had to be really clear with myself: could I have compassion for people who had spent years of their lives doing everything they could to not have a body that looked like mine? Ultimately, the answer was yes. I found that the deeper I could go into compassion, the less threatening that point of view felt to me. Today, I’m able to work with clients wrestling with their anti-fat bias because I am crystal clear that I don’t have to own any part of that, or make their work mean anything about me.

My compassion, of course, should not be confused with tolerance. I no longer have truck with the idea that fat is wrong, bad, or de facto unhealthy. I am an uppity bitch in this regard, and try to teach others the same about anything having to do with their bodies that they have been taught is inadequate or wrong (hence: bitchcraft). But in order to get to true uppityness, you gotta go through the heavy lifting of unlearning sooo much bullshit.

To wit: part of the work of eating disorder recovery is around exploring one’s own internalized anti-fatness. It is disappointing but not surprising that Taylor doesn’t seem to have reached that stage in her ED recovery. On the other hand, the self she depicted in the video is the part of her whose head is deeply in eating disorder-land. It’s relatable to many. But the irony is that the video—especially the unedited, OG version—may very well perpetuate the same harm that fuels eating disorders in the first place.

To me, the question now becomes: how much harm is reduced by the removal of the word “fat” from the video? Does the scene now become a sympathetic depiction of the nightmarish inner thoughts of a thin woman with an eating disorder? Or is an illustration of a private battle on a bathroom scale itself fatphobic, regardless of contextual cues?

When Taylor’s team snipped the image of the scale displaying FAT on it out of the video, reactions from observers included relief and gratitude; there were a few reflections on the power of people pushing back collectively against fatphobia. But overall, the responses seemed really muted, far more muted than when, say, Lizzo took an ableist slur out of one of her songs this summer. Many folks on TikTok took a virtual victory lap after that happened.

I suspect the muted response was due to the hollow-ness of the victory: eating disorders and anti-fat bias still prevail. Or perhaps no one was really high fiving themselves in this case because, as happens so often, the backlash to the backlash felt worse than the original transgression in the first place. The ferocity of Swifties defending her from accusation of anti-fat bias was INTENSE.

One thing this controversy does seem to signal is that the public appetite for unvarnished depictions of thin women with eating disorders does seem to be, well, wearing thin. Perhaps it’s a signal that we are in a cultural moment where we need to tell those stories alongside a counter-narrative that illustrates or challenges the underlying anti-fat bias that underpins disordered eating. To me, this means that the recovery stories of thin people like Taylor Swift can be welcomed, while using them as opportunities to illustrate and unpack the anti-fat bias that hurts both fat and thin people.