The Cynical Truth Behind Will Smith’s Quarantine Bod Reveal
“It’s fair to question how these revelations are being fed to us and their motivation in sharing them,” writes Kyndall Cunningham.
As public consciousness over body image and the dangers of diet culture has evolved in the past decade, however marginally, celebrities choosing to disclose their personal weight-loss journeys have undergone a critical reassessment.
The latest entry in the gratuitous celebrity trend this week is none other than Will Smith. On Tuesday, the 52-year-old actor announced on Instagram that he would be partnering with YouTube, where he recently launched a vlog channel, for a new series dedicated to getting his “health and wellness back on track,” as in shedding the weight he gained eating “midnight muffins” over the course of the pandemic. In the Boomerang, he’s wearing nothing but a pair of boxer briefs and striking an exaggerated pose. This post came after a photo he uploaded the previous day in which the movie star also shows off his slightly hung belly with the caption, “I’m gonna be real wit yall - I’m in the worst shape of my life.”
Despite the self-deprecating and anti-fat undertones of this caption, Smith’s initial body reveal received praise from celebrities and fans in the comments section for “embracing” his body—referred to as a “dad bod”—and appearing relatable to people who also feel embarrassed about putting on extra pounds during quarantine. Regardless of the fact that the “worst” version of Smith’s body is still relatively small and seemingly straight-sized, the coverage of this photo op in mainstream media was mostly positive and didn’t reckon with the implications of this type of messaging for people with bodies larger than Smith’s.
However, the sudden whiplash of this seemingly “real” and “refreshing” moment to the announcement of a corporate-sponsored body transformation 24 hours later seemed to put the entire social media stunt into perspective for spectators online—and reveal a darker side to this particular form of celebrity over-sharing.
“Will Smith is not ‘embracing his body,’” said activist Dana White. “He’s seeing his pretty common body type as ‘the worst shape’ of his life and publicly stating, as one of the highest profile celebrities in the world, that his body needs fixing because he doesn’t have visible abs as millions died around us.”
“Hard to think Will Smith’s original intent was to spread body positivity and not that he gained weight on purpose so he could be sponsored by YouTube to lose it,” said another user.
Smith is hardly the first celebrity to publicize and profit off of losing weight. From Oprah to Valerie Bertinelli to DJ Khaled, celebrities, mostly female, have partnered with weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and adopted their transformations into their public narratives. In the age of social media, most of the negative response to this phenomenon has been aimed at figures like the Kardashian/Jenner clan and their coterie of models and influencers who promote quick-fix detox teas and waist trainers as ways to achieve their impossibly-toned bodies that the general public mostly credits to plastic surgery and Photoshop. But even celebrities claiming to take a more holistic, non-superficial approach to weight loss, aimed at “feeling better,” “getting healthy” or “getting in shape” like Megan Thee Stallion, Lizzo, Beyoncé, and now Smith, prompt a complicated but urgent question: What are people supposed to gain from all of this?
Discussing other people’s bodies and what they choose to do with them is a tough balancing act between respecting people’s agency and personal boundaries, and considering the ramifications of how they choose to project these decisions to the rest of the world. It’s why aforementioned beauty moguls like the Kardashians can defend their adherence to—and, therefore, endorsement of—diet culture and harmful methods of achieving beauty as a personal choice and a human right, to which their fans and the media agree without any further critical analysis.
Additionally, general curiosity about celebrities’ public weight-loss journeys often centers around why or how they did it, delving into the murky waters of mental health, insecurities and salacious, tabloid-ready details, as opposed to why they feel compelled to share that process with the world in the first place. The latter inquiry puts the branding aspect of celebrity into perspective. Considering how curatorial most celebrities are about the details of their lives and the forethought that goes into revealing something as personal as bodily health, it’s fair to question how these revelations are being fed to us and their motivation in sharing them.
I’ll admit that when rapper Megan Thee Stallion started posting videos of her Hottie Bootcamp along with before-and-after images of her weight loss and her diet regimen on Instagram back in January, I was confused on why she felt the need to bring her millions of young, adoring fans along for the ride with her and whether this choice was responsible, considering the amount harmful messaging women and girls (and boys and men) already receive about their bodies on this particular app. I’m still not 100 percent sure of the answer. However, when she clarified in her introductory video that she was embarking on a “health journey” and not “a weight-loss journey,” it was hard to accept that cliched claim on its face. Whether or not Megan also wanted to feel better on the inside in addition to the outside, as many people who lose weight will express, feels beside the point. After all, it’s not like she’s using the visual medium to post her blood pressure charts or report her blood sugar levels. The main and only takeaway from her health journey, as depicted in photos, was that she was getting smaller.
In Smith’s case, the obvious monetary incentive to lose weight through his partnership with YouTube is fair cause to be bummed out. But the careful use of language to preface his fitness journey, like Megan’s, is maybe a more depressing indicator of the future of the fat acceptance and body-positivity movements than his choice to accept money to work out (which he inevitably has to do as an A-list action star). The proclamation that the actor “love[s] [his] body” despite wanting to change it—coupled with a photo in which he proudly displays it as if he’s truly comfortable in it—illustrates just how easy it is to co-opt radical language and behavior in an age when this sort of information is accessible to everyone.