Mariah Carey is topless on the cover of Paper magazine, her wavy hair covering her chest and arms bowed out behind her head like butterfly wings. She wears an exquisitely jeweled body harness, fishnet stockings, sheer black gloves, and a sweet smile.
She’s not too heavily made up, but the 47-year-old singer looks at least 20 years younger, and her waist is slim as ever.
She proudly shared the image on Instagram with her 6 million followers and thanked the “genius” photographer behind the shoot. But some of Carey’s fans remarked that she looked significantly slimmer than she actually is and criticized her for doctoring the image.
“This is obvious Photoshopping. Totally takes away from her rather than adds to who she is,” one person commented.
“This saddens me because I saw the original and I think you look AMAZING without the glass of photoshop,” another wrote, presuming she’d further doctored the original image because she’s insecure about her curvy shape. “Embrace your body, Ma. We all already do.”
“You are not skinny,” reads another, like a hard-ass motivational speaker. “Accept it and love yourself the way you are.”
One finger-wagging fan was disappointed that Carey didn’t look “real” enough, and accused her of sending a negative message about body image to young women:
“I would have loved this more if she would have showed her real self and maybe just airbrushed the minor stuff like scars but taking half your body out...Come on MiMi, let the younger fans have something to look up to.”
We’ve seen this kind of body-shaming again and again from stars’ fans who compulsively scrutinize their idols for being too heavy or too thin.
Fans demand that stars show their “real” bodies, and if they look thinner on a glossy magazine cover than they do in paparazzi photos or performances, they are castigated for conforming to Western body-image standards and setting bad examples for children.
Indeed, body positivity doesn’t apply to curvy women who suddenly drop weight or look particularly slim in a professional photo shoot.
Their fans feel personally betrayed whenever their full-figured idols look less full-figured. They hold them up on a pedestal as curvy women who appear satisfied with their curves—champions of body-positivity!—then tear them down whenever their curves are less pronounced.
They preach about the importance of women having autonomy over their own bodies, then hypocritically turn on stars like Carey for projecting an image of themselves as they wish to be projected—no matter if it’s “realistic” or not.
We don’t afford our idols the same human impulses and insecurities that we have, even as we project these impulses and insecurities onto them.
Yes, it’s discouraging that women’s bodies are constantly scrutinized in the media. Yes, it’s discouraging that Western standards view the ideal female body as a thin body with proportionate feminine assets.
But our obsession with curvy women being displayed as sexy (see model Ashley Graham, who has also been skinny-shamed, on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition) and “embracing” their bodies does nothing to change the narrative around body image.
It perpetuates a culture that places too much emphasis on body image, whether curvy or thin, and preaches “body positivity” while obsessively dissecting other people’s bodies.
Earlier this year, Lena Dunham’s fans gave her a hard time on social media after she showed up at the launch of celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson’s new studio looking noticeably slimmer than she looked the last time she’d been in the public eye.
Having lost weight, Dunham’s fans decided she could no longer be their body championing advocate. Dunham addressed her disappointed fans in an Instagram post: “I feel I’ve made it pretty clear over the years that I don’t give even the tiniest of shits what anyone else feels about my body,” she wrote.
“I’ve accepted that my body is an ever changing organism, not a fixed entity... I smile just as wide no matter my current size because I’m proud of what this body has seen and done and represented. Chronic illness sufferer. Body-shaming vigilante. Sexual assault survivor. Raging hottie. Just like all of YOU.”
Dunham noted that she was trying to exercise more and eat healthier as a way of dealing with her endometriosis. “So my weight loss isn’t a triumph and it also isn’t some sign that I’ve finally given in to the voices of trolls. Because my body belongs to ME.”
Ashley Graham faced a similar charge from fans last year when she shed pounds several months after appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. “You did lose a lot of weight,” one fan commented on an Instagram photo of Graham, then renounced her fandom. “I am no longer a fan of yours. You betrayed a lot of people!”
Graham responded to fans’ accusations of betrayal in a letter in Lena Dunham’s Lenny newsletter, “Shamed if I do, Shamed if I don’t,” explaining that she chose to lose weight—and that women who claim to champion body positivity are doing the opposite when they debate and scrutinize another woman’s figure.
The media is saturated with narratives about body image—and they aren’t going away soon.
Regarding criticism of Carey, the Daily Mail weighed in that she and her ex-fiancé, “former svelte Australian” James Packer, have both packed on pounds since they split in October 2016, before arriving at a predictable, utterly unproven hypothesis: “It could very well be that the Fantasy singer has turned to food to mask her heartache.”
But Carey’s fans would do better to devote less emotional energy to the singer’s body and more to their own troubled relationships with body image.