Words Carry Weight: Accusations of Fatphobia in Taylor Swift’s Anti Hero Video

Christy Clark

On Friday 21st October, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift released her highly anticipated 10th studio album, ‘Midnights’. However, the music video for the lead single, Anti-Hero, received widespread backlash for accusations of fatphobia. Impact‘s Christy Clark looks at the arguments and context on both sides.

In the video, two versions of the singer (good and bad) play out her nightmare scenarios and intrusive thoughts. One of the scenes show Swift stepping onto a set of scales, flanked by her evil alter-ego. The camera focuses on her feet, showing the needle landing on not numbers, but the word ‘FAT’. Swift looks up, despondent, and the other Swift shakes her head, disappointed. Following immense backlash from both critics and the media, Swift opted to remove the scene just several days after the video’s release.

Anti-Hero is a full blown, self-hateful, but crucially real statement to her own experiences

Now before we delve into the nuance on Swift’s actions, let’s look at some context to the scene. The song lyrics (It’s me, hi, I’m the problem/ Midnights become my afternoons/ When my depression works the graveyard shift) suggest she has moved away from the loveable, sunset skies of 2019’s Lover. Anti-Hero is a full blown, self-hateful, but crucially real statement to her own experiences. Whether they resonate with, or exasperate the public, this is important context to note.

Yet at the same time, anything that Taylor Swift does is, naturally, observed by millions around the globe. The video already has 53 million views in just over two weeks, and ‘Midnights’ is Swift’s highest first-week seller.

In this sense, even feelings that come from a very personal, lived experience, should be viewed on a wider scale as something with the ability to perpetuate negative stereotypes. As @fatfabfeminist claimed on Twitter, “demonizing the word fat while never having the experience of living in a fat body? fatphobic”.

This tweet attracted a myriad of social media support, going viral and providing a lot of criticism for Swift. And who am I to tell people what they can be offended about? The key message is that some people watched the video and were offended. Swifties disagreeing and starting social media warfare doesn’t change that.

And if the input of a viral tweet isn’t enough, how about a professional opinion? Shira Rosenbluth, a specialist working on issues of body image and eating issues, claimed “Fat people don’t need to have it reiterated yet again that it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to look like us”. She added, “Having an eating disorder doesn’t excuse fatphobia”.

‘Did her portrayal of her own struggles sustain fatphobic stereotypes?’

Swift listened and removed the scene, despite strong arguments from both sides. Perhaps this is in part due to her experience of being ‘cancelled’ in 2016. At such a successful moment in her career, is it really worth sacrificing everything over this?

Notably, even her critics don’t see her as a calculated villain here. It’s not so much a question of ‘Is Swift fatphobic?’ as it is ‘Did her portrayal of her own struggles sustain fatphobic stereotypes?’ As The Cut wrote, “I don’t think her intention was to be fatphobic”, however “couldn’t [she] think of a better, less triggering word?”.

Well, The Independent thinks not. Clémence Michallon suggested Swift is attempting “to show the warped perspective of someone with an eating disorder”, where the word ‘fat’ feels like an absolute reality, no matter the person’s relative weight.

Swift herself has been vocal about her struggles with eating disorders. In the 2020 Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, she stated “it’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day” as well as opening up about her disordered eating habits.

Is representation of one group allowable if it devalues another?

This isn’t a Taylor Swift problem – it’s a society-wide one, which the music video critiques. Swift confronts the damning reality, which she herself struggled with as a teenage girl in a small town, struggling to find support and resonance in a world of fake social media body standards. With the removal of just a five second scene, Swift’s critics have pushed her to erase her own experience for the benefit of others.

But with this debate comes a deeper question: is representation of one group allowable if it devalues another?

Maybe Swift should have used a less triggering word; maybe she should have put a trigger warning at the beginning of the video. But at the end of the day, we live in a society where female celebrities are put under a microscope, intensely examined by the media, and then spat out again as immoral, or insensitive beings regardless of their intention.

It’s hard to miss the industry double standard here

Just think of Lizzo and Beyonce removing ableist slurs in recent albums. In contrast, Eminem received media backlash for homophobic and misogynistic lyrics in his 2000 song Criminal, yet chose to leave them in. Whether you believe Swift should have removed the scene or not, it’s hard to miss the industry double standard here.

It may be best to finish on Michallon’s quote, “Context matters”. Watching the video for the first time may come across as fatphobic but, contextually, Swift’s intentions are anything but. Whilst the scene’s erasure may please a few, it will heavily disappoint thousands of fans suffering from eating disorders and body dysmorphia every day, without much media representation. It was never about fatphobia.

Christy Clark

Featured image courtesy of i yunmai via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article video courtesy of Taylor Swift via YouTube. No changes were made to this video.

In-article image courtesy of @fatfabfeminist via Twitter. No changes were made to this image.

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