Opinion | Calling a woman “brave” for posting photos of her body is not a compliment

By Remy Samuels, Staff Columnist

It must be really stressful to be a female celebrity in today’s social media age. With the snap of a photo and the click of a button, your body can be scrutinized by anyone who has access to the internet. Women who aren’t famous are already picked apart enough, so for celebrities, the criticism is only amplified.

Say you need to run some errands, and as you are walking to your car, TMZ bombards you with cameras in your face. You’re wearing a random crop top you pulled from your drawer because it was the cleanest thing you could find, and you have bedhead from the night before. Later that day, you check social media and see people are calling you “brave” for having the guts to walk outside the house looking like that.

Calling a person “brave” or “unapologetic” for posting photos of their body that is not a size zero is not a compliment. This word choice suggests they have something to apologize for. It suggests they are courageous for simply living in their own skin. It suggests that their body is weak or disadvantaged and “good on them” for being proud of their “abnormal” body type. We need to stop using language, particularly toward women, that enforces this ideal that being skinny is the norm and that having a bigger body is something to be ashamed of.

It is also unsurprising that these comments are primarily directed toward women. I have noticed this language used most recently in response to female celebrities after photos of them were released either by paparazzi or on their own social media accounts.

Several paparazzi photos of singer Billie Eilish walking to her car were posted online on Oct. 13. Eilish is typically known for wearing oversized sweatshirts and T-shirts and baggy pants, so her body shape has been fairly ambiguous to the public. And she has done this purposefully. In a video with Vogue Australia from 2019, Eilish explained that she purposely wears clothes that are several sizes too big in order to avoid scrutiny from the media.

“It kind of gives nobody the opportunity to judge what your body looks like,” Eilish said. “I don’t want to give anyone the excuse of judging. Anything you look at, you judge.”

She wants her audience to focus on her music, her videos and her voice, rather than her appearance. And who could blame her? When these photos came out of Eilish in a form-fitting tank top and shorts, revealing more of her figure, people had a lot to say about it. 

On Twitter, some people immediately dissected the photos and praised Eilish for her “bravery.” 

Other tweets were making jokes out of the photos.

“In 10 months Billie Eilish has developed a mid-30’s wine mom body,” GamesNosh tweeted

These comments that may seem like a harmless joke or even a compliment are often not received in the way they were intended. It’s certainly possible that the people making these comments are genuinely trying to praise Eilish, but there is an undertone that suggests they are making fun of her body or there is something wrong with her body. Even if Eilish never sees these comments it can be triggering to other people who struggle with their own body insecurities.

This problematic language is related to issues people have with the body positivity movement. Most notably, the singer Lizzo — someone who is plus-sized and often preaches self-love and body confidence — has spoken out about her gripes with the movement.

“I think it’s lazy for me to just say I’m body positive at this point,” Lizzo said in an interview with Vogue. “It’s easy. I would like to be body-normative. I want to normalize my body.”

She explained that body positivity has been commercialized so much that it has almost become complacent, and it’s not as inclusive as it should be. Ironically, it was Black women who started the body positivity movement in the 1960s and then again in the social media space. And Lizzo is not the only one who has noticed a shift in the movement. Many have criticized how the movement has become all about white women with hour-glass figures no bigger than a size 16.

“Now, you look at the hashtag ‘body positive,’ and you see smaller-framed girls, curvier girls,” Lizzo said. “Lotta white girls. And I feel no ways about that, because inclusivity is what my message is always about.”

Lizzo is someone who has unabashedly put her body on display for the majority of her career. The cover of her album “Cuz I Love You” is a photo of her naked body, and she often performs in leotards during her concerts. This is her way of promoting self-love and proclaiming that she has nothing to be ashamed of or to apologize for.

On his Netflix series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman,” Lizzo told Letterman, “In 2014, when I was wearing a leotard on stage and saying I love myself with two big girls also in leotards, I think people were like ‘How dare she? How dare she love herself? How could she?’”

Clearly, Lizzo takes a different approach than Eilish, who purposely tries to conceal her body. But regardless of how these women choose to present their bodies to the public, it does not justify comments like “you’re so brave” when someone like Eilish decides to wear a tank top. Nothing about that is brave. She is simply living in her body — something we all do on a daily basis.

In general, there is too much of an emphasis on women’s bodies, and it often detracts from their actual talent or intelligence. This is also something Lizzo called attention to in her interview with Letterman.

“I’m sick of being an activist just because I’m fat and Black,” Lizzo said. “I want to be an activist because I’m intelligent, because I care about issues, because my music is good, because I want to help the world.”

There is also the example of Adele, whose weight loss has recently gained a lot of media attention. When she posted an Instagram picture on her birthday in May, all people could talk about was her “dramatic” and “incredible” weight loss. It’s very possible that Adele is happy with all the weight loss compliments she’s been receiving, but I cannot help but notice the extreme focus on her weight, as opposed to her new album that is supposed to drop in 2021 or her performance hosting SNL. I also feel as though if Adele were a man, people would not be nearly as obsessed with her body and weight loss. I do not think anyone is denying her talent, but it is a shame there has been so much attention on her “new body.”

Promoting this ideal that being skinny is the norm and something we should all try to attain is dangerous rhetoric. Calling a woman brave for literally doing nothing but living her life is simply masking this unrealistic standard with words associated with “body positivity.” That being said, we need to be careful with our words. Next time you want to compliment someone, whether it’s on social media or in real life, really question if your compliment is actually a compliment before you say it.

Remy Samuels writes primarily about current social issues. You can write to her at [email protected].