Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Think we’re moving past the days when a woman’s body was everybody’s body – there for the ogling, the analyzing, the commenting on, judging, shaming? We can always harbor that hope – but then along comes a story like the one this week about actress Valerie Bertinelli, who, thanks to the internet, has become the latest celebrity victim to serve as public fodder for trolls.
In a moving video posted Thursday to her Instagram account, Bertinelli describes a comment she received from an Instagram follower who, she said, “decided to point out that I need to lose weight.” The actress continues, with understandable sarcasm: “See, I don’t have a scale, or I don’t have clothes that I’m trying to put on every day and I don’t have mirrors so I don’t see what’s become of me.” Her eyes begin to water. “So I needed that help to let me know that I need to lose weight.” She pauses, and now she is crying. She lets that soak in. And then, she addresses the commenter directly. “You’re not being helpful.”
She adds: “If I could lose the weight and keep it off I would, but since I haven’t been successful with that my whole entire life, at 61, I’m still dealing with it.” And then: “Where’s the compassion?”
In a message posted with the video, Bertinelli asks: “aren’t we tired of body shaming women yet?!”
Women know the answer. And, of course, many are particularly alive to this problem as they emerge from 18 months in various levels of lockdown. Besides the physical (sometimes life-altering and tragic), emotional and economic effects of the pandemic, there is a more mundane, but fraught, result for many. An American Psychological Association survey found that 41% of Americans say they gained weight during the pandemic, with the “Quarantine 19” (as in 19 pounds) a sort of lockdown version of the “Freshman 15.”
In her video, Bertinelli addresses her internet troll: “When you see somebody who has put some weight on, my first thought it that person is obviously going through some things.” That’s one woman’s opinion, obviously. The person who has put on weight may have any number of perfectly positive reasons for it: happiness, an unabashed delight in the pleasures of delicious food, a decision to eschew punishing diets and instead embrace their natural and beautiful body.
One wishes it were needless to say today: Women come in all sizes and shapes and our society (and especially pop culture) has done tremendous harm over the years – saddling women with body image issues and eating disorders – as it has glorified thinness as the preferred state. Her health is what is important, and this is an issue that is between her and her doctor or nutritionist. Period.
Bertinelli’s video reflects, perhaps, some of the complexity of all this. Of course, she owes no one any explanation. Whether she has gained or lost weight is simply no one’s business but her own. Indeed, unsolicited, personal comments like the one leveled at her by a stranger are, plainly, online bullying in the form of body shaming. Women in particular are often subjected to unsolicited criticism online (and in real life) for being fat, thin, tall, short, small-breasted, busty, too “plain,” too sexy and so on, with a scrutiny rarely leveled at men. Celebrity women, like Bertinelli, often have to deal with that kind of invasive treatment on a very public scale.
The old-fashioned conventional wisdom has long been to ignore bullies – that the attention and fight is what they want – or to never let them see they’ve bothered you. And for years, this is what many celebrity women have done – for appearances’ sake, for their careers, to stay above the fray and maintain their larger-than-life personas.
Even when celebrity women choose not to ignore the shaming, they are increasingly likely to go on the offensive. Years ago, in fact, after designer Karl Lagerfeld called British singer Adele “a little too fat,” she told People magazine that she embraced her curves. “I’ve never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines,” she said. “I represent the majority of women and I’m very proud of that.” In May of last year, Adele debuted a new appearance, revealing a significant weight loss. Was she celebrated? By some, yes; others on social media said some version of: I want the old Adele…chubbier, prettier. (Further evidence for women of the pointlessness of paying attention to any of it.)
What makes Bertinelli’s response different is her refusal to ignore it or play it off with some welcome body positivity or a “just buzz off” mentality.
What makes it powerful is her willingness to admit her truth and be vulnerable in public: that she has struggled with her weight and that knowing that others have noticed hurts. There are countless people, women and men, who know what that feels like. She makes it clear this pain is hers alone – she’s unhappy with her body, but she does not imply that others who may look like her also need to lose weight. She addresses the fact that society is set up to shame and scorn women who are not thin, while also recognizing that, very often, women are their own harshest critics. They don’t need additional commentary to notice their flaws and to beat themselves up for them.
Bertinelli’s video asks: Why not show people who hurt others what that hurt looks like? In doing so – in openly crying, her face up in the camera without makeup – she issues what may be an even more empowering message to others going through the same thing, whether they are being bullied because of weight or something else.
Here is Valerie Bertinelli, a woman who has had a long and successful career and she does care what you think. Because, guess what? She’s human. Just like the rest of us. And she hurts, just like we all do.
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Bertinelli should be celebrated and looked to as a new role model for dealing with bullies. But let’s be clear: She’s not employing a strategy, she’s being real. Bullies will always exist. They will always seek to hurt. The thing is, we don’t have to pretend we’re okay with it or appear impervious to the pain of it in order to fight back. Not anymore.