After a visit to New York for a voice lesson in 2003, a 13-year-old Taylor Swift wrote in her diary that she and her mom also hit their “FAVORITE ice cream store,” New York institution Tasti D-Lite. Swift marveled that Tasti D is “kosher, non cholesterol, extremely tasty, dreamy, frozen yogurt, and only 40 calories”—a set of attributes many diet-conscious New Yorkers know all too well—“Does it get any better than that?”
As I read this, my heart broke a little bit for Taylor Swift and every girl who’s ever been 13. That’s about when I started counting calories, too. Then again … Taylor Swift is a master of manipulating her own image. In sympathizing with her, wasn’t I doing exactly what she wanted?
The Tasti D reminiscence comes from an exclusive booklet that accompanies some deluxe editions of Swift’s new album, Lover. Each new Taylor Swift album used to bring with it a lyric booklet sprinkled with “secret” messages, characterized by capitalized letters that spelled out clues about the songs’ hidden meanings or whom (read: which ex-boyfriend) they were really about. Swift isn’t encrypting messages in her liner notes anymore, but the journal excerpts show that she hasn’t lost her penchant for marginalia. The deluxe editions, which are only available at Target, come with one of four different booklets containing reproductions of what are marketed as real diary entries Swift wrote between the ages of 13 and 27. How else could Swift justify what seems like little more than a cash grab—a way to get fans to spend more money on the album, or even multiple copies of the album, to collect them all—than with the promise of such intimacy?
It’s unclear how cynical to be about the diaries’ contents. Take another part of that same 2003 entry that made me sad for young Taylor, then suspicious of current Taylor. “The guys in our school aren’t even worth worrying about,” she wrote. “They are all in it for one thing and I think you know what that is, too.” Again, Swift was 13 writing this, already seemingly deeply steeped in rape culture and diet culture (to the extent that diet culture exists separately from rape culture) before she even got to high school. Later on, at 16, Swift wrote: “I have tomorrow off so I’m gonna go out to eat with Abigail. Oh and I’m dieting again. Over the holidays, I didn’t watch what I ate and man it’s so weird how fast I can gain or lose weight … it’s crazy. So I’m going to lose some now.” On the one hand, I can’t argue that this is anything but an accurate representation of female adolescence in America. On the other, I wonder what Swift, canny craftswoman of her brand that she is, is doing when she chooses to reveal these moments. This is not to say the diary entries are fake (though you never know) but that they have likely been carefully edited to reveal exactly as much as Swift wants to reveal. For some reason, what Swift wants to reveal right now is that she too struggles with what her body looks like, or at least used to.
Body image, as the New York Times pointed out, has historically not been a prominent theme for Swift, but it’s an area she’s lately been slowly wading into. In March, she said in Elle, “I learned to stop hating every ounce of fat on my body. I worked hard to retrain my brain that a little extra weight means curves, shinier hair, and more energy.” Of this “newer narrative,” a Times culture reporter wrote, “This is the kind of thing I can imagine really connecting with fans, who might otherwise feel like they know all there is to know about this figure.”
I agree that body image worries are extremely relatable, but how much, really, is there to be gained here? There’s so much doublethink when it comes to the diet-industrial complex that I can barely stake out a coherent position. I know it’s bad for women to think about dieting and their bodies constantly. I’ve also gleaned that it’s good for celebrities to reveal that they do it too, because that normalizes it. But is it such a good thing for celebrities to dedicate any of their time in the spotlight to unhealthy body obsessing when they could be doing actual art? Or is it overreacting to call plain old dieting “unhealthy”? Sometimes people just want to lose weight; do we really have to pathologize that?
It may be useful to compare Swift’s diet disclosures to another body moment from this year that I have complicated feelings about. In Beyoncé’s documentary about her 2018 Coachella performance, Homecoming, the star put herself through a grueling diet regimen to lose the weight she gained during pregnancy and eventually gushed about getting back down to fighting shape. “In order for me to meet my goal, I’m limiting myself to no bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol. And I’m hungry,” Beyoncé said in the documentary, which shows her returning to strenuous rehearsals after taking time off to have twins. And when she found that she finally fit into an old, pre-pregnancy costume, she was overjoyed: “OK, this is seriously a huge accomplishment, because I did not think I’d ever get back in my old costume. … Huge, huge, huge accomplishment.”
This journey is painted as borderline feminist: After a difficult pregnancy, Beyoncé just wants to feel comfortable in her body again. It’s understandable, given that she’s about to headline a show that requires an unbelievable amount of physical endurance. But it made me sad. I don’t want Beyoncé, a woman whose accomplishments are so numerous they needn’t even be listed, to consider losing weight a “huge, huge, huge accomplishment,” one worthy of its own major subplot beside her work on her singing, dancing, musical direction, and creative and political vision. It seems tragic to me that one of the most talented artists of her generation is dedicating this much brain space to dieting and that even Beyoncé seems to feel pressure to present the right-sized body to society. But here comes the second-guessing again: Would the world have the same reverence for her work if she didn’t do it while being the enviable size she is? If she feels better in that shape, who am I to criticize Beyoncé? Maybe we should acknowledge that keeping in that kind of shape is hard work? And how do we even begin to separate all of this from the fact that, to keep up with the rigors of her own choreography, Beyoncé has to remain a world-class athlete? Then again, if all of this was just about being fit enough to pull off Beychella, why did she go on to use this same footage to market … a diet plan?
I could go into how, because Swift and Beyoncé are both ruthless stewards of their own personae, both of these revelations of body image issues were probably more calculated than they appear. I could consider how Swift’s admission especially seems guarded and tentative and of a piece with her habit of entering political discussions seemingly too late. But the truth is that both stars’ struggles make me sad. I think what’s really bothering me is that body image issues have come to be used as a lever of relatability in the first place. I don’t want diet culture to be used to sell more diet culture back to me, but I feel so deeply wound up in this system that tells women to be thin but also to be happy at any weight but also that it’s OK to be vulnerable about your size that I don’t know which is worse: Taylor Swift actually feeling bad about her body as a teenager or Taylor Swift seemingly understanding that it makes her more relatable and thereby more marketable to say that she felt bad about her body as a teenager.