There’s a moment in Taylor Swift’s music video for her new song “Anti-Hero” where she steps on a scale—and instead of a number, the scale says “FAT.”
Or, there was such a moment. As of Thursday, after much online commentary, multiple platforms now feature a new version of the video. Swift still steps on the scale, her face evincing discomfort with her weight. But the camera no longer shows the viewer what’s on the display.
This week on the Waves, Slate’s podcast on gender and feminism, Jess Zimmerman, the author of Women and Other Monsters, and Slate senior editors Rebecca Onion and Shannon Palus discussed what they thought of Swift’s choice to use the word “fat” in the first place. The conversation was taped before Swift removed it, and we didn’t touch on whether she should (or shouldn’t) retract part of the video in response to criticism on social media. Instead, we got into the question of whether this worked, as an image, in the first place. Did the scale moment convey the message she wanted to convey? Or is the “Anti-Hero” video better off—not just politically, but artistically—without it?
This discussion was part of our “Is This Feminist?” series, which is typically only available for Slate Plus subscribers. You can become a member here, and if you do, you’ll also never hit a paywall while reading Slate. You can listen to the full episode of the Waves this week, which is about Hocus Pocus 2 and witches in pop culture, here.
Jess Zimmerman: I really love this video, it’s so deranged. It breaks into a comedy sketch two-thirds of the way through. It’s very weird. But I did find that part [with the scale] jarring.
Everybody who either is a woman or even is raised with the expectation that they will be a woman gets these very intense anti-fat messages and is instilled with a fear of being fat, which has lots of cultural tendrils. People suffer, that’s real suffering that even thin people experience from the fear of themselves becoming fat. The fear of disappointing the world by being fat—I think that as a pop star, you’re absolutely going to have that, right? There’s a real onus on you to stay “hot.”
But what she doesn’t have is all of the stuff that comes with actually being fat, and the different and separate cultural pathology where you are treated as a less serious person. We are paid less. We get treated really shabby by the medical field. Let’s say you run for office after having a stroke, you get a lot of people being like, “Oh, you brought this on yourself by being a fat person and eating badly.”
There’s this whole other constellation of things that she will never experience and isn’t even gesturing to because she’s talking about this very specific experience of feeling fat. And we don’t have that many other physical realities that can also be a feeling, right? There’re genuine negative experiences if you’re a man and you’re short. There’s going to be some kind of knock-on effects from that. But nobody says, like, “Oh, I’m feeling really short today.”
Rebecca Onion: One of the things that struck me about the video and that the scale moment is—the refrain [in the song] is “It’s me. Hi, I’m the problem. It’s me.” (Which I love.) In the scale scene, it’s her in shabby clothes stepping on the scale, and then a more dressed up, fancier her who’s judging her. And that just seemed like … almost 1990s-style commentary in a way. I was like, “Ugh, we’ve done this, I get it.” So, you’re the problem, it’s you.
But then there was this much more interesting part of the video: There’s a bunch of people sitting at a table in a dollhouse and Taylor, who’s a normal size person, tries to come in and sit at the table and drink from the tiny bottles of wine. I’m like, Why did you need the scale scene? Just have that dinner scene. That’s more subtle. It’s still not super subtle, but you don’t have to say, “Oh, I feel fat,” or whatever.
Which I agree is kind of annoying on the part of someone who looks like that. These feelings of being just the wrong scale for everybody are more interesting to me, more singular, less commented upon. I don’t know. I just felt like she didn’t need that [scale scene].
Zimmerman: You will not be surprised to hear that that was my favorite part of the song, as a fat person, but much more just as a person who is interested in women’s monstrosity. And so that sense of being a monster, of not fitting in, of not fitting in specifically—and this is something that I write about a lot, that’s what the whole book is about, basically—is that monstrosity as it’s cast as a way of reinforcing expectations of femininity. Monstrosity is just overspilling those boundaries.
It is very simple, there are boundaries and constraints on how you’re allowed to be. And you are moving in some way beyond those boundaries, and it could mean physically you’re exceeding those boundaries, or just conceptually, intellectually, emotionally, you’re exceeding those boundaries. You’re too much in some way. And that is a really universal experience, and doesn’t have anything to do with physicality or even really with prejudices against specific physicality because it’s something that everybody who has been constrained, which is—anyone who has experienced any part of the feminine experience has been constrained.
I agree that it makes the important point of that feeling so much better because it’s less specific. It applies to everybody who has felt like they’re scaled wrong or they’re just too much in some way.
Shannon Palus: That’s so interesting, because you can understand how even though this woman is extremely normative in basically every way, looks-wise, the constraints on her are so tight. There’s this scene in the Miss Americana documentary that came out a couple years ago where she’s talking about starving herself, and then letting go of that to eat more regularly. And there’s a scene that I found very powerful where she’s in a car and she’s relaying to us her self-talk around when people say, “Oh, she’s gained weight. Is she pregnant? She has a stomach now,” the kinds of comments that trigger disordered eating behavior. And she says, “We don’t do that anymore. We do not do that anymore. We’re changing the channel in our brain, and we’re not doing that anymore. That didn’t end us up in a good place.” And I just found that so relatable, and to be very good advice, even though as a superstar she lives in this different plane of existence.
Zimmerman: This is another major theme of my book. There’s a real freedom to just letting go and being a monster because all of us are. Rebecca, you said that she’s a normal size person and the [friends] are in a dollhouse, but she shows up at the end and she is in fact as tall as a house—and in some way, all of us are as tall as a house, metaphorically. The more you are trying to operate at dollhouse scale, when you’re the size of a house, the harder it’s going to be for you. And the solution, insofar as there is a solution, is to just go to a bigger dinner party where they have normal food.
If you are a very beautiful pop star who in many ways really is embodying feminine expectations, it actually gets harder in some ways. In some ways it’s easier for me because I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m an outsized person and I’m going to look weird and I’m going to act weird. And I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks about it.” But she, professionally, has to give a shit.