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Leah McLaren

Enormously talented, hugely successful, larger than life - and beaten down to size Add to ...

So, apparently Karl Lagerfeld thinks Adele is “a little too fat.” At least that’s what he told the Metro newspaper before retracting his comments and pointing out that he himself lost 30 kilos and understands “how it feels when the press is mean to you in regards to your appearance.” For obsequious good measure he added, “Adele is a beautiful girl. She is the best. And I can’t wait for her next CD.”

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I’m sure that Adele, having topped the charts, blown the roof off the Grammys and won the heart of every adolescent girl on Earth, can finally rest easy knowing that a 78-year-old man who fans himself without irony thinks she’s just the bomb.

Still, Lagerfeld’s got a point. (Actually he’s got quite a few. In the same interview, he dismissed Greeks and Italians for their “disgusting habits”; took a potshot at the Queen; and said that, had he been born a Russian woman, he’d be a lesbian “as the men are very ugly.”) Adele is, indeed, by current fashion-industry standards, a little too fat to be a Chanel model (most of us can sympathize) or a professional pin-up, period.

She’s simply not that sort of pop star. And what’s more, she knows it. As she told Anderson Cooper in her recent 60 Minutes interview, “I don’t want to be some skinny mini ... I don’t! … Even if I had a Sports Illustrated body, I’d still wear elegant clothes. I ain’t lookin’ like no slapper. … Exploiting yourself sexually is not a good look.”

I tend to agree, though it must be said, a good look on one diva may not be a good look on another (Lady Gaga looks sooo much more chic in a Kermit collar than does Beyoncé). But the deeper truth here, surely, is that our tendency to obsess over the bodies of famous women – skinny, fat or otherwise – is not a good look on any of us.

Since Adele cleaned up at the Grammys, everyone from Cooper to Margaret Cho has come to her defence, hailing her “real” beauty. But surely this misses the point.

Thin women are just as authentic as zaftig ones. Aesthetics are not political stances, and expressing a preference for one body type over another does not make you any more nobly feminist or miserably misogynistic than the next person. It just makes you a person obsessed with the size and shape of other people’s bodies.

And body obsession, in case you hadn’t noticed, is an affliction that commonly affects people who are tedious, neurotic or deeply superficial – usually all of the above. It’s boring. Not only that, it’s increasingly rampant in a culture such as ours, plagued as it is with dreary celebrity gossip of the “Bump watch! Cottage cheese alert!” variety. As our pal Lagerfeld recently pointed out, there is now an entire genre of celebrity coverage devoted to photo galleries of “50-per-cent bimbo, 50-per-cent pregnant women.”

And why? Evolutionary biologists will tell you we are naturally predisposed as a species to be obsessed by the images of the female body – fat, thin, pregnant or otherwise – because of the powerful reproductive signals those images send to our largely unevolved Stone Age brains. The Stone Age ended several millennia ago, so shouldn’t we put down our clubs and stop beating up (or, just as destructively, slavishly venerating) famous women based entirely on the way they look?

Watching Adele soar into official superstardom last Sunday as the entertainment industry mourned the premature death of Whitney Houston, a woman who once astonished with a divine voice of her own, it was impossible not to mentally compare the two divas – one radiant, full-figured and very much alive; the other dead, and for so long before that a wraithlike spectre of her once-blazing talent.

For years, tabloid photos of Whitney’s “alarming weight loss” served as outward proof of her sad decline. During her disastrous European tour in 2010, however, the story changed tack as her body “ballooned,” resulting in a stream of “shocking weight-gain pics” that seemed only to further illustrate her lack of self-control. The late Amy Winehouse endured similar body scrutiny in her day, as has Mariah Carey, despite giving birth to twins at the age of 41.

I’m not completely naive. I know that physical appeal is part of the package when it comes to making it in the music industry. But it seems sad to me that so much ink should be spilled, so much cultural energy wasted, on endless dissection of an aspect of these spectacularly talented women that really ought to be irrelevant.

Adele should not be hailed a hero for being a little on the chubby side any more than Mariah should be condemned for it. What we should venerate – and mourn – in our pop divas is their incomparable talent. The rest, as Karl Lagerfeld well knows, is just a passing fashion.

 
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