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Mindy Kaling owes no one to be a body positivity icon, experts say


Mindy Kaling is no stranger to internet vitriol. Over the past year, her name has been a trending topic on TikTok and Twitter several times, with one common thread: she’s not the representation we need her to be, many said.

After she made an appearance at the Oscars on Sunday in a black corseted dress that accentuated her slimmer body, the comments started pouring in again.

While some praised the 43-year-old writer, comedian and actor for her new look, others criticized her for changing what many saw as a body that defied the industry norm. Now closer to the standard of her Hollywood peers, some say Kaling is no longer the body-positive icon they postulated.

It’s a criticism that media and body image experts find problematic, primarily because Kaling didn’t ask for it.

Critics point out that no one should be placed on a pedestal as a beacon of body positivity or representation, and no one can shoulder criticism of a deep-rooted issue like fatphobia in the entertainment industry . Women of color in the spotlight don’t owe the world perfection — however it was defined at the time, they said.

“How is it a body positivity issue if we’re shaming someone who chooses in their own way to be positive about their body,” said Harleen Singh, associate professor of South Asian literature and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “I’m confused.”

While the public wants people of color like Kaling to break into the mainstream, once they are there they are often held to twice the norm and face double the punishment of their white peers, said Singh.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “We want women of color, we want South Asians in positions where we can look up to them as role models. On the other hand, as soon as you gain that prominence in public life, you are immediately subjected to a certain type of irrational expectation, and especially for women of color.

For days after her Oscar appearance, the public kept talking about Kaling’s weight loss. They speculated that she was taking Ozempic, the viral diabetes drug that would be the new drug of choice for celebrities trying to lose weight.

It’s a harmful rumor, said Lauren Smolar, vice president of outreach and education at the National Eating Disorders Association, and attaching expectations to an individual will often lead to disappointment.

“There are many reasons people’s heights can change over time in both directions,” Smolar said. “And it can get really tricky if we put that kind of responsibility on them to maintain a weight that lines up or doesn’t line up with what’s traditionally accepted as the standard size in society.”

While congratulating a celebrity on losing weight can have devastating effects on young viewers, attacking someone’s weight loss can have the same effect. There are healthier ways, even on social media, to have these conversations, Smolar noted, and she encouraged people who feel overwhelming pressure to seek out safe spaces and professional guidance.

“Both ways, these comments are harmful,” she said. “For people who once found people like Mindy to be not the norm in terms of height in Hollywood, it can be very difficult to raise them like this example.”

Kaling has spoken openly about her weight changes in the past, saying it was the result of a lifestyle change after having her two children.

“Honestly, I haven’t done anything different,” she told Entertainment Weekly last year. “I eat what I like to eat. If I do any type of restrictive diet, it never really works for me. I just eat less of it… I wish there was something more juicy or vibrant in the way i lost some weight but thats how i did it.

Balancing Hollywood’s beauty expectations and the public’s portrayal expectations would be difficult for anyone, Singh said, and separating Kaling has become a dangerous trend. She wants people to focus on Kaling’s work and impact rather than looking for every chance to tear her down.

“We’re talking about a mainstream culture that will only let us be stereotypes,” she said. “But as soon as we see someone in public life, we expect them to be only representative and never to be themselves. What is the space for the individual here?

With so many standout moments of South Asian excellence at this year’s Oscars – including an electric performance of the Telugu song ‘Naatu Naatu’ and the triumph of ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ as Best Documentary Short – Singh was surprised that Kaling’s weight was even a takeout of the evening.

These conversations are not a new phenomenon; rather, they are a distraction and a way to deprive a successful woman of color, Singh said, calling them the disrespect that stems from internalized patriarchy.

“As women of color, there are enough forces against us,” she said. “Why are we focusing on this? Leave her.”

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and need help, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.