Mindy Kaling doesn’t owe it to anyone to be a body positivity icon, experts say

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

After she made an appearance at the Oscars on Sunday in a black corseted dress that accentuated her thinner body, the comments began to flood in again. 

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

It’s a critique that media and body image experts find problematic, mainly because Kaling didn’t ask for any of it. 

Critics point to the fact that no one person should be put on a pedestal as the beacon of body positivity or representation, and no one person can shoulder the criticism of a deeply rooted issue like fatphobia in the entertainment industry. Women of color in the spotlight don’t owe the world perfection — however it may be defined in that moment, they said. 

“How is this a question about body positivity if we are shaming someone who chooses in their own way to be positive about their body,” said Harleen Singh, an associate professor of South Asian literature and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “I am befuddled.”

While audiences root for people of color like Kaling to break into the mainstream, once they get there, they’re often held to twice the standard and face double the condemnation of their white peers, Singh said.

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

For days after her appearance at the Oscars, audiences couldn’t stop talking about Kaling’s weight loss. They speculated that she’s on Ozempic, the viral diabetes medication that’s rumored to be the new drug of choice for celebrities trying to shed pounds. 

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

“There are many reasons that people’s size may change over time in either direction,” Smolar said. “And it can get really tricky if we place that type of responsibility on them to maintain a weight that either aligns or doesn’t align with what is traditionally accepted as a standard size in society.”

While praising a celebrity for losing weight can have devastating outcomes on young onlookers, 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 are feeling an overwhelming pressure to seek safe spaces and professional guidance. 

“In both directions, those comments are harmful,” she said. “For people who have previously found people like Mindy to be not the norm in terms of what size looks like in Hollywood, it can be really tricky to raise them up as this example.” 

Kaling has spoken openly about her weight changes in the past, saying that it’s a result of a changing lifestyle after having her two children. 

“Honestly, I didn’t really do anything differently,” she told Entertainment Weekly last year. “I eat what I like to eat. If I do any kind of restrictive diet, it never really works for me. I just eat less of it… I wish there was something more juicy or dynamic about the way that I’ve lost a little bit of weight, but that’s the way I’ve done it.”

Balancing the beauty expectations of Hollywood and the representation expectations of the public would be tricky for anyone, Singh said, and picking Kaling apart has become a dangerous trend. She wishes people would focus on Kaling’s work and impact rather than looking for every chance to tear her down.

“We’re talking about a dominant culture that won’t let us be anything but stereotypes,” she said. “But as soon as we see somebody in public life, we expect them to only be 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 the best documentary short — Singh was surprised that Kaling’s weight was even a takeaway of the night. 

These conversations aren’t a new phenomenon; rather, they’re a distraction and a way to take agency away from a successful woman of color, Singh said, calling them a disrespect that stems from internalized patriarchy.

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

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

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