Good News: Nigella Lawson is back on TV. Her new show, a reality-style culinary competition called The Taste, debuted on Wednesday night on ABC and it was wonderful to see her again. The show itself may be a nearly unwatchable mishmash of hackneyed reality TV contrivances, but it’s worth tuning in just for Nigella’s screen time. In the debut episode, when she was profiled in a “meet the judges” segment, the first thing she said, unabashed, was “I love fat!”
Last week via her blog, Nigella informed her fans that when The Taste’s photo production types attempted to eliminate the round curve of her midsection from the show’s promotional images, the Domestic Goddess refused. “I was very strict and English and told them they weren’t allowed to airbrush my tummy out,” she wrote.
The photo would have been only slightly different if they had gone ahead and done it. Her tummy is barely noticeable even in her snug red cocktail dress. Like a lot of women, Nigella’s weight seems to fluctuate often and she is clearly going through a slimmer period right now. Her weight loss—from a size 18 to a size 12—has been well documented in the British tabloids, of course. Perhaps being on a major TV show makes a person more self conscious about her lifestyle choices regarding diet and exercise. But I still think it’s noteworthy and laudable that she resisted the pressure to have her figure photoshopped into an even thinner, unreal silhouette.
Letting just the small amount of belly she insisted remain in the photo is a welcome act of body activism in a media world where—with astonishingly few exceptions—it often seems like only the most punishingly thin women are permitted to exist, or at least be seen on the small screen. By TV standards, even a skinny Nigella is unacceptably full figured.
Now 52, Nigella has been resisting the pressure to be thin her entire career. Often I imagine what her meetings at British Vogue were like when she was a columnist there. Fashion magazines are notorious for their anorexia-inducing culture. Did the always-dieting fashion editors skitter into the far corners of the office, fearful that Nigella might float in on a high-calorie cloud of powdered sugar and tempt them with warm cupcakes? Were they jealous that Nigella had negotiated a career and life in which she was perceived as both beautiful and successful, while having permission to lick the frosting-coated spoon? Did they worry her celebrated appetite was contagious?
In her interviews and on TV shows, she never fails to position her passion for food, eating and cooking, as a central and cherished aspect of her identity. Though her suggestive shtick, with all her trademark cooing and molesting of ingredients, can easily be seen as disempowering to women, I actually have always found it inspiring.
Nigella’s foodie burlesque isn’t the usual conflation of sex and food, like the cliché magazine profile that kicks off with a description of the size-zero starlet du jour relishing her cheeseburger. Skinny women have always had permission to eat. A good appetite in a tiny body is sexy. But Nigella made it plausible to be hungry, sexy, and full figured, too. If going a bit over the top with her moaning and flirting made that image stick, made her an icon of the food world, I can live with some pandering to the boys.
I’ve also had debates with those who contend that Nigella isn’t a positive influence because of her weight fluctuations. If anything, some claim, she’s a bad influence because she admits to dieting. It’s true I’d rather live in a world where no one ever felt compelled to undertake a weight loss regime, but that isn’t the world we actually have. Her honesty about the realities of being a woman in the spotlight only makes her more relatable.
In December of 2011, not long after she was photographed on the beach wearing a full-body-coverage swim suit, the kind made for women who usually wear burkas, she reportedly told the Daily Mirror that there are times she wants to lose weight. “I suppose the difference is I don’t want to be as thin. Greed always outweighs my vanity,” she reportedly went on to say. And to her credit, she has never dieted away her defining softness and curves.
In her breakthrough book, How to Eat, she includes an entire chapter on eating for weight loss, writing, “For all my long-held beliefs that fat was a feminist issue … and the intolerance of the unthin was dangerous, I have to admit that I felt awful when I put weight on after the birth of my first child and better when I lost it.” This is the very cognitive dissonance that torments the smartest women I know as they try unsuccessfully to square their desire to reject an unfair and unhealthy beauty standard with the ever present cultural pressure to be thin.
I can tell you from a lifetime of body image anguish: The battle of the bulge is nothing compared to the battle between the urge to diet and a longing for self acceptance. Nigella grapples openly, or at least publicly, with this issue, and I respect her even more for it. I hate it when women pretend it isn’t a struggle because I’m pretty sure they are lying.
For years I kept magazine photos of Nigella, in states varying from relative trimness to pleasantly plump, to remind myself that, in spite of all the cultural messaging to the contrary, it isn’t necessary to be thin to be a successful woman. She has been, for me at least, an icon of beauty and power, self-acceptance, and authenticity. And even though I’m now 35 years old, I still wish I could grow up to be exactly like her.