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In Praise of Adele, My Fat, Flawless Heroine

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

This weekend, Saturday Night Live ran what was not the first sketch to tackle the idea of Adele’s universal appeal. The premise was one that is very front-of-mind for most viewers: the annual “agree to disagree” convention otherwise known as Thanksgiving dinner. What do you do when unseemly family members act up at the table, the sketch asks? Why, simply play Adele’s “Hello,” and the fighting will stop — because when Adele is singing, everyone gets transported to another world, one where wind whips through their really good hair while they reach out their arms and feel the full range of their emotional depths. Adele’s voice is so inspiring, SNL joked, it could make a transgender-snickering grandpa (played by Matthew McConaughey) come clean about the real reason behind his phobia.

Adele’s ability to elicit such a response will lead to a record-breaking number of people buying (!) an album this week. More extraordinary is the fact that her music unites people across taste lines, walks of life, and, above all, generations. Every era gets at least a few musicians who embody the monoculture, but Adele has quickly transcended that class. Amid an increasingly fragmented pop culture, she’s become one of those infallible beacons of likability — or, rather, relatability. As The New Yorker notably pointed out last year, that trait — being relatable — has never been more widely perceived as one of art’s leading virtues. She’s the pop-game Jennifer Lawrence, an exceedingly “real” and critically beloved young everywoman. By nearly every metric, her success is incredible. But for some of us, it feels quite personal, too.

Adele is among the first plus-size female cultural icons to reach the highest echelons of commercial success without having to make herself the butt of fat jokes along the way. It’s hard not to take some rebellious delight in that, to maybe even consider it a scoff in the face of those sexist major-label villains who’ve long prioritized “sexy” and “fun” in the Top 40 world. (For the record, though, Adele is objectively gorgeous, full stop.) What it boils down to is that her voice is too powerful to be ignored, even if her black tea-length gowns and Dusty Springfield styling don’t cry out for all the attention. She’s shaped like me — and like two-thirds of American women. So I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling a kinship with her because of this.

Adele’s unapologetic presence in the big leagues feels like a revelation in part because it wasn’t so long ago that fat-shaming was common on TV and in the movies (not to mention, you know, real life). The anti-fat atrocity that was Shallow Hal came out a mere 14 years ago and starred Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, while Friends kept making the same bad joke about how Fat Monica would have ended up forever alone. Even when fat women aren’t the butt of jokes, the parts they play are never traditional leading ladies. The most overtly romance-minded role Melissa McCarthy has ever played is on Mike and Molly, a terrible show about what society would prefer to happen to fat people, which is that they pair up as not to subject thin people to the horrors of sex with larger bodies. Adele is like, Fuck that, my fatness is not a Thing. She doesn’t play the best friend in a dumpy sweater, the Sookie St. James who fumbles all over a sure-thing first date (no, sir, Adele’s got game). She’s also not the ham who beats her haters to the punch line, the “Fat Amy” type whose sexuality is played for laughs, or worse, a pity lay. She’s the most charismatic star in any room, even if you don’t think she looks like it, and she’ll cackle in your face if you don’t believe it. That’s what makes me want to revel in her success, and root for it as my own.

“Sometimes I’m curious to know if I would have been as successful if I wasn’t plus-size,” Adele recently wondered to Rolling Stone. “I think I remind everyone of themselves. Not saying everyone is my size, but it’s relatable because I’m not perfect, and I think a lot of people are portrayed as perfect, unreachable and untouchable.”

I wonder the same thing about the success of a few other celebrities with everywoman appeal — Oprah in her diet-free moments, Rosie O’Donnell and Roseanne Barr each for a spell in the ’90s, McCarthy at present — but Adele takes the plus-size (but actually more like average-size) star-with-whom-we-identify role to new heights because of how deeply she lets listeners into her world through the art. Even those who, like The New Yorker, would describe culture’s quest for relatability as a “scourge” must at least acknowledge a correlation between the increased desire to see ourselves mirrored within pop culture, and the presence of more kinds of voices — across race, gender, sexuality, and, to a lesser extent, size — to help us do just that. We typically think of this representation as onscreen, where the differences can be seen, but it transcends in Adele’s case; she is so clearly the protagonist behind her heartbreak ballads, classy kiss-offs, and spiritual ruminations about how much everything has changed since she left Tottenham. Though she insists now that she’s happy in her personal life, every shade of pain can be found somewhere in Adele’s vocal range.

To my delight, Adele has stacked 25 with dramatic anthems that are not only aimed at the lovelorn romantics in the crowd but also embody a sensuality missing on 21 and 19. “Water Under the Bridge,” with its tasteful cockiness that Adele can bring her man to his knees, and “All I Ask,” with its plea to “do what lovers do,” show off new sides of her maturity while still maintaining her beloved melancholy. What I love most about all this is that she’s starting to go there — to the forbidden zone of big-girl sex — and yet she’s wrapping three-fourths of her (yes, shrinking) body in brown-suede fringe on live TV. As she told Rolling Stone three years ago, “Even if I had a really good figure, I don’t think I’d get my tits and ass out for no one. I love seeing Lady Gaga’s boobs and bum. I love seeing Katy Perry’s boobs and bum. Love it. But that’s not what my music is about. I don’t make music for eyes, I make music for ears.”

Across her songs, and particularly on 25, where her outlook and inspiration are more varied, Adele is a complicated, multifaceted person like the rest of us. It’s not like people with less-than-perfect bodies lead lesser lives, but one could believe as much based on our obsession with thinness and the manifestation of that obsession across media. The way famous women are spoken about when they put on weight is downright shameful, as if Kelly Clarkson ought to just hang it up for good now that she looks like every other American woman. In turn, these celebrities experience pressure to mention that they’re dieting, or mount the weight-loss-program endorsement tour after they slim down. This is one area where Adele has been particularly inspiring. After Karl Lagerfeld called her “a little too fat” in early 2012, she responded with a dignified “yeah, so?” of sorts (always a solid response to a size diss): “I’ve never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines. I represent the majority of women and I’m very proud of that.”

Before that, she had supposedly told People, “Even when I was signing a contract, most of the industry knew if anyone ever dared say lose weight to me, they wouldn’t be working with me.” There are loads of Adele quotes like this that make the rounds on body-positivity Tumblrs and Pinterest boards and crappy blogs, probably half of them doctored (there’s one that says, “I’d rather eat lunch than go to the gym”), but there’s a young fan base that doesn’t even care if they’re fake, because Adele has helped them make peace with their own bodies. Her recent interviews have mentioned that she’s taking better care of herself than she used to because of her kid and her desire to tour — whereas many interviews around 21 had her talking about how much she liked to drink wine and smoke cigarettes — but she doesn’t come across as preachy or feeling the need to justify her size in any way, maintaining her open disdain for exercise. Have we ever known a fat celebrity quite like this — one who’s more invested in growing as a person than shrinking as a body? I felt I had found someone who was fat in precisely the same way I was: that it was merely my body, that it had no bearing on what I could and could not do.

When you’re fat — yes, fat, body-acceptance activists reclaimed the pejorative — people will underestimate you because they assume you’re lazy, or men will ignore you because they don’t wanna sleep with you. Other times, size discrimination is one of those things that people don’t even realize they’re doing. It’s there when some older lady feels the need to comment on how I’m so confident, so “sassy” (fat girls always have to be sassy), shining just a little too brightly, like I should feel shame for taking up more space in a world where we teach women to take up as little space as possible. For as classic as her music can sound, every time Adele sings of a great romance, it feels subversive to me. That’s because the most controversial thing a fat woman can do is have someone who proudly loves (and lusts for) her, exactly as she is.

Adele might be uncomfortable with the suggestion that she’s a piss-off to the fame machine that doesn’t know what to do with plus-size women who aren’t embarrassed. After all, she hasn’t staked any claim in the accompanying marketplace, like McCarthy or Beth Ditto have with their plus-size lines. But in just being so fully herself, Adele’s become not just a role model for body positivity, but a reminder that immense talent and relatability can trump conventional sex appeal — even in pop’s shallow pool. That’s a win a lot of women, regardless of size, can get behind.

In Praise of Adele, My Fat, Flawless Heroine