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How Will Smith's body positive photo highlights sexist beauty standards: 'Men just have a lot more license'

·6-min read
Will Smith was praised after revealing that he is in the
Will Smith was praised after revealing that he is in the "worst shape" of his life. (Photo: Getty Images/Instagram)

Will Smith is receiving praise after posting a photo of his bare-chested body on Instagram while admitting to being in the “worst shape of my life.” But after revealing his motivation behind the seemingly body positive post, with an announcement that he’s embarking upon a weight-loss journey to be documented on YouTube, it’s a wonder that Smith is being celebrated for “representing us with the Dad bods,” as it’s his temporary and evidently undesired state.

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“This is the body that carried me through an entire pandemic and countless days grazing thru the pantry. I love this body, but I wanna FEEL better,” the 52-year-old actor captioned his post on Tuesday. “No more midnight muffins…this is it! Imma get in the BEST SHAPE OF MY LIFE!!!!!”

The moment was a case of whiplash for many who believed that Smith was embracing his fuller figure and becoming more relatable to those who look like him — "I finally look like my idol," one person commented — just before expressing dissatisfaction with the way that he looks and a desire to change. 

According to Virgie Tovar, host of the Rebel Eaters Club podcast and author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat and The Self Love Revolution, Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, Smith ultimately provided false hope for people who believed — just for a moment — that it was acceptable to have a fuller figure.

"It felt really positive to see different kinds of men's bodies, especially with celebrities," Tovar tells Yahoo Life, explaining that celebs have become a "litmus test for normalcy," despite representing just one percent of people. "But when you have the weight-loss messaging coming right on top of, it nullifies. It doesn't really do any good, it just reconfirm this idea that this is the wrong kind of body, and this is the body that we're all striving to have."

The idea that Smith’s slimmer figure is inherently better than his current state was made evident by his own acknowledgment that his body is presently in its “worst shape.” This was later affirmed with a slideshow of other celebrity men joining the #bigwilliechallenge and encouraged to share their own “after pics” in 12 weeks. Unlike women who have shared authentic posts of their fuller figures, however, these men were reminded that they’re desirable in any state, with mentions of their “hot dad bods” or their “ZADDY frame," instead of being shamed.

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"When it comes to the beauty standard or being the culture's idea of attractive, men just have a lot more license. There's a lot less scrutiny on their body and they're allowed to be bigger while still retaining value," Tovar says, pointing to the cultural phenomenon that has been deemed the "dad bod." She adds, "A man is allowed to retain masculinity and sexual prowess and desirability at a much larger size than a woman's equivalent of that.”

Most importantly, a man's body image or size is less attached to their identity than women like Lizzo or Ashley Graham, who have become poster girls for body positivity and are labeled as such throughout mainstream media. While they are both shamed for existing outside of society's traditional beauty standards and scrutinized for expressing any desire to change, men are given permission to fluctuate and are celebrated in all forms.

"You’re Will Smith!! You can be in whatever shape you want," one person commented on the actor's original post.

Even Mark Wahlberg illustrated this very concept when posting a side-by-side photo of himself after gaining 20 pounds in just three weeks.

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"You look just as good on the left as you do on the right," Dr. Oz assured the actor.

Similarly to Smith, Wahlberg later revealed the context behind the photos and the transformation, explaining that he purposefully put on the weight for a movie role. The temporary nature of the men's bigger bodies provides more reason for their acceptance, Tovar explains. 

"When you have lived in a thin body your whole life or for most of your life and you see weight gain as something that's a deviation from who you are, it makes it cute and it makes it fun," she says. 

In contrast, a male celebrity like Jonah Hill, who has a "fat identity," is perceived in a much different way, and even approaches the topic of body image in a different manner — one that seemingly aligns more with the body positivity movement, which encourages people in marginalized bodies to unapologetically embrace themselves in what Tovar calls their "real state."

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"I’m 37 and finally love and accept myself," Hill captioned a tabloid photo of himself on the beach. "This isn’t a 'good for me' post. And it’s definitely not a 'feel bad for me post'. It’s for the the kids who don’t take their shirt off at the pool."

While Hill's post is a more familiar example of body positivity, Tovar points out that the movement made way for all of the aforementioned men to post about their bodies in the ways that they did.

"The body positivity movement, et cetera, have created a space for these men to post images of themselves, which I don't know that they would have done 10 years ago," she says. "The problem is that they're only going halfway there, right? For representation, we need the documentation of celebrity men in bigger bodies. I think it's really, really, really important for people's mental health and their body image to see actual celebrities just existing and just being, and being flawed, and all the things."

Though Tovar believes that Smith was "undercutting" the potential of the "empowering moment" that he created in his first post by his own assurance that he won't have that body for long and will work hard to change it, Dexter Mayfield, a dancer, model and body positive advocate, tells Yahoo Life that Smith's expression of love for his body was the most valuable part.

"He actually said 'I love this body,'" Mayfield pointed out of Smith's post. "Whether you’re making a personal decision to get more fit to feel better about your overall well-being, or whether you exist and live authentically in your bigger body, the message is still the same. Love your body throughout the whole journey."

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