Mindy Kaling is no stranger to internet vitriol. Over the past 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 said.
After she made an appearance at the Oscars on Sunday in a black corset dress that accentuated her slimmer frame, the comments started pouring in again.
While some praised the 43-year-old writer, comedian and actress for her new look, others criticized her for changing what many saw as a body that challenged the industry norm. Now closer to the standards of her Hollywood peers, some say Kaling is no longer the positive icon they’re made out to be.
It’s a criticism that media and body image experts find problematic, mostly because Kaling didn’t ask for any of it.
Critics point to the fact that no one person should be placed on a pedestal as the beacon of body positivity or representation, and no one can shoulder the criticism of a deep-rooted issue like lipophobia in the entertainment industry. Women of color in the spotlight don’t owe the world perfection — however it’s defined at the time, they said.
“How is this a question about body positivity if we’re shaming someone who chooses in their own way to be body positive,” said Harleen Singh, an associate professor of South Asian literature and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “I am confused”.
While the public wants people of color like Kaling to enter the mainstream, once they get there, they are often held back at twice the rate and face twice the condemnation of their white peers, Singh said.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “We want women of color, we want South Asians in positions where we can look to them as role models. On the other hand, once you get that prominent position in public life, you immediately subject yourself to a certain kind of unreasonable expectation, and especially for women of color.”
For days after her appearance at the Oscars, the public couldn’t stop talking about Kaling’s weight loss. They speculated that she is taking Ozempic, the diabetes drug rumored to be the new drug of choice for celebrities trying to lose weight.
It’s a harmful reputation, said Lauren Smolar, vice president of mission and education at the National Eating Disorders Association, and pinning expectations on one person often leads to disappointment.
“There are many reasons that the size of people can change over time in either direction,” Smolar said. “And it can become very difficult if we put that kind of responsibility on them to maintain a weight that either aligns or doesn’t align with what’s traditionally accepted as a standard size in society.”
While praising a celebrity for 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 tremendous pressure to seek out safe spaces and professional guidance.
“In both directions, these comments are harmful,” he said. “For people who have found in the past that people like Mindy are not the norm in terms of what size looks like in Hollywood, it can be very difficult to raise them as that example.”
Kaling has been open about her weight changes in the past, saying it’s a result of a lifestyle change after having her two children.
“Honestly, I didn’t do anything differently,” he told Entertainment Weekly last year. “I eat what I like to eat. If I go on some sort of restrictive diet, it never really works for me. I’m just eating less of it… I wish there was something juicier or more dynamic about the way I lost some weight, but that’s how I did it.”
Balancing Hollywood’s beauty expectations and the public’s expectations of representation would be difficult for anyone, Singh said, and casting Kaling has become a dangerous trend. She wishes people would focus on Kaling’s work and impact instead of looking for every opportunity to tear her down.
“We’re talking about a dominant culture that doesn’t let us just be stereotypes,” he said. “But once we see someone in public life, we expect them to be only representative and never themselves. What is the space for the person here?’
With so many distinct moments of South Asian excellence at this year’s Oscars — including an electrifying performance of the Telugu song “Naatu Naatu” and “The Elephant Whisperers” triumph as best documentary short — Singh was surprised that Kaling’s weight was even a takeaway of the night.
These debates are not a new phenomenon. Instead, it’s a distraction and a way to disempower a successful woman of color, Singh said, calling them a disrespect that stems from internalized patriarchy.
“As women of color, there are quite a few forces against us,” she said. “Why are we focusing on this? Let her be.”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and need support, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.