Last week, Miley Cyrus won her first Grammy, and thousands of women booked their first Pilates class.
After the 31-year-old performed her hit single Flowers at the 2024 Grammy Awards, social media – and particularly our friends over on TikTok – have been obsessing over her arms. Namely, how does she get ‘em so toned? The search term “Miley Cyrus arms” has exploded over on the app, with fitness instructors curating specialist workouts such as “The Miley Cyrus toned arm workout”, “The Miley Cyrus arms workout”, and “POV: Miley Cyrus is your muse for today’s workout.”
And it’s not just on social media; several major news outlets have rushed to secure quotes from ‘fitness experts’ on how to achieve Miley’s exact muscle tone. If you weren’t already rattled, you may have spotted a few nutritionists weighing in on the matter, too.
From birth, we’re socialised to valorise celebrities at all costs – even (or especially) if that means changing our bodies to look more like theirs. Celebrities have always played a vital role in upholding diet culture: they set the beauty standard, we kill ourselves trying to reach it.
Although diet culture has been around for centuries, it flourished during the ‘90s and ’00s. It was a simpler, pre-Ozempic era where celebrities were thin, and the media – especially women’s magazines – brazenly created content about how to lose weight, fast. We were told that celebrities were “worryingly thin” and then given the instruction manual to look just like them.
What is diet culture?
Anti-diet nutritionist Christy Harrison defines diet culture as a “system of beliefs that worships thinness and equate it to health and moral virtue […], promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status […], demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others […], and oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health’.”
Full definition here.
In 2024, diet culture is harder to pin down. Celebrities are still thin, but they’re also well. We don’t just want their bodies; we want their (apparent) health. As a child, I remember reading a women’s magazine feature about what famous women ate for breakfast; one woman answered something along the lines of “lukewarm water” as it made her feel “fuller for longer”. Could she have given that answer in today’s ‘body-positive’ climate?
In this era, celebrities are (mostly) still thin, but we’re encouraged to practise neutrality – or even, love – when it comes to our own lumpier frames. It feels particularly disingenuous, given the increased accessibility of weight-loss drugs like Ozempic, which has surely contributed to the rise in celebrities dropping yet more weight under the guise of a balanced diet, exercise, and, above all, wellness.
The frenzied reaction to Miley Cyrus’ arms is not just a throwback to the unapologetic thin worship of the early aughts. It’s what happens when you’re fed on a cultural diet of ‘Love yourself!’ and ‘Doesn’t [insert extremely thin celebrity] look great?!’ Hence, we’re being instructed to change our body parts to look like those of disembodied celebrities – and admonished for not loving the sum that all these parts create: ourselves.
In her oft-quoted memoir, Bossypants, Tina Fey summed up the beauty standards of late ’00s like so:
“Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.”
Whenever I come across this quote (usually on the depths of Tumblr), I’m struck by the mental image of a collage woman – perhaps created from the pages of those magazines at the hairdressers. To create a collage woman – the ideal woman, the beauty standard – you must chop up the images of other women, selecting your favourite parts and discarding the scraps.
Is this how we think of ourselves? As a cut-and-paste version of how beautiful we could look one day? What happens when we collect Miley’s arms? Do we start working on replicating Hailey Bieber’s legs? Worse still, what happens when we’re inevitably left with the same old body that we started with? What do we do with the scraps?
Obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with copying a celebrity’s behaviour to emulate their appearance – you do you! But in a society where the bulk of celebrities adhere to a Western, fatphobic beauty standard, it’s worth interrogating that desire and, at the very least, being honest with ourselves about what we really want to achieve. Spoiler alert: you won’t find the answers within diet culture.