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Oprah’s Vogue Shoot – Weighing the Pros and Cons

November 15th, 1998

If one day someone called you on the phone and asked you if you’d like to be beautifully photographed in a Vogue magazine photo spread, would you do it? You’d get to be on the cover, and Vogue will provide luscious designer gowns, shoes and jewelry. They’ll give you a makeover, light you beautifully and even smooth out wrinkles and blemishes just like they do with the supermodels. Vogue will take care of everything.

All you have to do is lose 20 pounds.
Do you do it?

People have been calling and emailing me to ask what I think about the fact that Oprah Winfrey was asked to (and did) lose 20 pounds both for her new movie, Beloved and again for a recent photo shoot in Vogue (October issue.) One young woman emailed me to say she had lost respect for Oprah because Oprah chose to lose the weight. I had not yet heard of or seen the article and I wrote her back urging her to go gently with Oprah. I told her to remember that often times when one is being interviewed, the finished piece will highlight statements totally out of context. I said a person could spend two hours talking about world peace and then in passing mention the size of her butt and the writer will choose to play that up in the printed article.

Turns out this is not exactly what happened. The cover lines on Vogue’s October issue state (over what I must admit is a spectacular picture of Oprah) “Oprah! A Major Movie, An Amazing Makeover.” Inside the issue, both Oprah and the editor, in her monthly editorial, openly discuss the need for Oprah to have lost 20 pounds to do the shoot. The loss of weight wasn’t just mentioned in passing and then blown out of proportion in the printed piece-indeed it seems to have been the point of the piece itself.

You may have heard the story by now: Ten years ago Oprah bought the rights to Toni Morrison’s book Beloved. She hired Jonathan Demme to direct it. In the Vogue article, Demme talks about what a talented actress Winfrey is, what an amazing business woman and ground breaking producer she is. He acknowledges that she is gifted, driven, emotionally rich, funny as hell. But for all the fabulous things that Oprah is, her director told her she was just too big for the movie. Vogue quotes Jonathan Demme as saying “Listen, I love you, I love your body, but it’s too big for this movie. You gotta wear the corsets, the big skirts-it’s too big.”

What the article doesn’t cover-and what I want to know-is the how the rest of the discussion went. I want to know why her body was too big. I mean the movie is a period piece, right? Pre-thin-ideal…And Oprah looks to me to be a pretty normal woman; not too thin, but not overweight either. The article and Vogue’s Letter from the Editor (which said “She knew she would have to lose weight, but she had done that before, and she promised to lose 20 pounds by our deadline.”) both asserted the necessary weight loss as a given; something not to be questioned. I want more explanation and I want the explanation to be the logical next part of the discussion. Did she have to lose weight to be in the movie because she was playing a slave who might not have had such a “healthy” build? Was it because film makes everyone look bigger than they are and Demme was afraid she’d be too commanding a figure in the finished movie? Was it that Demme (and Vogue) felt she wouldn’t be effective/liked/accepted if she weren’t thinner? And why 20 pounds? Why not 10? Or 30?

I wouldn’t feel so discouraged hearing that Oprah felt the need to lose 20 pounds (twice!) if I understood that the reason behind it might not have been arbitrary. I would like to think that you can’t just tell the most successful woman in the country that she is too fat (for her own movie!) without having a real practical vision or reason for it. I fear that when Demme told Oprah she was “too big” (for her movie), the comments shot straight to Oprah’s age old insecurities about her weight and that she just said “OK, that makes sense.” At any point did she go home and think, “Hey! That’s bullshit!” Did her friend Gayle encourage her to go back to Demme and say “Look, Jonathan, I don’t think the actress’ weight is a big issue for this role…”

And if this successful, respected, smart, funny, rich, competent, confident woman can have her weight insecurities triggered so easily, then what does that bode for the average woman? If Oprah, with her access to all the popular psychology gurus and a personal trainer and a personal chef and a place above Sundance in a private hidden community in Utah with a special room for meditating, can still dissolve into an “I’m too fat” mentality, then how, oh how, will the average American woman come to terms with her own weight and self-acceptance issues? If Oprah is still struggling then is there any hope for Jane Average?

I began to ask my friends what they would do if they were in Oprah’s shoes-and dress size. I asked the question I posed at the beginning of this column. “Would you lose 20 pounds to be in a movie or a glamorous photo shoot?” To my surprise most of them said yes (although several of them suggested that they would never have the will power to do it.) This made me begin to think of the whole issue a little differently. Perhaps there are a few “carrots” held out there in life that are so irresistible that we are willing to do whatever it takes to experience them. Perhaps the desire to lose weight to wow everybody is a very human one, at least in this age when appearance is so all important. Is Oprah losing 20 pounds to be glammed out on the cover of Vogue or in a movie any different from losing 20 pounds for your wedding or your high school reunion? (Maybe Oprah’s desire to lose the weight is not what sets her apart from the rest of us, but rather her incredible drive to actually do it.)

Having watched Oprah struggle so publicly to accept herself and her weight, it is discouraging to think that perhaps her insecurities are all still there ready to rise up and take over against her better judgment, but I think that’s the way insecurities are. They come and they go, but they may never really leave. I know it may seem like back-pedaling to come back to my initial impulse, but I really don’t want to judge her. I think we should go easy on Oprah and acknowledge that even with the self-acceptance she has achieved, she is vulnerable and fallible and may perhaps even be a better role model because she is. I think it is appalling that the director she hired! told her that her body wouldn’t work in their movie, but in the end Oprah has in Beloved an amazing chronicle of herself in a moment in time. And even more satisfying to my mind are the lovely shots in Vogue. No matter how fleeting, contrived or manipulated the photos are, they are the ones she can always look at and say “That’s Me and I Am Stunning!” Each of us should have pictures of ourselves that make us feel that way. And the power (weight loss or not) to really Wow! them at the high school reunion. If we choose to.


Kathy Bruin is the founder of About-Face. She did not choose to lose any weight for her own wedding, but she did do a half dozen (literally) sit-ups prior to going on a warm-weather honeymoon.