HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: The photo that caused the worst body shaming of Jessica Simpson's life.

Jessica Simpson was 17 when her record label told her to "lose 15 pounds". 

Six years later, she was tabloid 'skin and bones', an irresponsible icon of Size Zero culture.

Four years after that, a pair of high-waisted "mom jeans" kicked up a roar of body-shaming that, she says, drove her offstage. 

Welcome to one celebrity's public life of body-shaming. It's a cautionary tale for us all that whatever size we are, we're kind of disgusting.

Image: Getty


It isn't unusual for women to be told to shrink themselves if they want to get famous. 

And often, it works. 

It did for Jennifer Aniston. 

"My agent gave it to me straight," she told Rolling Stone about her audition success-rate, pre-Friends. "Nicest thing he ever did – the disgusting thing of Hollywood – I wasn't getting lots of jobs because I was too heavy."

And it worked for Jessica Simpson, too. If by 'worked', we mean that by the time she shot her first video - for the belting ballad I Want To Love You Forever in 1999 - she looked how she was supposed to: like an unusually pretty, girl-next-door-cheerleader 

In the late 90s and early noughties, we liked our pop idols - and our sitcom stars - white, blonde, and just unattainably thin enough. 

Didn't matter how they got there. In Jessica Simpson's case, that was via a path paved with diet pills and hours spent pinching her very limited "fat" in front of a mirror while repeating a self-hating mantra.

“I immediately went on an extremely strict diet, and started taking diet pills, which I would do for the next 20 years,” she wrote in her memoir, Open Book, about her teenage reaction to the record company's strong suggestion. “I started to hear voices when I was alone at night, waiting for the sleeping pill to kick in… "Do more sit-ups, fat ass"."


When it starts that way, is it any wonder that 10 years later, Simpson says, she was spending about 80 per cent of her waking hours thinking about her body?

Does that also sound... familiar? 

Jessica Simpson didn't stay the way she looked when she was 18. Of course she didn't. A human woman, with internal organs, and hormones, and an appetite, and a life to live, changes shape. 

Most human women, however, get to decide whether to hold up their every fluctuation of dress size for scrutiny. 

We could argue that Jessica Simpson gave up that choice during her peak-objectification era. In 2005, post-Newlyweds, post-power-ballads, she got a movie-star role playing Daisy Duke in a remake of The Dukes Of Hazzard, an iconic 1980s TV show about cowboys, cars, blokes and one woman - cousin Daisy, whose character arc involved wearing denim short-shorts with cowboy boots. 

If the TV Daisy was sexualised, the 2005 Jessica Simpson version was more so. It was the era of Size Zero, of Paris and Lindsay and Nicole - and Dukes Simpson was noticeably tiny, with a deep fake tan and copious hair extensions. In the video for the soundtrack's version of These Boots Are Made For Walkin'she sexy-washed a car in a tiny pink bikini, a moment so iconic it was later parodied by P!nk in her Stupid Girl film clip. 

Image: Warner Bros


It was a time when protruding collar bones were a status symbol, alongside outsized sunglasses and handbags that made heads and arms look smaller. Getting arrested DUI on an empty stomach was a celebrity rite of passage. And Jessica Simpson's was one of the hot bodies women were poring over in an act of self-flagellation - posing in her undies and red heels on the front cover of Rolling Stone next to the line, 'Housewife Of The Year'.

The Daisy Dukes era, Simpson says, “created a gold standard Jessica, the ‘before’ for every ‘is she fat or is she thin’ story for the rest of my career”.


And women everywhere nod in knowing they have their own 'gold standard' whip somewhere, in their minds, on their phone, in the frame in the wedding picture on the wall. 

Of course, the pendulum swung. In 2010, Jessica appeared at a festival in Florida. She wore high-waisted dark blue jeans with a double belt. She looked beautiful. And happy. But she did not look like Daisy Duke. 

And the tabloids swooped.

Jumbo Jessica. Beefy Beauty. This is how she 'rolls'.

She had 'let herself go'. 

"I felt good up there," she said. "But I was taken down by the world."

The whole experience, she says, made her embarrassed for her then-boyfriend, footballer Tony Romo. It put her off performing, something she'd always loved, and it sparked another 10 years of fighting with her body. 

Over those ten years she had three children. 

And there is nothing the women's magazines of the era liked better than a pregnant woman who looked pregnant, changing shape. And then changing back again. 

Jessica Simpson became one of those celebrities who is famous for her body, and what size it appears to be at any given moment. One of those women whose flesh we can't quite see past. 


Was she complicit in that, when she signed up to be the hottest girl in the world for a hot-minute in the mid noughties? Or was it a lose-lose proposition, striving to be a public woman, a performer, in a culture that demanded the only ones who got to step on stage had to dance in a bikini as their price of admission?

If there is a silver lining in that level of objectification, it's that "having all the sizes in my closet" made Simpson an effective and relatable face for her eponymous clothing line, one of the most successful celebrity endorsement lines of all time, selling billions of dollars of stock from mid-range department stores across the US, before she sold it, it went bankrupt, and she bought it back. The Jessica Simpson Collection kicks on, selling platform sandals and yes, 'mom jeans', online.

That is not a sweetener that most women get to enjoy. 


The obsession endures. Jessica Simpson is now 42. Lately, she's been thin again. Back in a bikini. The headlines about "concerns" for her "frail form" have moved from newstands to sidebars on news sites. Alongside those stories sit the ones about "how she did it". Take your pick. 

In 2020, a Vogue editor wrote a story about having to stare at Jessica's "boobs" over dinner at the Met Gala. It was clear the writer didn't consider them classy enough to be in attendance. 

"I have persevered through shaming my own body and internalising the world’s opinions about it for my entire adult life," Simpson wrote in response.


It's true. She could shrink herself to nothing; she could allow herself some grace. She could grow - older, pregnant, softer, stronger - and the shaming would continue unabated.

For most of us, it's an inner mocking voice that constantly criticises the very flesh on our bones. For Simpson, one of the "body" celebrities, the quiet part is yelled out loud.

Listen: On this episode of Mamamia Out Loud - The problem with “lose weight” as the default diagnosis for women. Post continues below.

Remember, friends, it's a cautionary tale. 

We're grappling with a reckoning about how we treated the famous women of the recent past - Britney, Paris, Lindsay, Pamela. That recalibration isn't really about those individual women. Public shaming is always a warning to the rest of us not to step out of line, and a generation or two of women internalised the barbs thrown at the Jessicas, even as we were throwing some of them ourselves. 

The message was that our bodies were under constant scrutiny. And that whatever the size your jeans, your body defines you, and it's really kind of gross.

It's the unpicking of this that is really the most exciting reckoning.

Feature Image: Getty

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