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The offending cover line: 'Zoe Saldana 115 pounds of grit and heartache.'

Last week there was a medium level of controversy online over the weight of Zoe Saldana - not because there wasn't much of it (though that is true too) - but because it was printed, in bold - on the cover of Allure magazine. And as much as the heavily photoshopped covers of magazines regularly tout impossible promises of instant weight loss and erasing body flaws – a line had been crossed.

Because, in recent memory, no one can recall a celebrity’s weight explicitly being mentioned on a cover. It was the truth and a taboo. But there it was, “Zoe Saldana: 115 pounds of grit and heartache.”

So why do women’s magazines – who are generally willing to serve you up a whole host of mixed messages about diet, weight loss and self-esteem – avoid discussing the “number”? Well, because from up-market glossies like Allure to weekly celebrity titles, there’s a general understanding, an occasional-code-of-ethics if you will, that rumours, exaggerations and guesses about most topics are OK but you never mention the exact weight of stars.

Zoe Saldana

Zoe Saldana's cover of Allure.

Of course this is because like Saldana (at 170 cm tall and 51 kg), most celebrities’ weight will  end up being firmly in the underweight category according to the Body Mass Index calculator. Further normalising that this kind of figure is normal, desirable and possible for the average woman or girl.

Though Allure missed the memo, magazines tend to omit this one detail about the lives of celebrities as some kind of service to their female readers.  Screaming “dangerously thin” from the roof tops is cool, but mentioning the actual number is distasteful – so goes the thinking.

One could easily argue that a number is not any more damaging than being surrounded by images of painfully thin models and actresses – a far more tangible way for impressionable young women to understand what being ‘thin enough’ to be ‘beautiful’ might look like.

As someone who is genetically blessed and working in an industry where starving yourself is normalised Saldana was clearly comfortable with her weight being published. (One assumes they asked her the question, lest they did a weigh-in before the shoot began). So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised she can’t get her head around what all the fuss is about. She told E! News at the Cannes Film Festival,

 "It's not the first time that people have said, for such a delicate-looking person, you're very tough. And I think that was the idea that they wanted to get across as a compliment to what they saw in me."

She continued, somewhat less eloquently, "I don't understand it sometimes. It almost felt like you were just looking for a reason to just be upset at the fact that I allowed myself to be very free and collaborating with a magazine that is known for collaborating with the subjects." 

I don’t think anyone is deluded enough to expect women’s magazines to be leaders in changing the way we discuss women’s bodies or pioneering a new style of body-positive reporting. The response from consumers on their Facebook page reflects this. There’s not a lot of surprise and anger for what one might call a minor misstep for a magazine that exists soley to teach readers how to slavishly following beauty trends –  a mission that’s probably a lot more troubling than printing somebody’s weight.

It would appear, after this kerfuffle, that magazines will go back to stories about extreme weight loss/gain and dropping a dress size rather than printing the actual numerics of a star’s weight.  More than anything, I think Saldana’s scandal is a timely reminder of what many actresses and models need to do to fit a mould that will allow them to work in front of cameras. Printing Zoe Saldana’s weight was ill-thought out and probably irresponsible, but it was also the hard truth. In Hollywood, a 34-year-old woman is expected to not only to look as young as a teenager but to weigh as much as one too. Being shielded from the exact figure isn’t a huge service – though printing it proudly is certainly a precarious step backwards.