Opinion: 'To read into Cheryl's appearance is a way of saying life disappointed her, despite her fame and wealth'
Pop star's compulsion to comment on her new appearance before anyone else is flattering to no one, writes Sarah Caden
'My whole body, even my face, every-thing's changed since Bear was born," Cheryl, on the brink of her musical comeback, told a UK Sunday paper last week. "But I feel like I'm better than who I was. I don't care what my body looks like in that respect. I'm not obsessed about it."
Only the day before, Cheryl's appearance had caused a stir when she was photographed arriving at a London radio studio for a morning-show interview. Social media was awash with comments not just on her yellow "lollipop lady" raincoat but also her new bob and what people regarded as her new face.
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Without doubt, Cheryl looked different and speculation ran from something different about her eyes and mouth, to her cheeks, her chin, her whole face.
While the interview in which she said she has changed utterly appeared the next day, let's be clear that this interview was conducted and printed long before she got up for the early-morning radio. Which is to say that Cheryl, long before she came out in to the spotlight again, felt some need to tell us that she is altered. A case, perhaps, of stating the obvious before everyone else could, but if that was the intention, it wasn't entirely successful.
Last weekend, after being photographed and dissected for her apparently altered appearance, Cheryl entered into a busy week of promotion of her comeback, which included participation in the celebrations of Prince Charles's 70th birthday. Cheryl was one of those who appeared on stage at the "We are Most Amused and Amazed" televised variety show for Prince Charles. She was an eye-catcher, in her one-shouldered, side-thigh-split, floor-length scarlet dress. Her long hair - which had been in a tousled bob on the Saturday - flowed down her bared shoulder.
If the commentary had been cutting after her morning-radio outing, it was full-on savage after the royal appearance. In essence, it could be summed up as: "what the hell has Cheryl done to her face?" Focus was on how one eye seemed almost closed, her cheeks were very prominent. No one explicitly said she'd had work done, in fact everyone is at pains to state that Cheryl has not, but it wasn't really about that.
It was really about how Cheryl must be damaged and showing the signs, which has been the narrative with Cheryl for a long time now. Previous to her becoming a mother, though, it was a bit more subtle.
Since her divorce from her first husband, former footballer Ashley Cole in 2010, there has been this theme that Cheryl is not only gorgeous but, bafflingly, can't get it right. He was a rotter, the simplistic narrative goes, who cheated on her and broke her heart.
Then, there was Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini, whom she married in 2014. Their romance was whirlwind and the marriage short-lived. From the outset, he was characterised as controlling and jealous, not only of other men but of Cheryl herself. After Fernandez-Versini, she started going as just Cheryl, and eventually started going out with former One Direction star Liam Payne.
There was a giddiness around the union of Cheryl and Liam that was partly girlband/boyband synergy, but also the 10-year age gap and the fact that they'd first met and flirted when she was an X Factor judge and he was a 14-year-old contestant.
They didn't marry and there was no name change for Cheryl, but they had their baby son, Bear, in March 2017. Cheryl was seen very seldom in public during her pregnancy and only really revealed her expectant shape in a L'Oreal ad not long before Bear was born. After that, she seemed to retreat further into a nesting mode. In fact, Cheryl's next big outing was with Liam at this year's Brits, which was very much an effort to quell split rumours.
They split not long after and Liam had a solo music venture since, during which, of course, he discussed Cheryl. He talked about how they had given the relationship their best shot and how much he loves his child, but no one really nitpicked his appearance.
This could be down to the fact that he didn't look any different, you could argue. But Liam Payne wasn't expected to appear altered by fatherhood or heartbreak, either. We are in love at the moment with this idea that women become some sort of gorgeous Amazonians with motherhood. It's picking women to pieces by any other name, though. It's dressed up as "ooh look at you, all gorgeous with hormones and love", but it's really just a way to get permission to examine and find fault.
And to read into a woman's appearance, and Cheryl's specifically, all the reasons why her life is the way it is. Cheryl's had some work done - though no one is saying that - is a way of saying that life has disappointed her, despite the trappings of fame and wealth.
That Cheryl discussed looking different in an interview published the same weekend she was perceived to be looking altered was a funny confluence of things.
Cheryl attributes being different to being a mother, thus nearly giving permission for the dissection of her appearance. Generally, and of course as Cheryl portrays it, the change is for the positive. You know how it goes: I'm no longer so body-obsessed; carrying a child made me more beautiful than ever; my empowerment as a mother has made me more attractive as a person.
That's the altered-state narrative that Cheryl is buying into, along with the rather more alarming statement that she's found "the man of [her] dreams" in baby Bear.
Cheryl is back and her key message is that she's all grown up. She's long past Girls Aloud, she's well over her two marriages that ended in divorce and her comeback single, Love Made Me Do It, is not a lashing-out at Liam Payne.
She's back to her original name of Tweedy, too, but explained last week that she's keeping it to simple Cheryl professionally as she's had "too many surnames".
We're supposed to take it that lyrics such as "oh my God, I'm such a sucker/ I fall in love with every f***er" are Cheryl fighting back, coming back, stronger than ever, you know how it goes.
Instead, it's like more of the same. More bruised but not broken Cheryl saying would you ever look at the gorgeous mess of me.
She's back. She's not quite the same. And she told us so.