Every so often, a celebrity will "come out" about her past struggle with an eating disorder. These stars are almost always women, and they are almost always "better" by the time they make a public statement. They are also almost always slender. Just this week, Katie Couric admitted that she had "wrestled with bulimia all through college, and for two years after that." Kelly Clarkson has also talked about her struggle with bulimia: "One of my guy friends caught on to [my eating disorder], and I just felt so ashamed and embarrassed," she said. "I literally went cold turkey and snapped out of it." Ashlee Simpson and Snooki have both said their parents helped them quit starving themselves. Brandy said she was miserable as a teenage popstar and was "not eating properly, not eating at all, diet pills, regurgitating, and all of these things that girls do."
Subtext: that was bad, it's all in the past, they're okay now, and you'll be okay (and look awesome) someday, too. But Lady Gaga is different. She's not okay right now. It's not all in her past. And she's turning the celebrity looking glass inside-out by asking us to see the dark side — but it's impossible to do so without sending mixed messages.
Gaga's new Body Revolution campaign, inspired by the inane media "controversy" over her recent weight gain, kicked off yesterday with half-naked pictures of the singer and the confession that she's been struggling with anorexia and bulimia for a decade. And her choice of words — "bulimia and anorexia since I was 15" — makes it clear that she's still dealing with it. But we also know she's still struggling because of how she's trying to cope: by asking for support and validation from her millions of ardent fans. Gaga wants to empower others, clearly, but she's also letting us watch the narrative of her eating disorder play out.
The Body Revolution campaign is inarguably inspiring — it's heartwarming to see dozens of posts from women and men who are insecure about features ranging from love handles to missing limbs proudly post photos of their half-naked bodies. As Dodai pointed out yesterday, Gaga proves she really is just like her fans by "showing the world that it's not okay to critique her body" instead of suing the publications that called her fat or claiming she's "dehydrated" or something.
But isn't Gaga also sending mixed messages by posting "real" photos of herself to make it clear that the heavier ones were altered and telling people she's trying to get back to the weight she was before? She told a radio host that she didn't feel bad about her 25 pound weight gain, "not even for a second," but also said that she was currently on a diet. Let's be honest: she looks bangin' in those self-published underwear photos. Or, I'll be honest: I'm jealous of her body. Also honest: by asking myself whether she looks fat or skinny or normal, am I not doing the same thing that the media does, i.e., attempting to make her body fit some preconceived notion of what I think it should look like? What do I even want her to look like?
Honestly, part of me wishes that Lady Gaga actually looked the way she appeared in those likely distorted concert photos. The star has admitted in the past to starving and exercising herself to achieve a body that's unrealistic for most, so wouldn't it be awesome if she decided to really not give a fuck about what people thought, thus changing the status quo and forcing us to reconsider what a superstar of her caliber should look like? Wouldn't that really bring about change?
Possibly. But Gaga isn't a role model designed by an eating disorder PSA or our own wishful thinking. She's a real person — a 26-year-old person — struggling with an eating disorder she's had for years. She's sending mixed messages, but how could she not? Wanting to love yourself and actually hating yourself, wanting to be better than a disorder but letting it control you — it's all part of her condition, and she's letting it all play out via social media.
Gaga's Body Revolution campaign also reminds me of the pro-eating disorder internet community, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; a recent study found that pro-ana blogs can actually provide enormous support. Sure, these people are against eating disorders, not for them. But they're still asking others to tell them they're beautiful, loved, and doing just fine based on photos of their thighs.
A woman who blogs about her struggle with eating disorders under the name "Recovering Anorexic" recently wrote about how she thinks celebrities who say they have eating disorders are actually more harmful than helpful:
"...because a vast majority of them speak of their disorders as phases, and the last thing the eating disorder community needs is society thinking even less of their mental disorders. There are a handful of celebrities who have spoken about their brief relationships with anorexia or bulimia, but in most cases they all magically seemed to get better once they realized how "bad" it was to be restricting their food or barfing it all up. But please, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know starving yourself or barfing up your food is dangerous."
She actually cites Gaga as one of those celebrities, because the star once said that she stopped making herself throw up because it would damage her voice. That's why it's so meaningful and powerful that Gaga is now admitting she's still struggling, even if her well-intentioned methods focus too much on achieving validation via the approval of strangers for my taste.
It's complicated, but the bottom line is that one of the most famous women in the world is exposing her emotional and physical self for us all to see, learn from, and relate to — that, in itself, has the potential to alter the way the media makes us feel horrible about our bodies. Next time I come across a tabloid spread on bad beach bodies, I know I'll think of Lady Gaga, both vulnerable and defiant in her yellow thong.