Today is the debut of Taylor Swift’s new documentary, Miss Americana on Netflix. In it, she reveals her struggle with an eating disorder for the first time. Admissions like hers aren’t rare in celebrity culture, with new details regarding the inner struggles of American idols emerging every day. But Swift’s is noteworthy for two key reasons: her fame and her audience.
In 2019, Forbes cited Taylor Swift as that year’s highest paid female musician, an achievement possible only through an overwhelming degree of renown. This high esteem was due in part to her clean record; unlike others in the industry, Swift’s background is immaculate– no drugs, no arrests, no scandals. She’s well-spoken, well-respected, and a role model in every sense of the word. Men and women of all ages enjoy Swift’s music and think well of her. But an especially high number of adolescent girls look up to the country-pop singer, who was once so thin, she looked like she’d walked straight off the runway. In the film, Swift shares that she often received praise for fitting into the model clothing sizes at photo shoots. But her unhealthful, double-zero frame didn’t come without side effects, an important note for young people who often model their own behavior after the precedents set by celebrities. She recounts in the documentary, “I thought that I was supposed to feel like I was going to pass out at the end of a show, or in the middle of it. Now I realize, no, if you eat food, have energy, get stronger, you can do all these shows and not feel enervated.”
This realization is precisely the reason that going public about her struggles matters so much. The billions of fans who watch her successes, sell-out her shows, and read tabloids about her weight are now understanding the ‘why’ behind the seemingly sudden change in her appearance. It’s not because she lost control of herself, as some accuse her, but rather that she’s taking back her life, and her power, into her own hands. Her audience is seeing a woman who culturally speaking once “had it all” but is now admitting that the acclaim didn’t come without consequence. They’re witnessing a star who was in part idolized for her body, now rejecting the societal obsession with thinness. Not only that, but they’re watching her instead live out an example of health, self-care, and balance.
By sharing her story, Taylor Swift is sending a powerful message to her diverse audience that they aren’t alone in their struggles. There’s a stigma attached to eating disorders in our culture, especially regarding the appearance or background of those struggling with them. But the more that leaders like Swift actively break the chains of association between body size and success, the safer the messaging will be to the most vulnerable members of their respective audiences. Openness and honesty about eating disorders undermine the stigmatization of them, creating a safe space for individuals of all backgrounds to seek the help that they deserve.