What can we learn from Taylor Swift and her journey with an eating disorder? It turns out, quite a bit. And you don’t have to be a country-music-pop-crossover fan to benefit from her story — which is anything but a sappy love song.
Taylor Swift recently opened up to Variety on her relationship to both food and her body, after comments on her body ranged from mildly aggravating to incredibly damaging. Swift explains how she might see “a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or… someone said that I looked pregnant … and that’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit — just stop eating.” While she doesn’t name it implicitly, Taylor Swift’s description of not eating is characteristic of Anorexia nervosa or avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder— often shortened to anorexia — which is a serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder.
An eating disorder is a persistent disturbance of eating or eating-related behavior that results in the consumption of food that is not typical or not suitable for the person’s age, circumstances and nutritional needs. An eating disorder is diagnosed when that disturbance impairs physical health or psychological or social functioning. The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating and avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder.
Those with Anorexia or avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder often hold themselves to impossible standards of weight, shape, and food intake since their perception of body size is distorted. These perceptions can result in dangerously low body weight and an overwhelming fear or anxiety about gaining weight, which manifest in unhealthy behaviors like extreme food restriction or not eating at all — just as Taylor Swift mentions.
While Taylor Swift doesn’t elaborate at length on how her eating disorder has manifested, she does explain how comments from others — even people she didn’t know — were especially hurtful. Here are a few helpful swaps when discussing food, weight, and body type:
- Food is not a reward or a punishment — it’s an essential facet of maintaining our health as active humans. Since we (literally) can’t survive without eating, it’s easy to celebrate with food and commiserate with food since our natural instincts are to eat. However we are used to a society where we go out to eat when we win the game or we clean out the ice cream stash when heartbreak hits. It’s natural to want “comfort food,” but there are lots of ways to nurture yourself that doesn’t involve eating.
- When complimenting someone, focus on an attribute unrelated to their body type, weight, shape. Commenting on something positive unrelated to weight gain or weight loss (or weight in general) facilitates a healthy attitude toward one’s body. Tell your friend how proud you are of their graduation, or thank them for helping you move. Haven’t seen them in a while? Tell them how good it is to see them and focus on their life — not their body.
- Don’t make comments that characterize a food as “good” or “bad.” Chocolate cake is neither good nor bad — it just happens to have more calories than a head of lettuce. No one is “good” or “bad” for eating or choosing one food over another — it’s just that: a choice. Some choices might be healthier than others, but what someone eats doesn’t define their quality as a person. As Taylor Swift attests, associating one type of eating and living as “good” and another as “bad” (or “punishment,” as Swift explains) undermines our ability to see food for what it is: energy and fuel.
- Eating disorders are serious and an intervention by a trained health professional can make the difference between relapse and recovery. It’s never okay to joke that someone has an eating disorder — you never know if your “innocent” comment may affect someone.
Taylor Swift recounts how people — especially those in the public eye — are held to impossible standards when it comes to what is beautiful, acceptable, or “right.” She explains, “If you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass that everybody wants .. but if you have enough weight on you to have an ass, your stomach isn’t flat enough. It’s all just f—ing impossible.”
Being too thin, as in the case of anorexia, can cause serious health problems and in extreme cases, even death. Concerned health professionals, educators and parents are making efforts to increase awareness that the extreme thinness of fashion models sets a twisted and dangerous ideal of beauty.
Fame and fortune doesn’t prevent celebrities like Taylor Swift from eating disorders, and they’re very common among all populations and demographics. At least 9% of the worldwide population is affected by eating disorders, and in the US alone, 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders affect people of all ages, races and socio-economic levels, and 25 percent of these Americans are men. There’s also an abundance of shame associated with weight fluctuations, as Taylor Swift and popular author-lecturer Brené Brown have alluded to.
A survey of 1,000 adults conducted for the National Eating Disorders Association found that 70 percent believe encouraging the media and advertisers to use more average sized people in their advertising campaigns would reduce or prevent eating disorders.
But scientific knowledge, abundance and choice can be overridden by psychological and emotional imprints that cast a shadow over the natural impulse to eat what the body needs to survive and be healthy. This is true for Taylor Swift, who explains, “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).”
The Troubling Statistics About Eating Disorders
In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a diagnosable eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other specified feeding or eating disorders. While Taylor Swift’s eating disorder really gained steam in her mid-20s, the youngest and most vulnerable of the population shouldn’t be overlooked.
Dissatisfaction with their own bodies or weight is increasingly common among young children and teenagers. Here are some more troubling statistics from the survey done for the National Eating Disorders Association:
- By the age of 6, many girls start to express concerns about their own weight or shape.
- 40-to-60 percent of girls ages 6-to-12 are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat.
- More than one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting or taking laxatives.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
The main goals in treatment are restoring adequate nutrition, bringing weight to a healthy level, stopping binging and purging, and reducing excessive exercise.
Psychotherapy is an important factor in gaining understanding and skills to develop healthy eating habits and body image. In some cases, where depression or anxiety is a prominent factor in the eating disorder, medication may be prescribed.
Individual, group or family counseling may be a part of the treatment plan and can be a critical factor in creating a support network.
Part of Taylor Swift’s path to recovery includes positive self-talk — when you have unhealthy or unhelpful thoughts that complicate your relationship with food or your body, you have a phrase or positive affirmation ready to tell yourself (and tell yourself again). Repeating a mantra or even a short quote flips the switch on your brain and helps you to focus elsewhere.
Hope for Those who Suffer from Eating Disorders
Research is continuing on the complex biological, psychological and social factors that combine to create an eating disorder. The most important step is to first acknowledge that there is a problem. Human beings are tremendously capable of growth and improvement in the face of enormous challenges, but until an issue is addressed and acknowledged, work to change cannot begin. Being able to talk about it with a trusted friend can be helpful and can diminish the sense of isolation and shame that is often a significant part of the problem.
Being able to seek treatment from a professional therapist can also open a path towards healing and renewal. Eating disorders often occur in combination with other problems such as depression or anxiety; a path to good health must be designed specifically for each individual. The most promising fact about eating disorders is that with professional, compassionate and consistent treatment, a complete recovery possible… and you don’t have to be Taylor Swift to get the help you need.
Editor’s Note: This article has been fully updated for 2021.
Taylor Swift Opens Up About Overcoming Struggle With Eating Disorder (EXCLUSIVE), Variety Media, LLC., Los Angeles, October 26, 2020
American Psychiatric Association, “Feeding and Eating Disorders,” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5, Arlington, Va. http://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/doi/book/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, “What are Eating Disorders?” https://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/portal/what-are-eating-disorders
National Eating Disorders Association, “Get the Facts on Eating Disorders,” New York
National Institute of Mental Health, “Eating Disorders: More Than About Food,” Bethesda, Md
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