What We Talk About When We Talk About Lady Gaga’s Eating Disorder

I’ve always known Lady Gaga had an eating disorder. We can spot our own. I never expected she’d admit it though. In fact, I begrudged her all that post-modern, post-sexual, body-as-performance-art razzmatazz. I begrudged her because the body in question, hers, seemed too slim to court true controversy. Sure, she might hatch from an egg, sport bony protrusions, even cross-dress, but society will accept a lot from you if your thighs don’t touch. She wouldn’t be brave enough to use her body as a canvas, I thought, if that canvas couldn’t fit a sample size.

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

But now in a move both bold and vulnerable, Gaga has admitted to gaining weight; not through a scripted, publicist-delivered missive, but in her own ambivalent words. (“I’m dieting right now/ I really don’t feel bad about [the weight gain], not even for a second/ I really don’t like that.”) In addition, she’s launched a Body Revolution Campaign on her (incredibly hard to navigate) networking site. By mixing confession (“Bulimia and Anorexia since I was 15”) with action, Lady Gaga is once again using her body for fodder, herself as receptacle for the public’s fears and desires. Clearly, she means to start a conversation about body image, but what exactly that conversation sounds like will be governed by people like me, bringing our own assumptions and judgements to bear.

So far, many of the participants in that discussion seem blinded by their own experiences, a shortcoming I understand. Anorexics aren’t the only types prone to assuming our reality THE reality, we’re just especially good at it; perhaps to do with the anorexia’s intense self-focus, the way our existence pinholes, becoming more and more circumscribed until the world is the apple in front of us, the minuscule bite we’ve allowed ourself more significant than the quest for peace in the Mideast. (You may notice I’m not speaking for bulimics. Do I sound smug? Sorry, that’s residual. Anorexics are assholes, or maybe I am.)

For every nuanced opinion piece, five myopic comments spring up, deriding Lady Gaga for using “the body acceptance movement to shamelessly garner accolades and attention,” for not “spouting all this body acceptance stuff back when she was a bit skinnier,” for being too thin to suffer from body dysmorphia, for referring to an eating disordered fan as “Oh my God, so skinny,” when anyone with an eating disorder should know not to say something so triggering.

To parse these comments is to stagger through some sort of judgmental, self-involved fun house of doom. Why attack rather than embrace someone who has presented herself in all her contradictory glory for the benefit of her fans?

Skimming comments and blogs, I remembered a fellow novelist asking my opinion of a secondary character in her latest book. A teenage anorexic, the character removes her clothes in a European bathhouse, watching with satisfaction as her future stepmother gasps at her emaciated form.

“That would never happen,” I told my friend. “Even machine-fed and hospitalized, an anorexic thinks she’s fat.”

When I shared the anecdote with another former anorexic, she shook her head hard.

“Wrong. I knew exactly what I looked like,” she said. “And I was f–king proud.”

Of course anorexia creates some universals. That’s one of its most ironic aspects: we’re drawn to it, craving control, desperate to assert our individuality, only to wind up proud owner of the same symptoms (amenorrhea, bone density issues, an attractive coating of light fur.) as everyone else. What differs is how each individual interprets her disease and recovery, and that’s what we seem to forget. Rather than allow Lady Gaga to make her public declaration, reach out to fans the way she sees fit, we’re slapping our reality over her’s, evaluating it in terms of our own. But that’s the nature of celebrity, of fandom as well. Like someone donating her body to science, Lady Gaga has chosen a path of vulnerable exposure, a strange lack of autonomy, a subsuming of self. But wouldn’t it be a shame if those she means to reach out to can’t see beyond themselves to accept what she holds?