In college, I’d spend 45 minutes on the elliptical machine, then spend an hour at an exercise class. I’d eat Raisin Bran for lunch, then rice with peas, maybe with a little cheese on top, for dinner. If I only ate a bag of microwave popcorn for lunch — a “meal,” I’d later learn, that was a universal signifier of disordered eating — my friends would give me the side-eye, until one day, they sat me down and told me, “You’re not getting enough calories.”
I was embarrassed, because such a coordinated conversation meant that they’d surely been talking about me, and observing my eating habits, for months. But that surveillance did make me start consuming more calories, although never really enough, given how much I continued to exercise. My mind told me food was bad, and unnecessary, and easily ignored — even though my body, like every body, was telling me it was very necessary. Not through hunger pains, which I’d disciplined into disappearing, but through a feeling of weakness and slowness when I exercised.
I was never skinny in a way that would be considered concerning. I never forced myself to throw up. I never skipped meals. I ate sweets. I drank beer. I scavenged for late night nachos. I didn’t “go on diets.” But like millions of other people, I had a deeply disordered relationship with food, sustained by the knowledge that, hey, it seemed to be working. My body was societally acceptable, hewing the line of what a “desirable” white woman’s body should look like — which, by extension, meant that whatever I was doing to keep it that way was acceptable, too.
In Miss Americana, the much-anticipated Taylor Swift documentary now on Netflix, Swift articulates a similar idea. When she felt fat — usually after seeing a picture of herself or a magazine cover suggesting she’d gained weight or was pregnant — “that would just trigger me to just…starve a little bit,” she said. “Just stop eating.” Anyone with disordered eating will tell you that “starve a little bit” and “stop eating” doesn’t mean stop eating altogether, which would be too obvious a signal that something was wrong, but rather eat very, very carefully. You consume as few calories as possible, often engaging in what’s known as “orthorexia”: obsessive “clean” or “healthy” eating.
Swift, like me and so many other bourgeois women I know, also engaged in a form of hypergymnasia, also known as exercise anorexia, in which you seek to control your body and your net calorie intake through compulsive exercise, but with inadequate energy to fuel it. “I thought that I was just, like, supposed to feel like I was going to pass out at the end of a show or in the middle of it,” she explains in the documentary. “I thought that was how it was.”
The exercise also served as a means of deflecting potential criticism about her size. “I would’ve defended it to anyone who said, ‘I’m concerned about you,’” she continued. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Of course I eat. It’s perfectly normal. I just exercise a lot.’ And I did exercise a lot. But I wasn’t eating.”
While Swift describes her attitude toward food and exercise, footage of her from that period in her life, in the mid-2010s, flashes on the screen. I remember her body from that time — on the red carpet, in a photoshoot for Vogue. She’s a decade younger than me, so it’s no longer the sort of body to which I compare mine, but I imagined how impossibly desirable that body would’ve been to her peers. That’s how I felt about Britney Spears’ body back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Swift helped popularize the high midriff, a strip of skin visible between high-waisted skirts or shorts and crop tops, but Spears standardized the low midriff, tanned and muscular, just above a pair of jeans slung so low that a pair of thong underwear peeped out.
Swift talks about how there’s “always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting,” and for her, it was that when she was thin, she didn’t have a big enough ass, but if she gained enough weight to have an ass, then her stomach wasn’t flat. “It’s all just fucking impossible,” she says. That was the thing about the Britney stomach, too: for most women, especially women older than 17, it was just fucking impossible. Most women’s bodies just don’t look like that, no matter how much you exercise. Which is part of why it was the ideal, of course: because it was essentially unobtainable for the vast majority of the population.
But as a perfectionist, type A kid and then adult, I wasn’t used to things that I couldn’t obtain through hard work and discipline. You see the goal and you make a plan to achieve it. For some perfectionists, that plan can expand into a more visible, and more life-threatening, eating disorder. But I think more people are like me and Swift: We figure out a way to work toward the ideal without alarming anyone and lie, even to ourselves, about what we’re doing to our bodies.
Even back in college, I knew that not everyone’s body type was the same, and that body ideals were contradictory — just like Swift knew that she couldn’t have a physique like her friend Karlie Kloss and a butt like Kim Kardashian West. But just because we recognize the ridiculousness of an ideal doesn’t mean we don’t find ourselves subject to it. These ideals are so pernicious that they have completely, and perhaps forever, messed up millions of people’s relationship with food, one of the most elemental components of living as a human in the world.
We figure out a way to work toward the ideal without alarming anyone and lie, even to ourselves, about what we’re doing to our bodies.
My own disordered eating started to shift when I was 30 and working at a boarding school that required spending a significant amount of time eating with and around teenage girls. From the first day, I knew I wanted to model a positive relationship with food: one that wasn’t precise, or overthought, or the center of my life. At first, it was hard to convince myself to eat a normal lunch, instead of just scavenging on granola bars and a piece of fruit the way I had for the last decade. But over the first month, I saw that I didn’t gain weight — and I felt, well, better.
Swift, too, had this realization: “If you eat food, have energy, get stronger, you can do all these shows and not feel it,” she said. “Which is a really good revelation. Because I’m a lot happier with who I am and ... I don’t care as much if somebody points out that I have gained weight. It’s just something that makes my life better.” She admits that she’s not the size she once was, but that’s fine. “That wasn’t how my body was supposed to be,” she said. “I just didn’t really understand that. At the time, I really don’t think I knew it.”
Or, like me, some part of Swift did know her body wasn’t supposed to be functioning that way — she just couldn’t get the rest of her to agree, especially when she was praised, in every way imaginable, when her body was like that. And that’s why this sort of disordered eating hides in plain sight: Among high-achieving students, among athletes at all levels, among men and people of all different sizes, including (or especially) those who seemingly have it all together as much as Taylor Swift. Athletes in particular are adept at masking their disordered eating: They underreport their behaviors, their problems are conceived of as “problematic” but “subclinical”; they rarely report bingeing and purging, instead resorting to exercise as a (sanctioned) form of control.
The risk and prevalence of eating disorders, and disordered eating, rises in sports with an increased emphasis on an athlete’s diet, weight, size, and/or appearance. But our society in general already emphasizes, cherishes, and praises us when we conform to those expectations — a lesson that young people of all genders begin to internalize at an incredibly young age, that’s reinforced through pervasive cultural body-shaming. Which is why the behaviors listed as eating disorder warning signs — “preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting,” “skipping meals and taking small portions of food at regular meals,” and “extreme concern with body size and shape” — don’t even sound like red flags. They’re just the parameters of daily life.
As Swift says in Miss Americana, “You don’t ever say to yourself, ‘I’ve got an eating disorder.’ But you know you’re making a list of everything you put in your mouth that day. And you know that’s probably not right. But then again, there’s so many diet blogs that tell you that that’s what you should do.”
Over the last decade, I’ve accumulated a fair amount of ambivalence about Swift — much of which can broadly be traced to the same period as the disordered eating she talks about, including her performance at the 2014 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and the conspicuous making-friends-with-models that accompanied it. The obsessive celebrity selfies and appearances of her “squad” phase felt contrived, flirting with desperate — despite the fact that she was arguably the most famous person in the world.
It’s clichéd to suggest that disordered eating habits develop, and are in turn “healed,” in step with our levels of personal confidence and self-love, but it stems from a larger truth: Our society is so harsh, unforgiving, and exacting when it comes to what people — especially women — should look like and how we should act that it creates a sort of personality vacuum, sucking away all other attributes until all that remains of our character is the ability to control our caloric intake. It’s no coincidence that these disordered habits often develop in adolescence and young adulthood when we’re least sure of who we are, and haven’t yet cultivated a sense of self strong enough to reject messages about who we should be.
I began to form a different relationship with food and exercise when I realized that food wasn’t my enemy, and exercise wasn’t exclusively a way to combat what that enemy had done to me. Swift had a similar revelation, but the documentary as a whole suggests that it was part and parcel of a much larger reckoning with who she was, what she wanted, and what she wanted to stand for — which was also what happened to me, as I entered into my thirties, and a new career, after graduate school.
Swift admits in the documentary that she recently “caught” herself “start to do it”: hating her body, wanting to starve it. “And I was like, Nope, we don’t do that anymore,” she said, “We do not do that anymore.” That’s not the person she’s decided she wants to be. And while the person Swift is today still contributes, willingly or not, to our collective understanding of what beauty and success looks like, she is also talking about her susceptibility to the pressure of that understanding. She’s refusing to hide, and thus continue to normalize, the behaviors that perpetuate it.
People with disordered eating often know that what they’re doing is unhealthy and fucked up. We don’t need people to tell us that. What we do need, and what Swift does, is show that we’ll still be OK — even valuable and beloved — if we leave those behaviors behind. ●
The National Eating Disorders Association helpline is 1-800-931-2237; for 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741741.