Taylor Swift Says Cultural 'Praise and Punishment' Fed Her Eating Disorder

Following the premiere of her new documentary “Miss Americana” at Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Taylor Swift discussed, for the first time, how celebrity influenced her relationship with her body and her relationship to food. In an interview for Variety’s Sundance issue cover story, Swift explained how increased public scrutiny encouraged and exacerbated her developing an eating disorder.

“It’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day,” Swift said. “It’s only happened a few times, and I’m not in any way proud of it [but I’ll 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.”

Swift says that those feelings were also affected by what she calls a system of “praise and punishment” that accompanied body talk: “I remember how, when I was 18, that was the first time I was on the cover of a magazine. And the headline was like ‘Pregnant at 18?’ And it was because I had worn something that made my lower stomach look not flat. So I just registered that as a punishment. And then I’d walk into a photo shoot and be in the dressing room and somebody who worked at a magazine would say, ‘Oh, wow, this is so amazing that you can fit into the sample sizes. Usually we have to make alterations to the dresses, but we can take them right off the runway and put them on you!’ And I looked at that as a pat on the head.”

As someone who grew up with that kind of intense body feedback, it sadly makes sense that Swift internalized it: “You register that enough times, and you just start to accommodate everything towards praise and punishment, including your own body… My relationship with food was exactly the same psychology that I applied to everything else in my life: If I was given a pat on the head, I registered that as good. If I was given a punishment, I registered that as bad.”

Being rewarded and praised for her disordered habits and feeling punished for deviating from them isn’t exclusive to celebrities. Studies show that obsessive, so-called “perfectionist” behaviors can be seen in people suffering from eating disorders and that people complimenting and validating weight loss as a net good without question can encourage the development of disordered eating/exercise behaviors.

“By definition, individuals with anorexia nervosa diet effectively enough to lose weight (or, if still growing, to fail to gain weight as expected),” Timothy Walsh, MD, wrote in a paper for the American Journal of Psychiatry. “In the current Western culture, successful weight loss is an often wished for and encouraged goal that is rarely achieved. Therefore, the initial weight loss of individuals with anorexia nervosa provides evidence of impressive self-control and personal accomplishment, leading to enhanced self-esteem. In addition, many individuals who develop anorexia nervosa describe receiving compliments at the beginning of their successful efforts at weight loss.” Walsh notes that associating obsessive dieting and weight loss with feelings of accomplishment or validation can often lead to these behaviors becoming a habit.

In the documentary, Swift said that, during the height of her disorder, she felt weak and exhausted — but also convinced herself that was how she was supposed to feel: “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).”

She also says she was quick to defend her disordered behaviors at the time, saying she’d bat away concerns with a “‘What are you talking about? Of course I eat. …. I exercise a lot,’” adding “And I did exercise a lot. But I wasn’t eating.”

Swift’s story, thankfully, shows that she’s on a better, healthier path — both from identifying the patterns that caused her to hurt herself and by reckoning with the fact that the societal standards around what a body should look like (especially a pop star’s body) are impossible, entitled nonsense. “If you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass that everybody wants,” she says in the film. “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.”

She cites other celebrities, like Jameela Jamil, as inspiration for being more frank and open about body pressure and body negative feelings:“The way she [Jamil] speaks about body image, it’s almost like she speaks in a hook,” Swift told Variety. “If you read her quotes about women and body image and aging and the way that women are treated in our industry and portrayed in the media, I swear the way she speaks is like lyrics, and it gets stuck in my head and it calms me down. Because women are held to such a ridiculous standard of beauty. We’re seeing so much on social media that makes us feel like we are less than, or we’re not what we should be, that you kind of need a mantra to repeat in your head when you start to have harmful or unhealthy thoughts. So she’s one of the people who, when I read what she says, it sticks with me and it helps me.”

Swift says she wasn’t sure about opening up about something as personal and private as her body issues and eating disorder struggles — especially since she doesn’t feel like an expert — but that the film has given her the space to talk about it on her own terms: “I didn’t know if I was going to feel comfortable with talking about body image and talking about the stuff I’ve gone through in terms of how unhealthy that’s been for me — my relationship with food and all that over the years. But the way that [‘Miss Americana’ Director Lana Wilson] tells the story, it really makes sense. I’m not as articulate as I should be about this topic because there are so many people who could talk about it in a better way. But all I know is my own experience.”

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