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Pop music and eating disorders

The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, ‘Help me, please, I’m lost in my own passive resistance, something went wrong’…. Did anyone ever ask you that question—what’s it like being a girl in music?                     

Kim Gordon, ‘Open letter to Karen’

It’s been recognised that some creative practices and industries have had a greater tendency towards anorexia than others. David Garner and Paul Garfinkel’s early study of ‘socio-cultural factors’ found that trainee professional dancers and student fashion models were susceptible; this contrasted with, for instance, students in music colleges and conservatories who, although also (like the dancers) having to undergo ‘demanding and competitive training’, were ‘not required to maintain a thin body shape for their careers’ (1980, 648).

Thus ,‘anorexia nervosa and excessive dieting concerns were overrepresented in the dance and modelling students’ (1980, 647), and with dance—especially at ballet school—many of the students developed anorexia ‘while actively studying’ (652). Further, ‘28% of the professionally oriented dance sample were amenorrhoeic’ (meaning, they had no or few periods) (653) .

Recent work on ‘the impact of thin ideals’ in pop music videos on young female viewers found, probably unsurprisingly, that ‘brief exposure to music videos containing thin and attractive images of women led to increases in body dissatisfaction’ among the female viewers (Tiggemann and Slater 2004, 49, 55). So: studies of both creative practice and media representation have affirmed a cultural connection.

But it is important to acknowledge that this has been problematised by recent critical feminist scholars wary of over-emphasising what Maree Burns has termed ‘the inscriptive power of cultural images of thinness,’ which may ‘render persons [with experience of eating disorders] as passive and docile rather than (also as) engaging with, resisting and potentially transforming the discourses embedded within those images’ (2009, 124-125).  

How does anorexia resonate in pop in particular? Arguably popular music scholars may recognise in ‘the combination of ambition to achieve and dark drive to self-destruct that is characteristic of eating disorders’ (Saukko 2006, 162; emphasis added) a familiar personality profile from their own cultural realm; in my own work I have termed this an aspect of pop’s ‘destructive economy’ (McKay 2013).

The role of the music industry is identified by some other scholars as bearing responsibility. Eric Lott, for, example, describes how US star singer Karen Carpenter ‘internaliz[ed] the business’s murderous pressure on the female image’ (2008, 230). Su Holmes point out that Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni’s ‘anorexia was often explained in terms of the normative script of the “damaged” child star in which fame itself led to her demise’ (2015, 815; emphasis original). Carpenter in the 1970s and Zavaroni in the 1980s each had a very public struggle with their condition with, sadly, fatal consequences.

More widely, a trawl through online media sources such as celebrity news, fans’ websites, and listicles, reveals many pop figures presenting and repeating a familiar narrative. A recent feature on celebrity site Rant Hollywood, for example, contains a list of ‘15 musicians who have suffered from eating disorders’, with a photograph and a single sentence diagnosis or explanation for each. It confirms the place of eating disorders in media and public discourse of (primarily female) pop (Rose 2015).

These musicians include Lady Gaga, Alanis Morissette, Victoria Beckham of the Spice Girls, Ke$ha, and Diana Ross, and many are quoted as explaining their disorder via the industry:

  • Diana Ross: anorexia ‘the result of the anxiety caused by the demands of [producer] Berry Gordy’;
  • Ke$ha: ‘part of my job was to be as skinny as possible and, to make that happen, I had been abusing my body’;
  • Alanis Morissette: ‘suffered between the ages of 14 to 18 while trying to break into the music industry’;
  • Victoria Beckham: ‘under a great amount of pressure to lose weight and stay fit to maintain her pop star image’ (see Rose 2015).  To answer Kim Gordon’s question in her ‘Open letter to Karen [Carpenter]’: this is what it’s like being a girl in music.

The pattern continues with Taylor Swift. This week, in advance of a new documentary about her in which she talks about her experience of an eating disorder, she’s explained: ‘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…. 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. And 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 … you just start to accommodate everything towards praise and punishment, including your own body.’ (Seems pretty articulate to me, tbh.)

To answer musician Kim Gordon’s question in her ‘Open letter to Karen [Carpenter]’: it seems that this is still what it’s like being a girl in music.

[All references and the complete research article this is drawn from available for free download]