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Watching Taylor Swift's Documentary as Someone in Eating Disorder Recovery

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On Friday, Taylor Swift’s documentary, “Miss Americana,” premiered on Netflix. The film is bold, poignant and honest. As a fan of Taylor Swift, I was looking forward to watching it already. As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, I was taken aback when she revealed her documentary would highlight her struggle with an eating disorder.

“Miss Americana” opens with Taylor explaining how, growing up, she always wanted to be a “good girl” and was fulfilled by approval. This is a theme throughout the film, countered by the moments Taylor tries to break away from it, like Kanye West taking away her moment at the VMAs (Taylor thought the crowd was booing her and not him), her sexual assault trial, where she counter-sued for $1 when the man who assaulted her sued her for millions after he got fired, her mom battling cancer and her reaction to continually seeing LGBTQ+ people struggle to gain equal rights. 

The approval theme might sound familiar to people who have eating disorders, especially in terms of weight loss, so it makes sense her life experiences and eating disorder struggles coincided.

Although some fans and her loved ones knew, the public didn’t know she struggled with an eating disorder. During the segment Taylor reveals her struggle, the words, “She’s too skinny,” come out of an entertainment reporter’s mouth. People who have commented on Taylor’s weight over the years, whether it was because they thought she was too skinny or “looked pregnant,” were actually commenting on the effects of her eating disorder.

In a clip of her leaving her NYC apartment to get in her car, with fans and paparazzi yelling out her name and taking photos, she recalls, “I learned over the years it’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day cause I have a tendency — and it’s only happened a few times and I’m not in any way proud of it — but I tend to get triggered by something whether it’s a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big or like, someone said I looked pregnant or something and that’ll just trigger me to starve a little bit — just stop eating.” 

I relate with Taylor’s body image and eating disorder struggles. As sad as it is to hear that she struggled with this, it’s comforting to know that this song-writer I love understands the struggle I went through, too. Many of us fans connect to her lyrics. To connect in this new way can be healing, as we find healing in understanding each other’s pain.

To me, it makes sense Taylor struggled with body image, especially because people in the public eye are put under a magnifying glass. We frequently see magazines and articles zoning in on women’s attributes and declaring “too fat” or “too thin.” I can easily imagine that negatively impacting one’s psyche.

Taylor goes on: “I thought that I was just, like, supposed to feel like I was gonna pass out at the end of a show or in the middle of it. I thought that was how it was, and now I realize; no, if you eat food, have energy, get stronger, you can do all these shows and not feel it, which is a really good revelation because I’m a lot happier with who I am.” 

I relate to Taylor here, too. In my darkest days struggling with an eating disorder, I believed I was “stronger” for feeling weaker or feeling dizzy. I looked at feeling weak as feeling strong, as I had abstained from eating food and somehow was a “winner.” What I learned through getting help and recovery is that this is the eating disorder talking. In treatment, we would often talk about the eating disorder like it was a a different entity, like it was this person or thing trying to take control of us. This is how I would separate eating disordered thoughts from “Lexie thoughts;” it’s easier to separate them because then we can see through the harmful thoughts and start believing the truth. The truth in this instance is that feeling healthy is strong, and feeling dizzy means we must nourish our bodies and take better care of ourselves. It’s not admirable to feel so tired or dizzy from not eating. All it means is that we are ill, and that our loved ones will be worried for us and our well-being. It’s comforting once again to know Taylor has faced something similar. It’s a beautiful thing to be in recovery and I’m so proud of her for finding happiness and realizing eating food is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Taylor then explains how she would react to concerned loved ones. “I would’ve defended it to anyone who said, ‘I’m concerned about you.’ 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. I don’t think you know you’re doing that when you’re doing it gradually.”

This commentary about being in denial about an eating disorder rings true for me. I often would assert, “I’m fine” when met with concern, or make excuses as to why I lost weight or why I didn’t feel well, when in reality I was heavily restricting and purging. I didn’t feel well because I wasn’t taking in enough nutrients and my body was taking a hit from all the behaviors. I think Taylor hit the nail on the head when she says you don’t realize what you’re doing when you’re doing it gradually. There are warning signs and red flags for eating disorders, of course, but if we can convince ourselves and others we are OK, it can get much worse over time and no one questions it. It’s difficult talking to a loved one about being concerned, but that early intervention can make all the difference. Through my online blogging and mental health advocacy, I’ve had people ask me over the years how to help a friend struggling with an eating disorder. I think the answer can vary depending on the situation, but I think offering to listen and being non-judgmental and supportive is a great place to start.

In “Miss Americana,” Taylor also discusses politics and how she fought some of her team in order to speak more openly about her views, and used her platforms to encourage fans to vote in her home state, as well as to sign the petition for the Equality Act, which “would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in their places of work, homes, schools, and other public accommodations.”

I relate to Taylor using her voice more, as I didn’t really allow myself to have a voice or strong opinions when I was in the depths of my eating disorder. Taylor describes it perfectly, “I feel really good about not being muzzled anymore. And it was my own doing.” Eating disorders are like a form of self-harm, so it’s wonderful to see her in recovery now and using her voice in ways she is proud of, and didn’t feel she could before. 

Taylor then touches on a skill I learned in treatment called dialectics — the fact that we can hold two seemingly opposing things at the same time, and both can be true.

“I want to love glitter and also stand up for the double standards that exist in society. I want to wear pink and tell you how I feel about politics. And I don’t think that those things have to cancel each other out.”

“Miss Americana” closes with Taylor saying, “I want to still have a sharp pen and a thin skin and an open heart.” To be in recovery doesn’t necessarily mean that we are now unshakable; it means that we are stronger now, but we are also allowed to be soft. There can be a balance to it. I own a t-shirt with the words “soft and strong” written across the heart. I feel those words deeply emulate this final quote we hear from Taylor. 

My hope for Taylor Swift is that she continues on strong in recovery, her relationship, her personal life, her song-writing and political space. It was wonderful to hear her opening up about her personal life in “Miss Americana.” Her sharing her struggles with body image and an eating disorder made me feel less alone. Taylor Swift has always been someone we look up to for her incredible lyrics, and now someone we can look up to for her story as a whole.

Originally published: February 2, 2020
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