What's the "right" way to discuss eating disorders?

The controversy around Taylor Swift's "Anti-Hero" music video missed the point.

Still from Taylor Swift's 'Anti-Hero' music video showing Taylor Swift standing on a bathroom scale
YouTube/Taylor Swift
Body Image
ByGianluca Russo
Originally Published: 

Trigger warning: This story includes discussions about eating disorders.

It happened quickly: Taylor Swift released the music video for her song, “Anti-Hero,” which included a scene of her stepping on a scale and being haunted by the word “fat,” as the anti-hero version of herself silently shook her head in disapproval. An uproar ensued, with fans vehemently debating whether or not the moment was fatphobic — and within days, Swift responded by removing the scene in question from the video. We could leave it at that and move on, but the whole controversy raised an important, larger question: What responsibility does an artist have to their audience when depicting vulnerable and challenging moments in their work, and at what point does community reaction begin to feel like censorship?

Like many other plus-size folk, I battled an intense eating disorder in high school, and I continue to deal with the mental and emotional effects of it today. I’ve spent my career working to fight anti-fatness and destigmatize the very words once held against me as a fat kid in a thin-first world. And yet I — perhaps contrary to the opinion of many of my peers — found Swift’s “Anti-Hero” video to be an accurate portrayal of the messages still being shared with young girls and boys today.

Yes, the “Anti-Hero” scene in question is indeed fatphobic, but it seems that’s precisely what Swift set out to depict: how fatphobia played a central role in her own eating disorder experience, which she first opened up about in her 2020 documentary, Miss Americana. Is someone complicit in perpetuating fatphobia by painting a picture of how pervasive fatphobia is?

We as a society have certainly progressed in the fight against toxic language, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do so internally. Personally, at a core level, I don’t believe fat is bad. Fat is a thing, a part of our bodies we all possess at different levels. And even still, when my body image hits a low, I have to actively fight against the mindset that my fatness makes me lesser: less attractive, less worthy, less important. Even as someone who has spent years rewiring my brain, I’ve been unsuccessful in fully escaping the treacherous hands of fatphobia — which is why Swift’s video resonated with me. As the “Anti-Hero” video makes apparent, Swift likely internalized the negative messages society told her about weight and size, laying the foundation for her eating disorder and ever-present battle.

I’ve spent my career working to destigmatize the very words once held against me as a fat kid, and yet I found Swift’s video to be an accurate portrayal of the messages still being shared with young girls and boys today.

But multiple statements can be true at once: Some people may feel seen by Swift’s music video, and others may be harmed by it. Art is subjective, after all, and when it raises the topic of eating disorders — a mental illness with various causes — there’s undoubtedly going to be a mixed bag of reactions. Swift had every right to depict her eating disorder in the manner she felt most truthful, but perhaps where she let fat fans down is by not fully understanding how this could impact them.

Creator Jordan Bogigian explained this perfectly in a TikTok video: “When people worry about being fat, you’re probably not worried about actually being fat,” she said. “You’re worried about joining a group of people who have been stigmatized because you’ve seen the way that the world has talked about them and the way it's treated them, and you don’t want a part of that.”

It inevitably hurts fat folk to see fatness painted as the devilish foe haunting Swift and others like her, especially when so many in this community have pushed to reclaim their bodies and the weapons used against them.

Despite discussing her own eating disorder in Miss Americana, Swift hasn’t actually engaged in the body diversity conversation or supported the work of major fat activists. From public view, she’s done little to dismantle fatphobia beyond illustrating how it impacts her on an individual level — which is what’s led to the spiral of frustrations that erupted over the past two weeks.

Is someone complicit in perpetuating fatphobia by painting a picture of how pervasive fatphobia is?

Coincidentally, a recent article from The New York Times titled “You Don’t Look Anorexic” chronicled how fat people with eating disorders are often ignored. The Times reported on a 2020 study published in the journal European Eating Disorders Review that found people with “atypical anorexia” — mostly fat folk — went an average of 11.6 years before seeking help, compared to the two-and-a-half-year average for anorexia. It’s not surprising, given the cultural conversation around eating disorders: The most common depictions we see in entertainment are of thin, white women battling bulimia or anorexia. If Swift used her personal experience as a jumping-off point to engage with conversations like these, perhaps her “Anti-Hero” video moment would have been more impactful.

It’s a slippery slope, though, when artists are told what they can or can’t include in their work. At what point does someone like Swift have to pull back from sharing their painful truths if it might cause harm to some and healing to others? It’s important for artists to consider the role media plays in our body image — but that’s not an automatic reason to turn away from difficult conversations.

Instead of removing the “fat” scene altogether and — as I anticipate — moving forward without further acknowledgment of the topic, Swift could have used this moment to engage with the community that feels harmed, mending these relationships and advancing the dialogue around how pervasive fatphobia is.

Swift originally made a powerful — for better or worse — choice with her “Anti-Hero” video; she fell flat with the follow–through. Artists should be given the space to depict their eating disorders and body image battles as transparently as they feel comfortable doing so. And yet, with that, they should be prepared and conscious of how those messages and images will impact their fans across the size spectrum. Those potential reactions aren’t reason to censor the truth; they’re cause to engage with the very people they’re trying to reach.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a helpline volunteer here.