Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
A recently released documentary about pop star Taylor Swift has brought renewed attention to the intersection of stress, shame, self-esteem, and eating disorders.
The documentary, titled “Miss Americana,” debuted January 31, 2020, on Netflix and in select theaters. It provides viewers with an intimate portrait of the star, addressing topics such as Swift’s disappointment at being shut out of the 2019 Grammy nominations, her efforts to become more politically active, and her struggles with the more onerous demands of superstardom in a media-saturated age.
These struggles include what New Yorker writer Amanda Petrusich referred to as Swift’s “gradual decline into disordered eating.”
Taylor Swift – Stress, Pressure, & Disordered Eating
In a February 4, 2020, article about the documentary, Petrusich noted that Swift comes from a privileged background, is conventionally attractive, and has achieved tremendous success. These and other factors, the writer notes, make it difficult for many people to understand that she can be negatively impacted by stress or pressure.
However, neither fame nor wealth makes a person immune to these influences. In Swift’s case, the conflict between her unrelenting work ethic and certain negative responses drove her to engage in potentially dangerous behaviors.
“Swift admits that for most of her career, she was a [size] double zero and ‘wasn’t eating,’” Katherine Schaffstall of The Hollywood Reporter wrote in a January 31, 2020, article about “Miss Americana.” “When she did eat, she tracked every single thing she put in her mouth and exercised obsessively.”
In the documentary, Swift notes that unrealistic societal expectations about body size and shape, combined with both public and private comments from others about her weight or appearance, had a powerfully negative effect on her self-image and self-esteem.
“There’s always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting,” she said in the film. “I tend to get triggered by something – whether it’s a picture of me where I feel it looked like my tummy was too big or, like, someone said that I looked pregnant or something – and that will just trigger me to starve a little bit. Just stop eating.”
Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Excessive exercise, self-starvation, and an obsessive focus on eating habits can all be symptomatic of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. The Mayo Clinic has identified the following as among the symptoms that may indicate that a person has developed an eating disorder:
- Skipping meals or making excuses for not eating
- Excessive focus on healthy eating
- Persistent worry or complaining about being fat and talk of losing weight
- Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
- Excessive exercise
Neither the film nor any of Swift’s interviews promoting the documentary indicate that she has ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder or that she has sought professional treatment. However, even in the absence of an official diagnosis, these behaviors have the potential to cause significant physical and emotional harm.
Studies Link Shame, Poor Self-Image with Eating Disorders
Although it is virtually impossible to pinpoint the specific cause of an eating disorder, research suggests that factors such as body-related shame and poor self-image can increase a person’s risk.
For example, according to a study that was published in the April 2016 edition of the journal Eating Behaviors, body shame has a strong association with increased risk for disordered eating habits. This study, which was conducted by researchers at Second University of Naples (Italy), involved 222 adolescents, half of whom met the clinical criteria for obesity and half who fell within the normal weight range for their age.
“Body shame had the strongest relationship to eating problems vulnerability and acted as a mediator in the relationship between low self-esteem and eating disorder risk among both obese and non-obese youngsters,” the study’s authors wrote.
The Taylor Swift documentary also addressed how the perception that one’s body is flawed can lead to disordered eating habits, even if that perception is unrealistic. This phenomenon has been the source of considerable research.
In a 2003 article that was published in the journal Pediatrics & Child Health, lead author Anne Morris referred to a study that found that 44% of adolescent girls believed they were overweight and 60% were actively attempting to lose weight, even though most of these girls did not meet the clinical standards for overweight or obesity.
Morris’ study also noted a link between exposure to media images, body dissatisfaction, and the development of disordered eating habits.
“These methodologically diverse studies illustrate how exposure to unrealistic and often unhealthy body images can influence young people’s perceptions of their own body shape and size as well as their own sense of body satisfaction,” Morris wrote. “The effect of the media may also extend to the development of specific, and possibly harmful, weight losing behaviors.”
As “Miss Americana” indicates, the potential negative impact of exposure to unrealistic media images is not limited to the individuals who view photos of others. The danger can extend to the individuals who appear in these images as well.
Sources Iannaccone, M.; D’Olimpio, F.; Cella, S.; and Cotrufo, P. Self-esteem, body shame and eating disorder risk in obese and normal weight adolescents: A mediation model. Eating Behaviors. 2016 Apr. 21:80-3. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.12.010. Epub 2016 Jan 2.
 Mayo Clinic. Eating disorders: Symptoms & causes. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20353603
 Morris, A. M. and Katzman, D. K. (2003). The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents. Paediatrics & child health, 8(5), 287–289. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/8.5.287
 Schaffstall, Katherine. Taylor Swift Shares Struggle With Eating Disorder in Netflix Doc ‘Miss Americana.’ Hollywood Reporter. Jan. 31, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/miss-americana-taylor-swift-coming-terms-eating-disorder-1275348
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At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialized care for women and adolescent girls who are living with eating disorders, substance use disorders, and various mental health concerns. Our residential treatment and partial hospitalization programming (PHP) help our residents achieve lifelong recovery by combining clinically excellent treatment with spiritual and emotional growth. We provide care that is holistic, personalized, and nurturing, empowering women to be active participants in their wellness journeys.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Reviewed & Approved on March 10, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published March 10, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com