Taylor Swift is not a normal person. But she does, famously, have a normal-person persona: She loves wearing rompers, talking shit about her exes, and posting pictures of her cats online. Just like us! This crafted relatability is probably part of the reason Swift has been such a mainstay in pop culture (and cultural commentary) since the genesis of her career at age 16. Now, the 30-year-old has opened up about one unfortunate side effect of the sustained attention had on her health, sharing her history of disordered eating with Variety on Thursday.
“My relationship with food was exactly the same psychology that I applied to everything else in my life,” Swift told Variety. “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.”
Swift’s new documentary, Miss Americana, features a sequence where she discusses the impact of being constantly confronted with commentary on images of herself. In the documentary, the singer said “a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or… someone said that I looked pregnant” could become motivation for her “to just starve a little bit — just stop eating.”
She also shared the feeling triumph she felt when praised for fitting into sample-sized dresses for magazine photo shoots. “You register that enough times, and you just start to accommodate everything towards praise and punishment, including your own body,” Swift told Variety.
Swift exemplifies how body commentary can be particularly damaging for someone struggling with disordered eating. According to a US News report, even a positive comment—“Wow, you look really healthy!”—can be counterproductive to people in recovery. Dietician Adina Fradkin, who works at a facility for patients with eating disorders, told US News: “Think twice about the praise that you’re giving them, and think about whether you're praising an eating disorder as well.”
Though most people don’t have to field well-intentioned flattery from stylists or nasty sentiments from national publications, it’s easy to relate to the impulse to take someone else’s weight-related commentary to heart, and to refashion it into a tool for self-harm. Swift’s experience is worth heeding for anyone looking to remark on another person’s body, especially if you don’t know whether they’ve dealt with disordered eating in the past.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.