Miss Americana, the new documentary centering Taylor Swift, is set to hit Netflix accounts next Friday (January 31). Yet in the lead-up to the film’s debut, the pop star is opening up about some of the issues she discusses on-screen, including her experiences with body image and punishing her body to adhere to a nearly-impossible standard of beauty.
“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,” she told Variety in an interview. She adds that she’s not a professional and can only ever speak about her lived experience: “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,” Swift said. “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.”
The documentary details what some of those “good” and “bad” experiences included — hearing stylists and magazine editors praise her body when it was smaller served as a reinforcement that fitting into sample sizes was something to aspire to, while harsh commentary that speculated about the singer’s weight or a rumored pregnancy would trigger harmful habits, like restricting food and over-exercising. The double reinforcement took a toll on her physical wellbeing, and she’d end concerts feeling depleted.
“I thought that I was supposed to feel like I was going to pass out at the end of a show, or in the middle of it,” she says in the documentary, per Variety. At the time, she would defend herself by lying about how much food she was consuming: “‘What are you talking about? Of course I eat. …. I exercise a lot,’” she remembers saying. “And I did exercise a lot. But I wasn’t eating.”
“Now I realize, no, if you eat food, have energy, get stronger, you can do all these shows and not feel (enervated),” Swift added.
The singer is by no means alone in her struggle; according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 79 percent of girls and 85 percent of women said they have skipped important events in their lives because of how they felt about their bodies at the time. “Nine out of 10 women say they will actually not eat and risk putting their health at stake when they feel bad about their body image,” one study found, “and 7 in 10 girls said they’re more likely to be less assertive in their decisions when they’re feeling insecure.” Men, boys, and nonbinary people experience disordered eating as a result of body insecurity, too; and trans and nonbinary people experience eating disorders at higher rates than cisgender peers. Furthermore, receiving help is difficult for almost everyone, given punitive insurance companies that often force people to prove how “sick” they are, as well as a pervasive diet culture that all but normalizes restrictive, often disordered eating.
In her Variety interview, Swift added that she often finds support to combat negative talk through uplifting social media accounts. She pointed to actor and activist Jameela Jamil, whose I Weigh account on Instagram regularly debunks the idea that your self-worth is rooted in how your body looks. “She’s one of the people who, when I read what she says, it sticks with me and it helps me,” the singer said. “Women are held to such a ridiculous standard of beauty. We’re seeing so much on social media that makes us feel like we are less than, or we’re not what we should be, that you kind of need a mantra to repeat in your head when you start to have harmful or unhealthy thoughts,” she said.
Miss Americana director Lana Wilson hopes Swift’s experience furthers the shift to focus less on someone else’s body that activists have been championing for years. “It’s amazing to me how people are constantly like, ‘You look skinny’ or ‘You’ve gained weight,’” Wilson told Variety. “People you barely know say this to you. And it feels awful, and you can’t win either way. So I think it’s really brave to see someone who is a role model for so many girls and women be really honest about that. I think it will have a huge impact.”