Lady Gaga made headlines when her Photoshopped image appeared on Vogue’s September cover, the magazine’s most popular issue, thicker than a Manhattan phone book (for those who remember what phone books look like). Appearing in a hot pink Marc Jacobs dress, Gaga’s figure was crudely manipulated turning her five foot one inch frame into an exaggerated hourglass—nipped in waist, voluptuous hips, nipped in again at the knees. The image was eye-catching for sure, but also surreal. No one—no one—looks like that, we thought. And why would Gaga, who is all about telling her Little Monsters to embrace their true selves, certainly the message behind her “Born This Way” megahit, allow herself to be portrayed promoting a body that most women, young and old, would never to able to achieve?
Recent images of Gaga are far removed from that Vogue cover. Now 25 pounds heavier, blaming the weight gain on enjoying too much Italian food, she is coming out embracing her new body and confessing that she has battled bulimia since she was 15.
Gaga is one of the most famous women in the world, her Born This Way tour attracting record crowds worldwide. She has tremendous influence over adolescent girls. Through her Twitter account and website she reaches out and touches her fans; many view her as a lifeline, someone who understands their pain. Does her struggle with her own body image damage her credibility? What are we to take away from all this?
Stefani Germanotta may be a celebrity whose stage name is Lady Gaga, but she’s also human and, as such, not so different from every other woman who deals with body issues. A recent survey by Glamour magazine found that 97 percent of the respondents reported having one “I hate my body” moment every day. And the National Eating Disorder Association says that 10 million American women suffer from eating disorders. The same week that Gaga’s photos flooded the internet, Katie Couric on her new talk show confessed that she fought bulimia while in college. Katie’s guest that day was Demi Lovato whose own battles with weight have received much publicity.
We send mixed messages to our young people. We are obsessed with obesity. As part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity, Congress approved calorie limits on school lunches. ABC News visited a school in Kansas where kids complained about being hungry because of the revamped lunch menus. A video parody protesting the changes hit the internet.
So we want to fight obesity but we don’t want to spark eating disorders. Even Katie, herself the mother of two daughters, expressed her frustration trying to strike a proper balance. Yes, we can encourage our children, sons and daughters, to eat healthy and get some exercise. We can try to become positive role models, not obsessing about our own body issues, hitting the gym, and passing up that cola for a water. But we must also be aware of all the other people out there influencing our children—siblings, teachers, friends, and classmates and, of course, famous individuals like actresses, models, and entertainers.
Gaga has made her battle public. She had no choice, really. Celebrities, particularly mega-celebrities, are constantly under the media microscope. Someone will always be there to snap a photo, put it on Facebook and the comments will follow. From this day forward, Lady Gaga will routinely have to field questions about her weight and bulimia.
What we know about Gaga, Stefani, is that she can profoundly influence her fans for the better. She has already jumped on the issue, setting up Body Revolution 2013 on her website encouraging her fans to embrace and share their flaws. The response has been very positive, with many girls and young women posting and commenting.
The controversy won’t go away. There’s always the next celebrity being Photoshopped, always the next magazine, proclaiming to be for women yet continuing to sabotage them in the worst way possible. And millions of vulnerable girls and women will buy into the myth, trying to achieve something that will lead to pain, suffering, even death.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of eight books for parents of young adolescents including Parenting 911: How to Safeguard and Rescue Your 10 to 15 Year-Old from Substance Abuse, Depression, Sexual Encounters, Violence, Failure in School, Danger on the Internet and Other Risky Situations.