Lady Gaga’s March 13, 2014 SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival performance
in Austin, Texas, left many people with a bad taste in their mouths. Lady Gaga is known for her flashy and bizarre performances, and this performance is not the first to make headlines. In this latest controversial performance, Gaga had artist Millie Brown, known as the “Vomit Painter,” perform on stage alongside her during the song “Swine.”
Many eating disorder advocates, led by singer Demi Lovato, felt that this performance glamorized bulimia and was in poor taste, especially as Gaga has struggled with the disorder herself.
Demi Lovato’s Criticism
Lovato, who has also overcome an eating disorder, vocally criticized the performance via Twitter. She initiated the conversation on March 14 by tweeting: “Sad… As if we didn’t have enough people glamorizing eat [sic] disorders already. Bottom line, it’s not ‘cool’ or ‘artsy’ at all.” Lovato also responded to other people’s comments with more tweets, including a response to criticism that Gaga did not mean to glamorize bulimia, since she suffered from eating disorders and talked about it prior to the performance.
Lovato said, “So it’s cool if I do a speech about self-harm and then proceed to watch someone cut themselves on my stage? No. That doesn’t make it OKAY.” Lovato published a longer statement that detailed her case, which stated: “[…]Young people who are struggling to figure out their identities are seriously influenced by the things they see their idols do.[…] Hair, clothes and sometimes misinterpreting things, therefore using the excuse of art to engage in self-destructive behaviors.[…]But people emulate what they see celebrities do or let happen.
And that’s why I had to say something… to let the people who don’t understand the art in it, that bulimia isn’t cool, and it won’t get you on stage with your favorite artist[…].”
Lady Gaga Responds
Lady Gaga replied to the criticism about the performance by saying: “I’ve known Millie for I think like five years now and we’ve actually collaborated before…she was just in town and so we thought we would collaborate again. It was just exciting to see people talk about performance art on the internet.
We really just did it because we believe in the performance and we believe in what it meant to the song.” Artist Brown also does not see her performance as glamorizing bulimia, telling TMZ, “There’s a clear difference between using my body to create something beautiful, to express myself and feel powerful, rather than using it to punish myself and conform to society’s standards.”
Was the Performance Glamorizing Bulimia?
The main issue Lovato and others have with Brown and Gaga’s performance is the possibility that susceptible audience members would view it as glamorizing, or possibly just condoning, bulimia. In the past, people have criticized Brown, saying that her artwork is unhealthy and potentially an eating disorder. Brown insists that she is in control, and that her actions have no negative health effects. Brown says she lives a healthy lifestyle, eating a vegan diet and keeping at least one month between performances.
Prior to a performance, she fasts for two days so that only the colored liquid will be vomited onto the canvas. She self-induces the vomit, timing each piece so the colors will come out with the right hue to create the artwork. She does not recommend the practice, but does not see a problem with herself doing it. Although her actions most likely would not be diagnosed as bulimia based on the criteria found in the current diagnostic manual, it is problematic behavior and possibly could be defined as disordered eating.
Brown might believe she has control, but that is a similar mindset to others with disordered eating patterns who are at risk of developing eating disorders. She also might not believe that she is causing harm to her body, but excessive vomiting, whether for art or due to an eating disorder, does harm the body. The stomach acid damages the esophagus and mouth. Excessive vomiting also can cause an electrolyte imbalance and dehydration, which can injure the kidneys and heart.
These problems if left untreated can lead to an early death. Even though Brown maintains her health when she is not working on her art, it does not mean that damage is not occurring. Because she does not “perform” frequently, she may not experience the health consequences as quickly as someone with bulimia; however, they will come in time. More importantly, her performance might negatively impact others by unintentionally inspiring vulnerable people to turn to bulimia.
The Responsibility of Performance
Performing such an action in front of a vulnerable and susceptible population, such as some of Gaga’s audience, might just make bulimia seem safe. Even if Brown’s actions are not attributed to an eating disorder, it still makes self-inducing vomiting more glamorous than it ought to be viewed. This might lead to a girl or boy struggling with bulimia decide that his or her problem is not destructive. Gaga and Brown may not have thought about the consequences of their art, and they most likely were not intentionally glamorizing bulimia with their performance.
However, Lovato does have a point. Such large scale performances that significantly impact culture, society, and impressionable youth, have the potential to unintentionally influence others. Therefore, performers should be more thoughtful about what messages they are sending to audiences. That is especially true for a performer who has struggled with body image issues, eating disorders, and proclaims the message to love yourself.
Vomiting for art might just send the wrong message to some audience members struggling with bulimia or other disordered eating behavior.
The Danger of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are complex mental disorders that affect 20 million women and 10 million men. They arise due to a complex combination of biological factors, genetics, psychological influences, and social and peer pressures. Most people who develop an eating disorder struggle with body image issues and try to control their eating habits and weight. Eating disorders often begin with disordered eating habits that a person sees as harmless, such as yo-yo dieting, fasting, abusing laxatives, excessively exercising, and self-induced vomiting.
If left untreated, eating disorders lead to terrible health problems and even death. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. It is important to not glamorize eating disorders, but instead raise awareness and educate the public about the complexity and dangerous consequences of the disorders.
Eating Disorders Treatment at Sovereign Health Group
Sovereign Health Group offers treatment for bulimia and other eating disorders, as well as addiction, mental health disorders, and dual diagnosis. We utilize proven biopsychosocial treatment modalities that reduce the risk of relapse.
Our program combines individual and group psychotherapy with complementary alternative activities such as yoga, meditation, nutritional education, exercise programs, equine therapy, art therapy, and music therapy. You can learn more about our Eating Disorders Program here, or you can call our Admissions team at 866-264-9778.