Warning: This article discusses eating disorders, anorexia, and body dysmorphic disorder.
All my eyes could focus on was the peeling purple paint on my bedroom wall. I was curled in a fetal position, hugging the bones of my ribcage, too dizzy and exhausted to do anything else. Moving, even an inch, felt like a heroic feat as hunger gnawed at my stomach. Through my headphones, I was blasting Taylor Swift’s Reputation album, which came out a week prior. It would soon become the sound that punctuated the silence of my otherwise quiet life as I lay in bed, waiting to die. I was one of the 30 million people in the U.S. who suffered from an eating disorder. My anorexia, which I had been struggling with for a decade, had completely taken over my life.
During this time, three years ago, I listened to Swift’s music constantly. So the recent news of Swift’s eating disorder, which she discusses in her new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, struck a chord within me because her music was with me during the worst parts of my own battle with anorexia. Her music probably saved my life.
In a recent interview with Variety, Swift said, “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.”
My mindset surrounding food also separated everything into “good” and “bad.” I often thought that if I lost weight, I was good, and if I gained weight I was bad and had to be punished with self-starvation and workouts until the point of collapse. One of the hardest things about recovery is overcoming this mentality, because it’s often encouraged by messaging from the outside world.
For me, when I wasn’t pretending to be “fine” for other people, I was alone, sitting in the dark; I was alive but not living. I was working and “adulting,” going through the motions of daily life, but I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t going out, and I didn’t even talk to my friends. I couldn’t feel anything other than hopelessness that I was wasting my life counting calories.
To fill the stark silence of my loneliness, I would play Swift’s music on repeat, especially the album 1989. It’s was an interesting contrast—bright, poppy music was the backdrop of my illness, but I was drawn to it. For a moment, I could pretend I was someone else, a girl having fun and living life, instead of someone whose illness was eating her alive. I listened to “Bad Blood” when I felt angry at the world and my illness and “New Romantics” when I wanted to feel optimistic and brave. The song “Clean” could make me ugly cry every time. I particularly related with the lyrics, “when I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe,” because that’s what Swift’s music did for me.
I listened to these songs thinking about my relationship with my body as well as the complex relationship between me and my disorder. Every breakup song was me trying to escape the abusive relationship I created with myself. Every love song was me trying to make peace with my body.
I can still remember singing at the top of my lungs, “I can build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me. And every day is like a battle, but every night with us is like a dream,” from “New Romantics,” while thinking about my disease. The lyrics reminded me of the intrusive thoughts that told me everything was wrong with me, and how every day was a battle when coping with a mental illness.
The turning point for me came when Swift released Reputation in 2017. It became my new obsession. For the first time, Swift allowed herself to feel angry and hurt through her music, while overcoming her own challenges and rising again. I especially connected with the songs “Look What Made Me Do,” “I Did Something Bad,” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” cathartic and empowering anthems. I remember feeling angrier than ever at everything—at my illness, at myself, and at the society I lived in that encouraged my eating disorder.
I was sick of living like this, feeling half-dead. Like Swift, I “got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time,” and “rose up from the dead” to take my life back. I went to therapy, reached out to friends, deleted my calorie counter, and made small steps to push myself out of the comfort zone that my illness kept me in, whether it was by eating in public or planning a trip to New York City. Eventually, I started to feel like myself again. My smile came back, and I no longer spent every free moment in bed.
I even started writing again. In a 2019 interview with Vogue, Swift revealed that she started working on Reputation after being “canceled,” saying, “I knew immediately I needed to make music about it because I knew it was the only way I could survive.” Like her, I too needed to write because that was the only way I could survive and improve my mental health. Writing about my experience with anorexia felt freeing. I stepped out of the ashes and rebuilt my life.
Recovery is difficult because, to survive, we need to somehow train our brains to do exactly what we’ve been told is “bad.” It’s a process that takes years, especially living in a world that profits off our illness. In Miss Americana, Swift says she still can’t look at pictures of herself because it triggers her disorder. “[Seeing] a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or…someone [saying] that I looked pregnant…that’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit—just stop eating,” she explains. Similar to Swift, I still have a hard time, even in three years of recovery, to look at photos of myself without judging how my thighs and tummy look at different angles.
It’s hard to go out without worrying about how I look. For me, having poor body image means always being overly self-aware of all flaws, real or perceived.
What inspires me most about Swift’s reveal is how it can potentially impact so many people still fighting. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorder, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. However, there is still so much stigma and misinformation surrounding them, so I’m grateful that Swift is using her voice to shed light on the issue for her fans. While anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, young people with anorexia between the ages of 15 and 24 “have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their same-aged peers,” according to the National Eating Disorder Association, which is the age range of many Swifties. By talking about the negative parts of her illness and how she learned to love her body, Swift can potentially influence others struggling to get help before it’s too late. It could save lives. It saved mine.
Swift’s latest album, Lover, came out on my 25th birthday, a birthday I never thought I’d live to see. In the summer sun, I laid on the grass and listened to the whole album, finding new recovery mantras in songs like “Soon You’ll Get Better,” “The Archer,” and “Daylight.” Like Swift, I am too stepping into a new era: living, not just being alive.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741.