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Way To Go, Lovato

The singer and actress's latest confessions are the kinds we need to hear.

No one could blame a person for having DSMFS––that’s Disney Star Meltdown Fatigue Syndrome, for the uninitiated. I myself am waiting for the day when one of these tadpoles eschews the typical path toward self-actualization––stripper moves and sex tapes, that is––and actually rebels against the televisual system by going to college and becoming an accountant or something. Most of these young people’s public confessions ring as calculated attempts to gain sympathy, remain relevant, or preempt personal scrutiny (see: Joe Jonas’ tell-all on, which was some combination of these three.) But there is one starlet, formerly a cog in the Disney machine, whose public statements I’ve been following over the past few years with a less jaded view: Demi Lovato.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, I’ll get you up to speed quickly: Demi is of the Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Joe Jonas generation at Disney. She appeared on many of the channel’s series and movies, including As the Bell Rings, Sonny with a Chance, Camp Rock, and Hannah Montana, and later toured with the Jonas Brothers’ band. (For those of you over twenty-seven, don’t despair: this part won’t be on the quiz.) Like Selena and Miley, Lovato projected an air of a spunky good-girl, at once obedient and self-assured. She sent exactly the right message: be yourself, as long as it remains happily within the bounds of convention.

Not surprisingly, cracks eventually began to show in the smiling façade. Lovato was reported as behaving erratically and partying heavily with the aid of cocaine and alcohol through the early months of 2010, and at the end of October, her representative confirmed she had entered a rehab facility. People, among numerous other outlets, got the scoop on the catalyst for the admission: Lovato had hit a back-up dancer on an airplane allegedly because she was angry the dancer had told Lovato’s management about her party antics. In an interview with the New York Daily News shortly after this, her father––from whom she remained estranged until his death––parroted her publicists and said she had entered a rehab facility for “emotional and physical issues,” and stressed it was not a drug treatment center. In April of 2011––presumably after her managerial team and family got the story together––Lovato began going on the record all over the place. She told ABC News that she was bulimic and struggling with self-mutilation issues. Later in the month, she revealed she had been diagnosed as bipolar while in treatment for “anorexia, bulimia and cutting.” As she publicly discussed her difficulties, she found herself playing a new role: the recovery goddess and heroine of self-love. In March 2012, she took transparency to another level, and participated in a docu-movie about her recovery entitled Stay Strong, which aired on MTV. In it, she rhetorically asks, “Why not share all my secrets?”

Why not indeed. The fact is that the one thing missing throughout all the interviews Lovato gave was her alleged drug use. She copped to punching her back-up dancer and admitted that it sparked an intervention and her stay in rehab, but did not comment on the events leading up to the violent outburst. She talked extensively about her suicidal thoughts at seven and her food baggage and her manic episodes, but only a handful of times did she refer obliquely to “self-medicating.” And no one in the position to do so asked, really––if they had, they probably wouldn’t have been castigated by the throngs of Lovatics praising the young singer for her bravery and strength and candor and any number of other virtues attainable only by public confession. All this would be well and good if the idea was to not fuel unsubstantiated rumors, but that was not the case. In January of 2013, TMZ uncovered that she was residing in a sober living facility, and earlier this month, in an act that surely incited cultural déjà vu, she did the interview rounds divulging the nitty-gritty of her substance abuse. Lovato, holding her mother’s hand, told Access Hollywood of concealing vodka in a soda bottle and drinking it at 9 AM, doing cocaine in airplane bathrooms, and staying out all night partying.

If it sounds like I’m being hard on Demi Lovato, who is still very young, after all, for not being completely honest from the get-go, I don’t mean to be. In fact, what I really intend to do is applaud her for disclosing her substance abuse. Her coming out of the eating disordered closet I could take or leave––I disagree with her, and many others, after all, who claim that society is hesitant to discuss anorexia and bulimia. I conjectured early on in her troubles, as the PR machine started whizzing, that her eating disorder and the self-mutilation were very real, but choosing to lead with them was an attempt at selective honesty––a way to deflect from the diagnosis that may be viewed by her fans and the public at large as more shameful and indecent. Anorexia and bulimia, and to a lesser degree self-harming, are socially palatable diagnoses for a girl of that age. The typical victim is crushed by the weight of societal expectations, personal perfectionism, and the general torment of adolescence; he or she believes, not without reason, that discipline above all is excellence, and the result is often a weak, visibly malnourished body.

Someone who struggles with substance abuse is pigeonholed in a more disadvantageous way, because we often view the problem as a weakness of character or a deficit of willpower. It’s the problem of someone more disorganized, underachieving, and dangerous. The truth is, however, that no characterization is completely comprehensive, nor is any mental illness or addictive behavior indicative of one type of personality or another. Eating disorders are not solely the affliction of the “good girls,” and substance abuse is not territory only trod by rebels or bad apples. They are all maladaptive coping mechanisms that affect a variety of people, and accepting or fetishizing one over is a neat simplification of the problem, but is simply erroneous. Lovato has done us a service by letting us in to the other half of the problem: she has refused to be cast as a “good girl,” and instead has demanded to be known as complex.

About the Author
Kelsey Osgood

Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely. Her essays have appeared in New York and The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog.

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