Zendaya, Eating Disorders, And The Danger Of Joking About Mental Illness

Eating disorders and mental illness aren't funny, and mocking women who suffer them is an often deadly game.

By Kat George

Twitter went to war this week when comedian Julie Klausner used Zendaya as the butt of an anorexia joke. She wrote of the young star’s appearance at the Children’s Choice Awards, “Zendaya’s ultimate retort to Giuliana Rancic is starving herself down to the size of one of her elbowz,” which she followed up with “You don't have to have an eating disorder to attend the Kids' Choice Awards....but it helps!” Zandaya fans hit back hard, as did Zendaya, who Tweeted, “Do you find this funny? I will write another paragraph to educate you aswell #youreallywannabenext?” which was accompanied with this message of positivity:

It’s unclear whether or not Zendaya is actually struggling with an eating disorder, but Klausner’s controversial joke begs the question: when will we learn our lesson about laughing at unconventional female bodies, and making jokes about serious mental illnesses like anorexia?

The dog eared script has already been written, and is, by now, achingly tired. When a woman in the public eye deigns to suffer where we can see her, she’s not only subject to persistent and callous scrutiny, but also a perverted ridicule that makes monsters out of the media and its unrelentingly voyeuristic consumers. Last year, the Amy Winehouse documentary reminded us of how dangerous this model of female body policing can be. It literally killed Amy, and yet we seem to be unable (or unwilling) to break the cycle.

When Amy faced the media, she did so at first, as most new celebrities are wont to do, enthusiastically. She courted media attention and received it, in kind, partly for her otherworldly talent and partly for her wild, party girl ways. That’s the nature of the celebrity beast, of course, but what happens when the beast won't back down? When Amy’s body became broken with her illness, and her eating disorder, emotional instability and substance abuse ruled her image, the public’s prying only intensified. And not only did it intensify, it turned down right nasty. Amy, suffering from a debilitating illness, was mocked mercilessly and nearly constantly in the media, as her manager, Nick Shymansky recalls in the documentary, “Suddenly it was cool to crack jokes about a bulimic’s appearance and her drug addiction.”

Comedian Frankie Boyle, for instance, infamously joked that she “Looks like a campaign poster for neglected horses.” Horses and elbows: it’s all the same, really. If we’re looking for a positive from Klausner’s Tweet, it’s that it should serve as a reminder that there’s a dialogue surrounding eating disorders and our perceived entitlement to women’s bodies that we need to change, and soon. Otherwise we become complicit in the kind of culture that tells women their suffering is our stand-up. Because even if Zendaya is perfectly healthy, Klausner’s joke still plays into a largely patriarchal paradigm (one that is often perpetuated by women), that it’s inherently funny for a woman to have an deadly eating disorder.

Other pop stars have been subject to the same torment. Kesha, who came out of rehab two years ago for an eating disorder, fetched Amy Winehouse-level criticism for her illness. Her mom, Pebe Sebert, said that was life threatening, "I've watched my beautiful, self-confident, brilliant daughter be berated and ridiculed for her looks and weight to the point that she almost died." Demi Lovato, who also went into rehab in 2010 for her eating disorder, has remained vocal on the issue, and about the way we talk about eating disorders. In 2014, she took to Twitter to emphasise that an eating disorder is not a “choice” writing, “Starving is not a "diet" and throwing up isn't something that only extremely thin men or women do. Eating disorders do not discriminate.”

It would be nearly impossible to talk about the effect of public shaming without also bringing up Lindsay Lohan, who has been dragged through the tabloids, and has received a a Cersei-level flogged for most of her adult life because of her addictions. Like Amy Winehouse, LiLo’s been dogged by eating disorders and substance abuse, and unsolicited mockery continues to follow her. As recently as late last year, America’s darling, Jennifer Lawrence, jokingly compared herself to Lohan on the Late Show With Steven Colbert, telling the host, "I get, like, Lindsay Lohan grade exhaustion, but without any drugs or alcohol." Does it take celebrities passing away to feel guilty about making these jokes?

It seems that the status quo is predominantly rooted in the judgement of women’s bodies, and what we perceive to be their emotional choices. Whether those bodies are deemed to fat or too thin, or those choices fair or unruly, is nearly irrelevant at this point, as the baseline seems to be that if a woman dares to appear in public, there will be a peanut gallery ready to tear her apart. This becomes even more sinister when that jury begins maliciously joking about serious mental illnesses. When we’ve got such a dark history of literally burying women we taunt for their ailments, it’s time to make a pointed effort to change the way we talk about eating disorders and mental illnesses--and we can start by not joking about them.

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