Why are we so fixated on watching female stars like Demi Lovato suffer?

As responses to Lovato’s recent hospitalisation show, the story of female addiction is seen as public property. 

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I confess to not having been an avid follower of Demi Lovato’s career. I’m aware that she sings a slightly rocky version of “Let It Go” on my son’s Frozen soundtrack CD and that’s about it.

Other things I know about her: addictions, eating disorders, a suspected overdose following a “long battle to stay sober”. None of these things are strictly my business, but I read about them anyway. I’m not the only one.

Seven years after Amy Winehouse drank herself to death, it seems we’re still intent on watching famous women wage war on their bodies. It’s practically part of the job description, although some do it more openly than others.

As responses to Lovato’s recent hospitalisation show, the story of female addiction is seen as public property. What starts as intimate suffering is recast as a message for us all.

Demi Lovato was ‘in downward spiral’, sources say.” “’I was not ready to get sober’: How Demi Lovato faces her demons squarely.” “What parents need to know about Demi Lovato’s drug overdose.” There’s definitely a moral to all this, if only we could work out what.

Lovato herself has been laudably honest about her struggles. Is this for her own benefit, or ours? It’s never quite clear to me. Are we, the audience, performing the role of sponsor? Or is this a cautionary tale for our own edification?

Either way, the narrative is as absorbing as it is disquieting. As was the case with Winehouse, it tells us far more about ourselves than it does about the woman at the centre.

As Leslie Jamison observes in The Recovering, addiction stories tend to be unoriginal – “your story is only useful because others have lived it and will live it again” – but that doesn’t make them any less compelling. There’s the fall, then the rise, but always a rise with the threat of a fall once again. The hope for redemption is undercut by the promise of another descent.

A former anorexic who’s always felt somewhat cheated by recovery, I find myself drawn to these tales. The objectification of the subject might verge on the grotesque, but still I am pulled in. It’s not so much schadenfreude as the relief of displacement. Some other woman is falling over in public, some other woman is collapsing, some other woman is disgraced so I don’t have to be. Appetites are being laid bare, but at least they’re not mine.

Yet it’s notable to me that the current outpourings of sympathy for Lovato are not forthcoming for the likes of Kerry Katona or Daniella Westbrook, There’s a degree of resentment at those whose abuses have tumbled too far towards mundanity. The addicted woman should be young, thin and doomed – Winehouse-thin, Peaches Geldof-thin (Lovato herself spoke of wanting to be as thin as Winehouse. The link between addiction and plain old hunger for food should not, I think, be downplayed).

In industries that require women to be decorative, penetrable, tiny – to hardly exist in their bodies at all – there can be something thrilling about the pseudo-rebellion of substance abuse. Except the addiction narrative can also be ruinous, trapping women in a world where, yet again, their bodies exist only to serve someone else’s purposes. She’s heroic, a car crash, redeemed, damned, all of these things at once.

I would like to wean myself off these stories. I would like the confidence in my own body to know women such as Winehouse and Lovato through their voices, not their personal crises. We do women a disservice when sorrow becomes the route to authenticity. The real truth is, we shouldn’t have to prove ourselves at all.

You can find information, help and advice about anorexia at Beat, or about addiction and dependency at Mind.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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