It's Time to Stop Glamourising Mental Illness
Mental illness and popular media have at times had a complicated relationship. The representation of mental illness has varied from stigmatising to glamourized, but recent events that have hit headlines highlight a need to consider the impact of representations and discussions of mental illness.
As a musician, Kanye West has produced critically acclaimed albums that have earned him 21 Grammy awards. He is also a businessman, a fashion designer, a husband and a father. Recently, however, these are not the reasons for his domination of the headlines and social media trends. West has sparked concern following a series of worrying tweets and his appearance at a presidential rally. He has previously revealed that he battles with bipolar disorder. Almost as soon as West’s tweets went viral, Twitter was awash with memes and jokes that belittled and mocked a man who is visibly struggling, highlighting the difficult relationship between mental health and fame.
Celebrities live their lives in public, playing out the highs and lows for all to see, but the public stage they live on doesn’t change the fact that they are human. Kim Kardashian expressed this sentiment in a statement on Instagram, posting: “we as a society talk about giving grace to mental health as a whole, however, we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most.” We need to show this grace to people who suffer with all mental illnesses, not just those that have symptoms that may be easier to understand.
Mental illness is not glamorous, but it is all too commonly romanticised. Vogue Portugal recently pulled the controversial cover for their July The Madness Issue, which showed a woman in a bathtub in what appears to represent a psychiatric hospital. The image generated critique from experts for being outdated and insensitive. Aestheticizing mental illness is fundamentally problematic, yet it is a pervasive issue that spans across popular mediums.
The social media giant TikTok has revealed a darker side, one which potentially glamourises eating disorders through pro-anorexic content. The app has come under fire for videos that promote dangerous eating habits. Despite TikTok’s guidelines banning such content, posts showing or joking about these behaviours have still infiltrated the app, which has an opaque algorithm, providing users with videos from all over the platform via the For You page. The nature of the algorithm means that it is all too easy for these videos to subtly trickle into users’ feeds, inadvertently leading them into a cycle of triggering content. Pro anorexia content, or even just ‘relatable’ memes and videos that trivialise the severity of eating disorders whilst sharing harmful details such as low weights are not only toxic, but potentially dangerous.
The grim reality of the physical and emotional impacts of eating disorders wouldn’t make the For You page. The ‘eating disorder check’ on TikTok doesn’t show what it’s like to see your friends move on and achieve the things you once hoped for whilst you stay stuck in a rut of calorie counting and disordered behaviours well into your twenties. The reality of the trauma and pain that eating disorders are used to help numb; yet being numb and hungry comes with a plethora of horrible and dangerous side effects.
There is also an unbelievably one-dimensional representation of eating disorders in popular culture. Not every sufferer looks like Cassie from Skins, these illnesses do not discriminate in who suffers with the cruelty they inflict. The one-dimensional stereotype of a skinny white girl isn’t just inaccurate, it’s harmful and can make people feel like they cannot seek help as they don’t fit the representation. Any race, age or gender can and do suffer with eating disorders, of which there are more than just anorexia. Kate Moss may have famously declared that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
There is ultimately a need to be mindful in how we represent and discuss mental illness, showing the reality of these issues whilst simultaneously encouraging people to seek help. The narrative should be respectful and helpful. Representing the magnitude and reality of mental illness doesn’t warrant mocking a celebrity in a way that stigmatises a large number of people, and triggering TikToks do nothing but cause harm.
Written by Charlotte Roszko