Count on Lady Gaga — who's closing in on a record 30 million Twitter followers -- to play the ultimate meta-media game, taking control of the message by splashing it herself. This time around, the theme is weight and body image.
Headlines and photos over the last few days have trumpeted the singer's recent weight gain. She said in a radio interview that she has put on about 25 pounds, and blames eating at her father's new Italian restaurant: "It's so freaking delicious, but I'm telling you I gain five pounds every time I go in."
In response to some nastiness — the meat costume is inevitably mentioned, and you can see some typically mean-spirited comments below this Huffington Post photo — she has now posted self-celebrating photos of herself in just underwear, as Jezebel reports here. She captions them "Bulimia and anorexia since I was 15," titles the section a "Body Revolution" and calls on followers to be brave and celebrate their own "perceived flaws." Founder of the anti-bullying Born This Way Foundation, she's not going to take any bullying about her body.
I don't think I'll be posting self-accepting photos like some of her fans, but I was struck by the dramatic change in a performer who had always looked to me so naturally skinny, and wondered: Aside from Lady Gaga's consistent message of compassionate self-acceptance, are there any lessons here for the rest of us?
I asked Dr. Sherry Pagoto, an obesity researcher, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She blogs on Psychology Today here. Our conversation, lightly edited:
I do not assume you read the gossipy news sources that have been detailing Lady Gaga's recent weight gain, so here are the salient facts: She says she's up 25 pounds; she blames her father's new Italian restaurant; and she says she's on a diet but she's not bothered for a minute by how she's looking. What can we learn here?
Sherry Pagoto: What it sounds like is, she’s a human being and she, like the rest of us mortals, is subject to the same forces that affect our weight. And she's in the same food environment.
She has a lot more money than most of us do, but money doesn’t buy you skinny. It has a lot to do with your lifestyle, and I assume she's a very busy person and travels a lot, and so she’s eating on the fly like most of us do when we're rushing around. She’s having the same struggles that anybody else has — and because she probably travels so much, it may be pretty difficult for her.
She can get a lot more things conveniently by hiring people, but that doesn’t necessarily help. With money comes even more temptations at your fingertips. It reminds me of a lot of what Oprah has shared about her weight loss journey. She, too, has all the money in the world but when it comes to managing weight, everyone has to learn to be mindful, to be plan-ful, make time to exercise, and gain control of stressors. Stress has a huge impact on weight, and being in the spotlight, I can't imagine the level of stress about physical appearance in particular.
We all may feel self-conscious about our bodies, but we don’t have the level of public scrutiny celebrities do, which I imagine adds to the pressure and stress of managing weight. This scrutiny can contribute to body image issues, which have a lot to do with our motivation and ability to lose weight. The more discouraged and anxious you are about your physical appearance, the more frustrated you become about losing weight, and the more vulnerable you will be to fad/quick fix diets that don’t work. It can become a vicious cycle, resulting in huge weight cycles.
I’m so glad that Lady Gaga has a positive attitude. I love that she said "I don't mind the way I look.' I think that's a very important thing for her to say (and feel), because she’s sending a message to people that 'This is not bad, the way I look.' One thing to keep in mind is that her body mass index may not be in a high-risk range following a 25 pound weight gain because she was so thin before. Just because she has gained some weight doesn't mean she has a health problem or that she needs to lose weight. Her body looks like a lot of women’s bodies! She's sending the right message by saying this isn’t something to feel badly about or to view it as a sign of failure.
I hear she has attributed the weight gain to eating at her dad's restaurant — I doubt that is the only factor, but maybe she doesn't feel like she has to talk about what is going on, and she really doesn’t, but I’m glad that she has a positive attitude.
So it's not plausible to you that you could get this kind of weight gain from restaurant eating?
You can certainly gain weight from eating in restaurants too much, because we typically consume far more calories at restaurants compared to home-prepared meals. However, being on the road like she is, I doubt one single restaurant is the only cause. For most people, weight gain is caused by multiple factors affecting both calorie intake and physical activity levels. Sleep and stress also play big roles.
I just experienced what I call "The Rosh Hashanah effect" — that great big heavy Jewish feast seemed to throw off my healthy eating for much longer than just one meal — and I wondered if having big restaurant meals could do that, too...
When you have a lot of food that tastes really good and is high in fat, sugar and salt, it wakes up your appetite for that kind of food. Mammals are genetically wired to prefer these high-calorie foods, which evolved to enhance survival in times of famine. If you go without these foods for a long time and then overindulge, you will find an increase in cravings following the overindulgence. It’s similar to a smoker who quits and is doing just fine…until…they take a drag off a cigarette. Next thing you know they are pulled right back into the habit.
The key is to limit holiday eating to the holiday itself. I recommend only preparing what will be consumed on the day to prevent lingering leftovers that end up jacking up your cravings all week long. Also, don’t be afraid to toss leftovers of high-calorie foods. Consuming unhealthy foods that spoil your diet is not a better plan than throwing into the garbage.
So it's not my imagination?
No, it's not your imagination at all.
It's so interesting, this "Oprah" effect — you'd think huge money would translate into the ability to have control over your lifestyle, but no, not necessarily...
Celebrities also often struggle with addictions and money doesn’t necessarily help them avoid it or recover any more easily. If anything fame can be a trigger for overindulgence on a lot of fronts. Celebrities have all the resources to help, but it comes down to a personal struggle, and money can't necessarily pay for you to overcome that.
Can you imagine using Lady Gaga's weight gain in therapy with your patients?
I think it could be useful as a way to help people not feel so guilty and so self-punishing about their weight. It shows that nobody is immune to these problems. She’s an icon, beautiful and successful, and she’s struggling, too, just like the rest of us.
I think her sharing her story could be inspiring. The number-one barrier to weight loss in the patients I work with is feeling frustrated and demoralized — this leads to giving up. Persistence is the key to long-term success. Seeing that other people have the same type of struggle is comforting. So I hope Lady Gaga talks about it, to say, "Controlling your weight is hard. And I let things go. I gained twenty five pounds. It could happen to anybody. It happened to me. It's not because I’m worthless and have no self control. It’s because I’m human."
And I guess it could help if we can watch her lose weight, as she says she intends.
Yes, and hopefully in a healthy way. I hope that she talks about it, saying things like: 'I have to get out there exercising more. I have to make better choices when I'm on the road or stressed out.'" She has the opportunity to make a huge impact as a role model to young women who are really struggling with their weight.
This program aired on September 26, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.