Everybody loves a good story. We love to watch celebrities spiral out of control and pick themselves back up again. It’s a hopeful, humanizing narrative that brings even the furthest away of celebrities closer, affirming that they’re “just like us”—they struggle like we do. They surrender like we do. They recover like we do.
But when the layers are peeled back, Demi Lovato’s truest story—told through her new doc Simply Complicated (released Oct. 17)—may not be the comfortable narrative that we want to hear. The story of Lovato as a survivor, as someone who’s overcome her addictions and left them in her past, is easy to swallow. We cling to this miraculous, reborn image of a pop star, who once punched her backup dancer in a cocaine-infused rage and now celebrates five years of sobriety. But it’s rarely that simple.
That’s especially true when it comes to Lovato’s relationship with food. While the majority of Simply Complicated hinges on her disturbing history of cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse, the story of her eating disorder—which dates back to when she was eight years old—is told quietly in the background.
The doc makes some things tragically apparent: Lovato is still haunted by food, she continues to relapse and nobody really knows how to talk about it. Time and time again, we see that her team is clearly unsure about what they can do, beyond offering an empathetic ear. She’s performing, she’s recording, she looks healthy, so is there really a problem? We understand eating disorders as something we can see, so when we’re presented photos of an emaciated Lovato circa 2011 compared to 2017’s toned, muscular Lovato—images that were mercilessly shared by publications last week—we understand her as recovered. But eating disorders are more than skin deep.
We haven’t been taught to talk about eating disorders as true issues of mental health. Plus, women are constantly confronted with conflicting mantras: on one hand, we’re commanded to strive for perfection, and on the other, encouraged to confidently reject it. So how do you talk about an eating disorder when you want to be a role model of positive self-esteem, as Lovato does? To be honest… You don’t. Near the end of Simply Complicated, Lovato confesses to a bulimia relapse, and it’s obvious how difficult it is for her: “It’s so hard to talk about this on camera,” she says. “When I do have moments when I slip up, I feel very ashamed.”
But there’s another issue at play here, and that’s Lovato’s image. We can’t accept her as an addict—a young woman struggling with addiction, lashing out at her team and performing on American Idol hungover isn’t very #Disney. But we can swallow her bulimia with ease. A young woman struggling with an eating disorder? That’s manageable, easily hidden… and, unfortunately, still quite normal.
That’s because eating disorders are an accepted symptom of a sick society that demands women look a certain way, often at the expense of our mental and physical health. We accept Kardashians selling laxative-laden weight-loss teas as health foods and not as self-destructive weapons. We know what some supermodels do to themselves weeks before a runway show, and we turn a blind eye in the name of fashion. And in Lovato’s case—as with many money-making stars battling addiction—we learn that the team around her waited for rock bottom before doing anything about it.
Lovato’s documentary doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, but that’s what makes it so impactful. It makes the important point that addictions and disorders don’t just end. They get easier, but the demons don’t always disappear. That’s why knowing that her struggle with food isn’t over is integral to understanding her story. Because we understand the dynamic between a drug and an addict, but food is a whole other ballgame. It’s a part of life we require to survive; a substance that we use to celebrate, to medicate, to connect with others and to keep ourselves alive. But it can also be used as a form of punishment, a source of guilt and, unfortunately, the ultimate form of self-control.
Simply Complicated is revealing in what it can’t really say. Lovato can’t tell us she’s entirely recovered. She can’t look at the screen and speak of eating disorder recovery with the same ferocity she does her former cocaine addiction. We get to rejoice in her substance sobriety, but we also are faced with the reality that recovery, whether it’s from addiction or an eating disorder, is not linear and often not final. And it’s certainly never perfect.
That’s why this story, her story, is so important. It’s real, it’s raw and it subtly exposes the crippling nature of disordered eating as something even harder to shake than drug addiction. Simply Complicated is heartbreaking, but hopeful in its openness. And sometimes, we need the truth more than we need a happy ending.
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