Demi Lovato has had a rough couple of years. I don’t know that all those details bear repeating—like her decadelong battles with eating disorders, or her near-fatal drug overdose in 2018—because she’s done the job of telling and retelling the story herself. Her recent YouTube docuseries, Dancing With the Devil, and the accompanying album are vulnerable, unvarnished recollections of what led Lovato to her rockiest of rock bottoms. (They’re both pretty good, if also pretty harrowing.)
As part of Lovato’s recovery, she’s taken to publicly crusading against many social ills. One of those ills is diet culture, an industry that often coats body-shaming with the rhetoric of positive, healthy living. The dangers of diet culture are well known, but its insidious nature can make it tough to crack. Enter Lovato, who speaks openly about her body image struggles and history of binging and restrictive eating in an effort to call attention to the real effects of peddling weight loss under other names.
This is an honorable endeavor. Yet there are limitations to it, too, especially when you’re a famous person with millions of dollars and millions of followers online. Which is why, when Lovato aimed her body-positivity lasers at a Los Angeles frozen yogurt shop, the backlash was swifter and sharper than she might have expected.
CliffsNotes for you, if “Demi Lovato froyo drama” has for some reason not been on your radar: Lovato called out L.A.-based frozen treat store The Bigg Chill for selling “sugar-free cookies/other diet foods” alongside its more traditional options, calling the store #DietCultureVultures. Way harsh, Tai, The Bigg Chill responded—because, you see, those items are intended to be options for diabetics, people with celiac disease, vegans, and other people with dietary restrictions. Lovato was not moved by this, writing in a direct message to the shop, “You can find a way to provide an inviting environment for all people with different needs. Including eating disorders—one of the deadliest mental illnesses only second to [opioid] overdoses. Don’t make excuses, just do better.” She suggested that The Bigg Chill make explicit that its apparent diet-food options are specifically meant for people who have different dietary needs, in an effort to both avoid “triggering” encounters and “distinguish diet culture vs health needs.”
And this did not go over well with Lovato’s followers, The Bigg Chill’s followers, or followers of celebrity gossip. Lovato was grandstanding, they said; is it so wrong to accommodate dietary restrictions without having to make caveats? Are food sellers obligated to make their customers reveal their own health issues by labeling food according to specific ailments? And is a small froyo shop really the place to direct this anger in a public forum where, again, you wield outsize power?
To be fair to Lovato, it’s true that diet culture is so pervasive that it can make anyone dealing with its emotional or physical repercussions very easy to set off. When you push yourself to go out to eat a decadent snack and find yourself face to face with what you feel are warning signs that the snack is a poor decision, one reflective of you as a person, that can be very hard.
This appears to be Lovato’s argument—she said she felt “triggered” and defeated by her encounter. But her target was truly Not The One. The power of celebrity is such that you can unleash active harassment when naming and shaming a smaller, decidedly nonfamous entity. And when the goal is to champion a positive relationship with your body—and, relatedly, yourself—that kind of squabble is not particularly productive.
Lovato’s behavior is reminiscent of her most high-profile defender in this incident, Jameela Jamil, the actress and model who has become infamous for her high-and-mighty online attitude. “If an eating disorder advocate says she sees products that are positioned as guilt free, and it is potentially triggering, that doesn’t mean she’s too stupid to remember that diabetics exist,” Jamil wrote in an Instagram Story. “It just means that we need to change the marketing of products that are for people’s medical needs.” And all of this is fair, except that the entire tenor here is increasingly aggressive and out of proportion between people who have a large platform and people who, well, don’t. This is the kind of battle Jamil herself picks often, winning her more critics than supporters when she continues to scapegoat people in the name of her advocacy.
When a celebrity pulls the trigger on someone they find offensive, credibly or not, and that person or entity has no real social influence, it comes across as punching down—not taking on the systems that perpetuate the damaging mindsets that we should seek to dismantle. And that helps few of us beyond the person who feels personally affronted: in this case, a froyo-craving Demi Lovato. There are bigger frozen treats to thaw.
Over the course of my career at Slate, I’ve worked on a few Slate Plus podcasts on heavy historical topics: the history of American slavery, Reconstruction, and the history of fascism. The deep research I did while putting together those projects still serves me, years later, while writing historical pieces for Slate. Thanks very much for supporting this kind of work! —Rebecca Onion, staff writer