Thanks, RuPaul’s Drag Race, for bringing eating disorders out of the closet

It’s no secret: I love RuPaul’s Drag Race and think everyone should be watching it.

Not just because the queens have such incredible range and talent: they write, do comedy, host, sing, dance, choreograph, direct, act, ad lib, design, sew, and are makeup ninjas. All of this would already make them sort of superhuman.

Even more than their talents, though, what strikes me is the incredible vulnerability and resilience the contestants bring to the show. Some of them have experienced physical and/or verbal abuse, been bullied, disowned, ousted, shunned, you name it. As each season wears on, the queens reveal themselves bit by bit and we as viewers can really come to appreciate just how much they have suffered and survived and still persevered with humor and creativity.

That gets high marks in my book.

But Mama Ru and the season 9 queens might have outdone themselves on episode 5 when they finally brought to the fore a discussion of eating disorders in the gay and drag communities.

Velour shared that she had been mocked for her appearance as she struggled with anorexia. Valentina confessed she continues to struggle with disordered eating and feels she is force-feeding herself right now because she promised her mom she’d eat while on the show. And Shea Couleé admitted she’d battled bulimia.

I guarantee that disordered eating and struggles with body image have touched everyone that is on the show to some degree if only because of the reach with which they manage to touch us all. But add to that the pressures of being part of a community that highly prizes fitness, beauty, youth, and sexual desirability as the gay community does. Plus the dynamic of drag in which the queens construct an idealized female identity with features and proportions to match (thanks to padding, cutlets, wigs, shading, highlighting, next-level makeup, and plastic surgery).

So what can we do to widen the circle of eating disorder awareness and support?

  1. Keep this conversation out of the closet – The more vocal and visible those of us – ALL OF US – struggling with disordered eating, eating disorders, and body image disturbance remain, the more aware our culture will grow and the more normalized it can become to seek support in the form of mental health counseling, therapy, and nutrition therapy. Plus our willingness to be vulnerable and reveal our own stories – when we feel it is safe and appropriate to do so – empowers others to open up about themselves.
  2. Check your assumptions – Eating disorders do not only affect young, white, straight, able-bodied women. We need to acknowledge just how far-reaching the toxic messages around food, eating, and our bodies are and that they affect people across ages, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, and body shapes, sizes, and levels of ability.
  3. Soften your heart – There’s a saying that’s made the rounds on social media (thanks, Ian McLaren, I think?) that is relevant here. It goes something like “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” In addition to not assuming we know anything about the inner struggles of those other than ourselves, we can go the extra step of being kind, of connecting genuinely with others by simply seeing them, and acknowledging our shared humanity. And that kindness must start with ourselves. Because, as Mama Ru says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love someone else?”

Can I get an Amen up in here?