In March, in the New York profile “Growing Up Gaga,” in which Vanessa Grigoriadis chronicles Stefani Germanotta’s transformation into Lady Gaga and all that’s followed, the pop star who has worn a hat of hair and a frock of Kermits declared, “Pop stars should not eat.”
It’s the kind of bold statement we have come to expect from Gaga. I’ve never actually heard her speak (video included), and this article was the first Gaga interview I read, but her outfits seem to speak for her, like a male peacock trying to score some attention using chromatics alone. At first blush, “Pop stars should not eat” sounds reasonable by Gaga standards, and everyone knows that celebrities are supposed to be thin and work out all the time with their personal trainers and drink post-workout kale smoothies (scroll town ’til you see green).
But “Pop stars should not eat” is a different kind of statement. It implies not exactly that pop stars should be thin, but that they shouldn’t be seen eating. Gaga certainly has a thing with “seen”—she has said, “I would rather die than have my fans not see me in a pair of high heels,” and even wore a pair fishing. Can you imagine seeing Lady Gaga eat a sandwich? Celebrities eating the fries of mortals are seen only on the “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” pages of magazines. I can’t imagine seeing Gaga caught stuffing funnel cake into a powdered-sugar-ringed mouth. She’s pretty much a cyborg.
My interest in Gaga began when I read about her fishing-in-heels trip. As a memoirist, I’m extremely interested in personas, whether rendered on the page or in life, because people in books (even nonfiction) are not real people. Gaga takes this idea to the next level: she never breaks character. Initially, I resisted paying attention to her because I hate hate hate “Just Dance” and am not really a fan of “Poker Face” (though I do love what I’ve heard of hers since) and figured she was one more skinny blonde trying to distinguish herself from the other skinny blondes. But unlike Britney (one of my writerly obsessions), Gaga seems to be a mastermind.
“Pop stars should not eat,” again, and eat is not food which is not weight. Eating is not just a way of obtaining nourishment: it is a signal to others, a tool we use to craft our personas.
Another of my writerly obsessions is Cosmo. I have every issue from the past two and a half years or so on hand because I used them for research for a chapter of my book. So when I read Gaga’s assertion, I quickly thought of the eating rules I saw within the pages of my most loved and hated women’s mag. Cosmo never insists outright that ladies shouldn’t eat; in fact, in April 2009, April 09, 113, under “The Worst Advice We’ve Ever Printed,” editors listed a rule from “How to Turn a Man On,” published in the November 1968 issue: “Diet all week, or don’t eat before you go to a party; fast all day except for raw hamburger for strength. You’ll feel thin and attractive.”
The rules are different now, but no simpler or healthier. Cosmo does justice to the complexity of the food mandates thrown at young women by presenting different rules in different forms. The back of the magazine is home to the standard stuff: 7 habits that are giving you belly pudge (12/09), Curb Cravings Without Eating a Thing (3/10), These Healthy Foods Can Make You Fat (02/10), Supersneaky Weight-Loss Secrets (11/09), Lose Weight While You Eat (09/09), 15 Snacks That Slim You Down (06/09), Drop 5 Pounds in a Week (5/09), Foods That Melt Flab Away (04/09), Easy Ways to Cut 100 Calories at Every Meal (07/09), Eating Out Can Make You Fat (10/09), and so on. Nothing we ladies haven’t heard before.
From columns of quotes from average guys with tiny, attractive headshots and real names attached, we get another set of rules, usually appearing in the “Man Manual.” Average guy Ryan shares, “I can’t handle it when girls order only a small salad or an appetizer at dinner, so I end up eating my meal all alone and looking like a pig” (July 2009). Jason Mraz wishes we knew, “It’s cool when a girl isn’t weird about food. I love a woman who will eat something slimy” (also July 2009). And George Aivaliotis feels, “It’s hot when girls eat like guys and then don’t complain about how many hours they’re going to have to spend on the treadmill to get rid of the calories” (January 2009).
Then how is all this dropping of pounds and melting flab and cutting calories going to happen? In private. The “Man Manual” appears near the front of the magazine, and the eating-instructions-rich “Cosmo Life” section appears at the back, with tips on beauty, sex and attire in between, polarizing the messages, but making their end sum clear: You need to show off your normal appetite and lack of weirdness about food when you’re with a guy, and you need to show him you’re not a priss and can get manly with your eating, but when it’s just you, get back on task and cut those goddamn calories so you can be thin and attractive enough to have some use for the Man Manual.
Pop stars should not eat, but normal girls should eat, and be normal, and not say anything weird about food, and be one of the guys, and definitely help him eat the nachos so he doesn’t feel like a pig. That makes the behind-the-scenes, the Cosmo Life, a game of catch-up, trying to balance the imbalance brought on by trying to look normal through consuming abnormal things: the fries, the sliders, the mozzarella sticks, the beer.
The April 2010 issue of Cosmo features Gaga on the cover. The interview inside (teaser here) is the only Cosmo celebrity interview I’ve ever read—usually, I skip to the embarrassing stories. Four paragraphs in, right after describing the outfit Gaga wears to the interview, Christine Spines focuses on Gaga’s culinary choices: “Instead [of a cocktail], she orders riceless sushi and dressingless salad.” But, of course, toting the “Celebs–They’re Just Like Us!” mentality, Spines discovers that Gaga’s “idea of the perfect Saturday night would be hanging out in bed, watching old horror flicks, and eating New York-style pizza. So she’s also relatively…normal.” There it is again: eat normal to be normal.
The interview ends with Gaga’s declaration, “Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.” Spires seems to want to tilt this interview toward “Love Advice Only Gaga Would Give,” as the cover proclaims, but the dressingless salad isn’t about a man: it’s about reaching a physical ideal, the one recognized by most men and women in this country, in the pursuit of fame, and projecting a matching image. Normal? Did Gaga ever say she was trying to be a normal girl? And, really, have I ever wanted to be normal? What, exactly, does that have to do with eating in front of people?
All of that said, I find Cosmo‘s take(s) on eating fascinating, but for me, the pressure to be a normal eater is only present in the non-romantic realms of my life. To those not acquainted with paleo, eating like a caveman sounds weird, to say the least. People occasionally tell me it’s a fad diet (sure), it’s weird (yes), crazy (has to be), impossible for them to ever try (that’s fine). People say “everything in moderation.” I do open the door for comment when I bring up my eating. I don’t know why I do. I can’t explain the truth, that I can’t handle moderation. And I want to seem normal, so sometimes, even if I don’t think I should, I eat like I’m normal. Eating, a basic human function, is a good way to show I’m a standard-issue human, not a cyborg.
The “healthy” take on eating: Who cares what anyone else wants? Who cares who’s watching? Eat what you want. Yes, that’s a good first step. But “want” sure is a tricky thing to unpack.