The first thing I did after I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 2014 was to pull out my phone and Google “celebrities with Graves’ disease.” That’s how I learned the rapper Missy Elliott had the same thyroid condition as I did and why she’d taken a few years off from the spotlight to adjust to life managing it. In 2011, Elliott spoke to People magazine about how the disease affected her health and her career, and as I read through the interview, I was consoled by the fact that we had experienced the same tremors in our hands, the same trouble with our eyes. But most of all, I was relieved that someone as creatively prolific as Elliott needed a several-year hiatus to come to terms with her health.
The celebrity illness narrative is alluring and powerful. The familiar, untouchable face on the magazine cover becomes the vulnerable human being.
The celebrity illness narrative is alluring and powerful. The familiar, untouchable face on the magazine cover becomes the vulnerable human being, the famous person brave enough to open up about struggles with mental health, with infertility, with cancer — the stuff of everyday life and tragedy that everyone else has to deal with, just without the money or the glory or the cultural cachet. Hearing a public voice on a private struggle can help us feel a little bit less alone. Celebrity advocacy can help destigmatize certain conditions, provide mainstream awareness and attract resources for underfunded research. But it can also highlight a profound lack of self-awareness and be used as a platform to peddle misinformation.
On Thursday, Women’s Health released its June cover story featuring the actress and dancer Julianne Hough. Hough has become a prominent member of Hollywood’s wellness circle — she spoke with Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow about her belief in energy “exorcisms” this year. In her June magazine feature, Hough elaborated on the role of energy healing in her life, saying prioritizing healthier energy was having medically relevant results.
Endometriosis is a disease in which tissue grows outside the uterus instead of within it; it frequently requires a hysterectomy or the excision of organ tissue to manage its pain. Hough has spoken about her struggles with endometriosis — which affects roughly 200 million people worldwide — for years. But this particular conversation was the first one in which she connected her health improvement (at least, publicly) to unprovable evidence. “I haven’t had symptoms of endometriosis because of the love and kindness I’m giving to my body,” she told the magazine. And she didn’t stop there.
“I believe there’s stress, shame, guilt, and suppression of female energy that’s associated with endometriosis, so de-layering that has really helped,” she claimed.
To be clear, stress does play a role in aggravating illness. It can make certain existing ailments worse, but it can also be the reason for disease itself. Endometriosis isn’t a disease subject to the whims and behavior of its host — it is very real and very painful, and love and kindness alone are unlikely to reverse it.
Hough isn’t entirely to blame. The rise of chronic illness diagnoses in America has lent itself to an increase in the diagnoses of celebrities and their willingness to talk about what ails them. Consider the spate of high-profile Lyme disease patients — Justin Bieber, Yolanda Hadid, Avril Lavigne — or the episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” that discussed Kim Kardashian West’s psoriasis diagnosis. On one hand, the celebrity-as-patient model brings hope and solidarity to the masses. On the other, it can perpetuate the idea that the right amount of money and good vibes can heal you.
This isn’t new. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and I searched, almost pathologically, for the 2007 interview in which Halle Berry reportedly said that she’d weaned herself off insulin. While some Type 1 diabetics do have a small reserve of insulin at the onset of diagnosis, there is no such thing as fully weaning yourself off insulin, no matter what diet you try. It is scientifically impossible for a person who doesn’t make enough insulin to survive without taking insulin. Berry has never referred to the topic again.
I doubt Hough was ill-intentioned in her attempt to show the positive changes she says she’s made to her lifestyle. She might even genuinely believe that what worked for her could work for others. In a 2016 blog post for Medium, Ben Stiller wrote about how a prostate cancer screening test saved his life, and he encouraged men to start getting tested at age 40. Though Stiller was likely trying to help, his advice contradicted the medical standard on the subject.
Commenters filled a Twitter thread in response to Hough’s ideas remarking how they wished they’d thought of the idea to “de-layer” their energy before undergoing invasive surgery to treat their endometriosis. The jokes were funny, but they mocked a sad reality. This is what is inherently implied by the oversimplification of treating chronic conditions — that being unwell is somehow your fault and there’s a way to just feel better that you haven’t figured out yet.
In my own medical history, I’ve been told I need to stop eating gluten (I don’t have celiac disease) to feel better, and I’ve been told this with a dismissive laugh. I’ve been told I need to take a course of expensive supplements from a fancy functional medicine doctor to the stars. I’ve been told I was probably fine before I got involved with Western medicine and it’s my mainstream doctors who probably did irreversible damage.
I remembered how overwhelmed I felt after my Graves’ diagnosis and how comforting it was to read Elliott’s words. She spoke of no magical fix or reversal. She simply noted that it was the passage of time and a slow, uncomfortable acceptance that helped make sense of her uncertainty. I wish Women’s Health had found a way to offer its readers the same.