Demi Lovato Sacrifices Pop Stardom for Protest

The singer’s anti-body-shaming crusade has gone to impolite places.

Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Demi Lovato, the former Disney Channel actress turned platinum-selling, White House-performing singer, has passionate fans. Some of them make art about her, as fans do. Lovato this week criticized one work of fan art, as pop stars typically don’t do.

“Is that how my boobs should look?” she wrote in an Instagram comment beneath a sketch of her as a topless mermaid. “It's gorgeous, but that's not my body.” She added the slanty-faced emoji afterwards.

The comment landed like a kick to a bee’s nest among various pop fandoms of the internet. One person altered the mermaid picture to show Lovato as heftier around the middle (caption: “Here bitch”), triggering waves of blowback for “body shaming” Lovato. The 17-year-old Romanian boy who drew the original image replied to Lovato saying, “If I make your waist slimmer and your boobs bigger to accentuate the fact that I drew you as a mermaid, a mythological creature, doesn’t mean I say that you should look like that or all girls should look like that. That’s how I imagine mermaids. I worked a lot on that drawing and i was proud of it, but not anymore.”

The fallout is likely part of the reason why on Twitter yesterday, Lovato said she was looking forward to 2017—“taking a break from media and the spotlight. I am not meant for this business and the media 👋🏼.” Replying to a fan who asked if she’d be coming back, she said, “dunno. It doesn’t feel worth it anymore. I’d rather do charity work tbh.” If Lovato becomes a full-time activist, it’ll be a loss for her fans and for the radio landscape—she’s got a powerful voice. But at least she’d be relieved from the the tension inherent in the current pop-star model, where a degree of social consciousness is expected to be part of the entertainment but not get in the way of it.

In addition to having recorded hits like “Heart Attack,” “Give Your Heart a Break,” and “Cool for the Summer,” Lovato is known for turning the public struggles of a child star into inspirational talking points. Having battled bulimia, drug use, and bipolar disorder, she’s spoken out about the importance of female self-esteem and body-size acceptance whether in magazine columns or on songs like “Confident.” These are partly political acts in a society that often shames girls who don’t act a certain way, and Lovato’s mission has been partly shared by other divas from Lady Gaga to Beyonce to Taylor Swift—all people who, as has been widely noted, break from previous generations of pop tradition by aligning themselves with larger, not-always-uncontroversial causes.

But this class of feminist stars is not entirely unified. During an interview with Glamour published this week, Lovato aimed at arguably the biggest name in the game, Taylor Swift. She’d nipped at her before, implying that Swift had only offered hollow support of Kesha in her sexual harassment case against Dr. Luke. Now, she says, Swift is a false feminist because of who’s in her “squad,” the clique that has been held up as an icon for the power of female friendship:

I think in certain situations, certain people could be doing more if they’re going to claim [feminism] as part of their brand. To be honest, and this will probably get me in trouble, I don’t see anybody in any sort of squad that has a normal body. It’s kind of this false image of what people should look like. And what they should be like, and it’s not real.

The statement was another kick to the internet beehives: Suddenly, as Twitter’s aggregation of social-media reaction put it, Lovato was “body shaming” other women for being skinny.

Lovato has also criticized Swift’s “Bad Blood” song and video, rumored to be about a feud with Katy Perry—“tearing Katy Perry down, that’s not women’s empowerment,” she said. The irony that she was tearing Swift down without much provocation didn’t go un-noted by fans either.

All of this is political in the sense that it’s about a political question: What’s the right way to advocate for women? Now that speaking up for gender equality is part of the pop-star pitch, it’d be natural to expect there to be some back-and-forth on this question—no cause moves forward without internal debate over methods and priorities. But the dynamics of mass-appeal pop complicate the potential for such dissension. The sexist “catfight” trope—the myth of an ongoing zero-sum battle between pop’s women—gets projected onto any dispute, and the notion that stars must first always please their fans poisons the possibility for genuine give-and-take between entertainer and listener.

So why is Lovato picking fights with both her least powerful fans and her most powerful peers? What does she stand to gain from the trouble? Entertainers are often accused of insincerity when it comes to social causes, but the most plausible explanation for Lovato’s antics this week is that she really does care—more, perhaps, than she cares about her career itself.