Lady Gaga raising awareness about fibromyalgia is great, but keep this in mind

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Lady Gaga’s deeply personal documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two came out on Netflix this week, and much has been made of the pop star revealing her diagnosis of fibromyalgia – a chronic illness characterised by widespread pain and fatigue – and the postponement of her tour due to severe symptoms in the lead up to the film’s release.

While being forced by ill health to cancel major work commitments is no doubt distressing (I have personal experience of this, and feel for her), the situation has served well as publicity for the documentary, in which Gaga’s health struggles feature.


Lady Gaga’s chronic pain leads to tour cancellation

The singer has cancelled her six-week European tour, Joanne, as she struggles with fibromyalgia.

After years of heavy-handed glamour, costuming (who could forget the meat dress?), wigs and feature-disguising makeup – a crafted persona effectively shielding the real Gaga from scrutiny – the performer has recently endeavoured to throw back the curtain, stripping her public image down to the essentials of an apparently more authentic self.

The documentary is both a record of this rebranding and an integral part of it; an intimate, vulnerable, warts-and-all account of her experiences preceding the release of her latest album and her memorable Super Bowl performance.

The film consistently returns to Gaga’s management of her chronic illness: doctors, treatments, therapies, and the fraught emotions – fear, embarrassment and grief – that accompany the physical pain underscoring every aspect of her life.

It’s clear that the intention here is to raise awareness. Unlike the vast majority of us with invisible chronic conditions, Gaga has a phenomenal platform from which to educate, and is not afraid to use it.

In the wake of her revelation, entertainment writers have fallen over themselves explaining the symptoms and impact of fibromyalgia for the benefit of the masses. All going well, Gaga’s efforts will invoke broader empathy for those suffering from invisible conditions and chronic pain more generally.

But there are limitations to her approach that need some acknowledgement. This is not to impugn Gaga’s work, but (as often happens with disadvantaged minorities), it’s inevitably the privileged within the group who have access to the microphone – or the documentary crew – and privilege can act as a distorting lens.

At a particularly low point, prostrate, distraught and surrounded by staff doing their utmost to make her comfortable, she says: “I just think about other people that, like, have maybe something like this, that are struggling to figure out what it is, and they don’t have the, like, money to have somebody help them. Like, I don’t know what I’d f—in’ do if I didn’t have everybody here to help me. What the hell would I do?”

A valid question that she is ultimately ill-equipped to explore within this format, but that the vast majority of people with chronic illnesses do indeed face.

Without the on-call team of physical therapists, masseurs and doctors who seem to function as the glue holding Gaga’s body together behind the scenes, many with fibromyalgia are unable to maintain a career the way she has, making it not only a question of medical support, but of housing stress, food affordability, stress on familial relationships as caring responsibilities fall upon loved ones, and the loss of identity wrapped up in employment.

As one example (and by no means a definitive one), my own experience of chronic illness involves a tight financial situation in which I can no longer to afford to have a bedroom – I sublet to pay the bills and sleep in the living area. For me, watching Gaga receive emergency therapies in her mansion elicited feelings of solidarity (I know what it feels like when your body unexpectedly packs it in) but also wistfulness, because my own allied health visits must be used sparingly, and no one is coming to my house.

This is not to detract from the personal or professional tolls of Gaga’s illness, which are clearly significant, or from the positive impact of her decision to speak publicly on the matter. But acknowledging the relative insulation provided by her wealth, and the power she holds over the small industry constructed around her fame, is important if we want a broad perspective on the impact of chronic illness.

In a representation vacuum, Gaga’s particular experience – told in light-on-detail vignettes – has the potential to become definitive in mainstream understanding, overriding the complex reality of a spectrum illness ranging from people who are bed-bound to those still managing to hold down nine-to-fives.

There is potential for the severely ill to be held to unrealistic standards based on the activities of the comparatively active. “Lady Gaga has fibromyalgia too, and she did acrobatics at the Super Bowl.”

But even Lady Gaga should not be held to that standard. Fibromyalgia is a remitting-relapsing illness with “flare ups” as a common feature.

“I’m f—ing strong,” she says in the film, “and when I feel the adrenalin in my music and my fans, I can f—ing go, but it doesn’t mean I’m not in pain.”

Like many of us, Gaga performs wellness to a point, but, as the recent postponement of her tour demonstrates, the artifice cannot be upheld indefinitely.  

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