Many might remember Demi Levato’s Vanity Fair photo-shoot with Patrick Ecclesine. According to Ecclesine, as a subdued Lovato spoke regarding her recently deceased grea-grandfather, she came up with an idea:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past day, it’s that life is too short. I’m about to launch an album that finally represents who I truly am. How do I embrace this new chapter in my life? How do I really walk the walk? What does it mean to be confident? It means letting go, being authentic, saying I don’t give a fuck and this is who I am. I want to show the side of me that’s real, that’s liberated, that’s free. What if we do a photo shoot where it’s totally raw? Super-sexy, but no makeup, no fancy lighting, no retouching, and no clothing. Let’s do it here, let’s do it now.
What transpired was an impromptu au naturale photo-shoot in Lovato’s Manhatten hotel room. For many, the photo-shoot was the victorious coming-of-age of a young, liberated woman. For others it was another sad example of a nihilistic young millennial showing off her shapely, youthful goods. More cynical observers chalked it up to a successful artist’s shameless self-promotion for her upcoming album, “Confident“. But, no matter how one parses it, it is no longer very startling. After all, there can be only so many “shocking” nude photo-shoots before it becomes somewhat passe. It turns out that nudity isn’t all its cracked up to be.
Lovato is an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, having spoken before the National Alliance on Mental Health at their Annual National Convention, as well in various new interviews and public awareness campaigns. Her history with Bipolar Disorder was one of battles with bulimia, cutting and drug addiction. Since her diagnosis in 2011, she has found the right medications mix, treatment team, and therapy to ward-off the full effects of Bipolar and even succeed in the midst of them.
But, success notwithstanding, the wounds of mental illness never leave you, nor do the questions, doubts and insecurities that it brings. I myself struggle with the mind-fuck of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression, along with random bouts of generalized Anxiety and Complex-PTSD flashbacks. I think I understand something of where Lovato is coming from and what she means when she sings:
I used to hold my freak back
Now I’m letting go
I make my own choice
Bitch, I run this show
So leave the lights on
No, you can’t make me behave
So you say I’m complicated
That I must be outta my mind
But you’ve had me underrated
In a world that still doesn’t “get” mental illness – that jumps between the extremes of indifference and discrimination on the one hand to over-indulgence and pity on the other – a big “fuck-you all, I roll my own way” is, frankly, understandable and perhaps even justifiable (if not exactly laudable). In a world that seems (and with mental illness, perception’s a real bitch) to persist in ignorance, rawness and authenticity; honesty and frank candidness seems to be the order of the day. For Lovato, this means speaking-out about mental health, it means using her hard-earned platform to force the conversation, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. It also means engaging in a desultory photo-shoot, where there is nothing (literally – no clothes, no makeup, no special lighting) but cold, recycled air between her skin and the camera.
And there is most assuredly a need for the mental ill, high-functioning or not, to be able to speak out about their struggles, as needed; in therapy, with family and friends, with bosses and coworkers. The stigma that is still attached to mental illness is highly unfortunate, and if Demi Lovato can do a little bit to ease those discussions and help the well help the sick, then I applaud her.
Still. Could it be that honesty, sincerity and raw, naked authenticity have become the mask that we hide behind? Could it be that nudity is our new armor, that we hide behind our skin (flawless or not) and our looks (muscular or curvy; flabby or shabby) for fear of what we might reveal inside? That something as un-shocking as a nude photo-shoot is really just a contrivance, an elaborately simple conceit for hiding from a shitty world and that rank probity is our shield against ourselves?
Is our desire for the Real, for the Authentic, an honest pursuit or could it be the lullaby lie we tell ourselves when things go bump in the dark night of our souls? After all, we’re simply little emperors, naked in the dark, alone and afraid.