So there I was, watching the Today Show and trying to get in a couple more winks when Lila came into the room—just in time to hear all this awful news about Disney pop sensation Demi Lovato. Apparently, the star of one of my daughters’ favorite shows, “Sonny With a Chance,” got herself all worked up into a tizzy over the harsh spotlight of celebrity and her ex-girlfriend status with the cute Jonas Brother and decided to hurt herself and her body to deal with the emotions of it all. No one in the starlet’s camp has come right out and confirmed this, but stories abound that Demi was cutting herself and submitting to an undisclosed eating disorder.
This was a conversation I wasn’t ready to have with the 8-year-old. The 11-year-old, maybe, seeing as she’s older and more mature and definitely able to, with some age-appropriate conversation, comprehend such things. But definitely not the little one, who still sleeps with her beloved blankie, loves Elmo and Dora (on the low—never in front of friends) and is still prone to climbing into and curling up in a warm mommy lap when she’s sleepy/grumpy/acting her shoe size, rather than her age.
She was very quiet while listening to the report—a huge hint that she was confused and sad, seeing as the kid can bounce off walls faster than the Tasmanian Devil. And then, the questions:
Lila: Mommy? What’s rehab?
Me: *long blank stare at the TV, a silent cuss, and a quick prayer that I can break it down for an 8-year-old* It’s where you go when you’re doing bad things to your body, like taking drugs, and a doctor helps you figure out how to stop doing it.
Lila: Well, what’s cutting?
Me: *makes sign of the cross and takes a mental shot of an adult elixir* That’s when a person cuts their skin with sharp objects when they’re really sad or mad about something.
Lila: What does Demi Lovato have to be sad or mad about? She’s Demi Lovato.
Me: Yes, but when she’s not on TV or on the stage singing or being a star, she’s just a girl…
I don’t have the blueprint for such discussions. Really, I don’t. I cried over a boy once in front of my mother, and my ears are still ringing over the cuss out she gave me for being weak and letting some boy convince me I was the problem, and not him. No more crying out of me. And as someone who still hyperventilates when the doctor tells me the five most frightening words in the world—“we need to draw blood”—I truly cannot comprehend how a person could purposely make herself bleed.
What I do know, though, is that these Disney stars, with their drug and alcohol addictions and their emotional shortcomings and their very public meltdowns are making it hot for me and moms across the land who dare let their kids watch Disney, Nickelodeon and other channels that serve up popular kids' programming. From one news cycle to the next, we're being forced to become instant psychotherapists as we try to help our kids grapple with the meaning and origins of the latest kid star drama grabbing headlines in newspapers, magazines and TV news shows. I mean, Stars Gone Wild is nothing new; every generation has had its share of Hollyweird imposing crazy on its adoring public. But now, it seems, they're getting younger and younger and thrusting their psychosis on a younger and more impressionable set of fans. I mean, it's one thing for a 17-year-old to read about Mariah Carey and Whitney and their troubles. But it's something wholly different for me to have to find an answer when my 8-year-old, wide-eyed, asks, "Mommy, what is cutting?".
Just like I fear that her young mind is still traumatized by just the few seconds of a Today Show report, it's painful for me to imagine that she's going to have to find a way to understand why one of her favorite stars would intentionally try to hurt herself. I don't want that poison bouncing around in her head.
But now it's there.
Good looking out, Disney.
'Preciate ya, news shows and gossip wags.
Here's the thing: As a mom who tries to be vigilant about keeping inappropriate shows and music off the TV and radio when my daughters are watching and listening—a Herculean effort considering how hypersexualized shows and songs rules the airwaves from the top of the morning and deep into the night—it ticks me off that shows made for kids are populated by teens with teen and grown-up problems, playing out their in-real-life insecurities, self-abuse and plain dumb behavior for their audience of little girls to see. It's even more disturbing when every second of the day, every place we turn for news and information is covering stories like Demi's as if they're at a beach bonfire, selling hot dogs and soda and tickets to see the latest star roasted like a piglet on a blazing open spit—as if an 18-year-old's struggle with fame and break-ups and self-mutilation is a popcorn-worthy, celebratory event, rather than a personal, human tragedy that's for Demi, her parents, and her doctors to deal with quietly. The tabloids get richer because of it, and Demi, young kids, mothers—we all pay for it in incalculable ways.
I'll cop to this, though: News of Demi Lovato's issues was a serious wake-up call for Nick and me—one that led to our doing research into cutting and other ways kids suffering from emotional issues self-abuse, and what we, as parents, should be looking for, talking about and doing to help our girls find better ways to deal with pain and sadness. Indeed, when we did just a cursory look around to figure out what we should be saying to our girls, we found plenty of information, and even stumbled across poignant posts by mothers who had children as young as 11-year-old struggling with depression and self-abuse like cutting, bulimia, and anorexia, among other things. It was an eye-opener. And we decided to attack the subject with the same kind of open and plain, tell-it-like-it-is, nothing-but-the-truth-and-the-whole-truth-so-help-us-God conversations we've had with our girls about their bodies and sex.
And we started this new conversation by making clear to them that stars are human beings, not gods, and no matter how pretty or cool or funny or smart they appear to be, they still put on their pants one leg at a time, just like we do, and often aren't who we make them out to be. As a former entertainment reporter who's profiled dozens of celebrities—from Lena Horne and George Clooney to Halle Berry and Jay-Z—and who experienced first-hand how flawed and screwed up stars can be, I implore my babies to trust me when I tell them: celebrity worship is almost always a losing proposition.
Alas, at the end of a long day in front of the cameras and on the stage, Demi Lovato is just… a girl.