Sienna Mae Gomez’s merch line is the right idea with the wrong execution

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(Mehta, 2021)

TikTok star Sienna Mae Gomez recently released a line of merchandise several fans have deemed insensitive. While this young girl preaches body positivity and healthy eating, viewers have accused her of “glorifying” eating disorders  and “profiting” off of them.

Gomez is known to the TikTok community as one of the kindest, most positive influencers. Among other things, she’s been deemed a great role model for young women, and has had a body positive presence since she started on the app. The line of merchandise she released, however, was condescending and insensitive; reading, “did you eat today?” Most of Gomez’s previous merch has sweet remarks like “confidence is cute” and “every body is beautiful.” This new design is potentially triggering to those with eating disorders and honestly reads sort of mockingly. 

Gomez initially defended her merch; in a post that she has since taken down, she wrote, “The ‘did you eat today’ question is not meant to make fun of/glorify EDS/be harmful or ironic in any way. The question is hoping to encourage/check-in with people if they actually are… We created this design with love and positivity in hopes of uplifting others and asking hard questions. We stand behind the true intentions of this 100%.” This statement just wasn’t well thought out—her immediate response should have been removing the clothing line and apologizing to her offended fans.

The post defending the message has since been deleted after it prompted a barrage of comments, such as, “Whatever message being worn on the hoodie isn’t going to help anyone struggling. All it does is turn a serious issue into a superficial aesthetic,” and “Imagine being a poor person on the streets and seeing a corny girl wearing a hoodie that says ‘did you eat today?’” 

Gomez then posted the following apology, “Hey guys, I have heard the messages from many of you, and I’m deeply sorry for any offense caused. I am young, and I am still navigating the world and this industry, and, obviously, I will not get it right the first time.”

It’s understandable that the message had good intentions. Gomez is absolutely justified in saying that she is young and didn’t mean any harm; though, how was it possible that no one caught the insensitive wording before it was produced?

Gomez is absolutely justified in saying that she is young and didn’t mean any harm; though, how was it possible that no one caught the insensitive wording before it was produced? ”

Unlike major celebrities, online social media influencers and TikTok mini celebs, for the large part, do not have large teams handling their public persona and merchandise. It is easy to pump out tees and hoodies and sell them online as fast as one can become famous overnight. The power of these public figures and the messages they convey go largely unchecked yet widely noticed. “As opposed to learning about new products through traditional advertising, 85% of Gen Z relies on social media. Part of this is due to the fact that a majority of Gen Z is more receptive to “real people” in ads, not just paid actors or celebrities” (The Power of Social Media Influencers in 2019: Cultural Trendsetters, 2019).

Mental health issues are complex and even the simplest words, wielded with the best intentions, can be damaging. Gomez’s merch message crossed the line from promoting body positivity into simplifying eating disorders which are already puzzling to many and are commonly misunderstood.

There is no immediate cure for an eating disorder; although there is treatment, telling someone to simply “just eat” is not helpful, encouraging, or productive. “It is tempting to say, ‘Why don’t you just eat?’ Many people with eating disorders are exceedingly intelligent and competent in all other areas of their lives, resulting in people thinking that a logical argument can ‘fix it’” (You Can Hurt Someone With an Eating Disorder by Saying the Wrong Thing, n.d.). There are several factors that play into someone’s inability to eat an appropriate amount, people with Anorexia Nervosa, for example, are terrified of eating; throwing a simple “did you eat today?” on a shirt just isn’t helpful. 

The line between promoting health and promoting eating disorders can be extremely blurry. This is particularly true in social media outlets marketed towards younger people; what appears as “healthy” or “clean eating” often promotes a restrictive diet or “forbidden” foods.

“The meteoric rise of the ‘wellness’ industry online has launched an entire industry of fitness celebrities on social media. Millions of followers embrace their regimens for diet and exercise, but increasingly, the drive for ‘wellness’ and ‘clean eating’ has become a stealthy cover for more dieting and deprivation” (Simmons, 2016). In other words, “fitspiration” has rooted in minds as weight loss. People begin clean-eating, which of course isn’t a poor choice objectively, but become so restrictive with it that they become afraid to even eat nutritious foods.

Specialists in anorexia point to social media, “thinspiration” sites, and “clean eating” as three major contributors to the rise in eating disorders. “In 2016, Dr. Mark Berelowitz, an eating disorder specialist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, warned that up to 90% of his new patients had started off following clean eating diets,” (read, n.d.).

“Clean eating” is the perfect example of the gray area in wellness resources. A lifestyle diet that should be healthy—and might just be for some—can become unhealthy and rigid for others. The plethora of websites, YouTube videos, and Instagram images dedicated to diet and fitness are seemingly unending; identifying the difference between information that’s helpful can blur into information that is harmful quickly to the susceptible.

“Eating disorders also tend to… be competitive, [Kati Morton, a YouTuber and therapist said], meaning you are always comparing yourself with others—which helps explain the existence of what have been dubbed ‘pro-ana communities,’ forums and websites where people seek out and share images or videos they use as ‘thinspiration’ to lose even more weight,” (Dodgson, n.d.).

Gomez’s intention was obviously not this. She remains a body positivity spokesperson who wants everybody in every type of body to feel beautiful. Unfortunately, the lack of awareness in her delivery took a complicated mental health issue and turned it into four words printed on a hoodie. 

National Eating Disorder Awareness week is this week, February 22-28. 

Eating disorders—leading as the second deadliest mental illness—defy all barriers, affecting people of all ages, genders, and socio-economic levels. 

This line of clothing serves as a reminder to all to be mindful, sensitive, and aware. At the end of the day, Gomez isn’t to be accused of targeting a young demographic with eating problems and capitalizing off of them; the adults on her team that saw the design and approved it before it reached the market need to do better and be held accountable from this point forward.