Just days after several Bieber concerts were canceled, the news sparked a wave of well-wishes for Bieber, 28, who was touring for his fifth and sixth studio albums, ‘Changes’ (2020) and ‘Justice’ (2021).
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It’s a bold move, some would say, to post your personal health issues for 241 million followers, especially when your professional career depends to some extent on your physical appearance. But Bieber is just one of many people in the spotlight who have recently spoken openly about their health.
Such openness is not always encouraged. In Selma Blair’s memoir, ‘Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up,’ which was released last month, the 49-year-old actress described having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). “My doctors urged me not to go public,” she wrote. They said to her, “’You’re an actress; your body, your voice, that’s all you have. “Blair went ahead anyway, posting about it on Instagram in 2018.
These revelations come as public figures have more direct access to fans via social media posts, and their live streams and intimate stories can go straight to their followers. Although celebrities may have previously chosen to keep their medical conditions away from public scrutiny, today many seem to believe that the benefits – increasing awareness of medical conditions and controlling narratives about their own health – outweigh the costs.
In these online spaces, 27-year-old singer Halsey can post a video of herself wearing a heart monitor and talking about postpartum health issues and endometriosis to millions of followers — with the ease of sending a message to a friend. Comedian Lilly Singh can say her “ovaries have the AUDACITY to go wild” from her hospital bed. And Hailey Bieber, Bieber’s wife, can tell her fans that she was rushed to the ER in March for a blood clot – while simultaneously offering first-hand evidence that she is fine.
As for Justin Bieber’s condition, “if he were to hide it, it would open up more questions about what’s wrong with him. Not doing something is riskier than him doing something,” says Christine Kowalczyk, an associate professor who studies celebrities and branding at East Carolina University. “If people hear about him canceling shows, he wants to be open and honest about why, so people will keep coming to see him.”
Kowalczyk says she’s seen a shift toward transparency in the entertainment industry over the past decade. She points to Angelina Jolie’s New York Times 2013 editorial on breast cancer for example. In the essay, Jolie, who in 2016 suffered from facial paralysis similar to Bieber’s, revealed her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy when she learned she had the gene that increases the risk of developing a breast cancer and ovarian cancer. “I’m writing about this now because I hope other women can benefit from my experience,” she said.
Studies — including one looking specifically at the response to news about Jolie’s preventative treatment — have suggested that these disclosures can spur the public to seek out more information and screen for illnesses.
“A lot of celebrities will have access to doctors that the general public might not have, and so it can probe someone to identify something that they might not have been aware of,” Kowalczyk says. “It’s good for education and awareness.”
Being candid about a disease can also be a powerful act of advocacy. Halsey spoke at the 2018 Blossom Ball for Endometriosis Research. Selena Gomez has helped raise nearly half a million dollars for lupus research, which she herself has. And greater awareness of Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, has led to many calls to end the stigma around the condition. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) was called a “proud alopecian”.
Chris Smit, co-founder and co-director of DisArt, a production company focused on disability culture, sees Justin Bieber’s announcement of his temporary disability as an opportunity to educate the public. “It shows that we don’t have to be afraid of disability, that we don’t have to pretend that disability doesn’t exist,” he says.
Much of the mainstream conversation about disability morphs into what Smit calls “narratives of overcoming” or morphs into a sort of spectacle. “I don’t think we spend enough energy thinking about the real lived experience of disability,” he says.
And maybe if we did, he suggests, the response to Bieber’s experience would be a little different. Smit, who is disabled, noticed comments about Bieber’s courage for posting about his condition on social media. “In my culture, it’s not bravery,” he says. “It’s just living.”