I worry that society is failing Eugenia Cooney. She’s a public figure who, like many young girls in their teens and twenties, makes videos about fashion and makeup. They’re all shot video-log style, with her narrating as she goes through all the steps.
Unfortunately, most of her fame is derived from controversy, and more specifically, her alarming weight. A terrible cycle has been created, with her virality intimately tied to her illness, with YouTube doing little to help.
Social media success can be weaponized against our health
If you go to her channel, it’s hard to even hear what she’s saying about her toner, lipstick, or outfits. Through all of it, she sways in a perpetual state of emaciation. She stands 5’7 and weighs less than 90 lbs. One can’t help but wonder if you’re staring down the unmistakable face of an eating disorder.
It is but another modern problem: a mental health condition becoming a path to internet fame and fortune. She has more than 2 million subscribers on YouTube. Her channel has 243 million views as of today, which, at a low estimate, has earned her more than half a million dollars.
Quite cleverly, she never acknowledges any issues and is very chipper and cheery, just talking about her life, glossing over the only thing her entire audience seems to be discussing. She often uses cryptic quotes in all of her posts, “Don’t let other people’s opinions of you affect you.”
She allows the discussion to roil and continue. Yes, there have been very brief moments where she’s said, “This is just the way I look.” Which, if anything, may further expose how entrenched her disease is.
It’s worth emphasizing that, literally, all of Eugenia Cooney’s comment sections are completely dominated by discussions about her appearance.
I went through dozens and found not a single trending discussion that involved anything related to the video’s actual topic. The engine of her revenue is glaringly apparent.
Being silent is complicity
This is a good place to draw a distinction between body shaming and a destructive eating disorder. Intentional or not, she is using her platform to promote a deadly body image. As an example, young tween girls often comment that they want to look like her. And, unfortunately, trolls will comment that she looks fat.
It’s hard to watch her videos. I usually have to get in and out quickly, which is why I haven’t included the more difficult imagery in this article. The phrase, “watching someone kill themself” takes on a new meaning on her channel. In fact, one could argue it’s her brand.
And everything she does just draws more attention to her appearance. She parades her body around on camera, showing herself from lots of angles. The outfits never fit, loosely hanging on her. You can’t help but wonder if she knows how bad her disease is, or knows and is milking it. Her condition is but another byproduct of the media’s hyper-cultural influence on young girls, which is at its most extreme in the fashion industry.
Some accuse Eugenia of producing Pro-ana (pro-anorexia) content. They assert she revels in the comments about her being too skinny. While I don’t think that’s necessarily true, I suspect she knows that her condition is the driver of her success.
It’s another chapter in an alarming trend
Eugenia isn’t the first to put her body in harm's way for money. Daredevils do it all the time on YouTube. The pranksters of Jackass made millions doing such acts. But Eugenia’s case is a new iteration, many shades darker, and far more complicated than consciously blundering a motorbike over a pit of alligators.
A petition was started in 2016 on Change.org, garnering 16,000 signatures to get her account temporarily suspended so that she’d get treatment. The petition ultimately failed, because it violated change.org’s terms and conditions. Other initiatives aimed at helping her, including organized boycotts of her videos, proved counterproductive as they only drew more attention and followers to her account.
Every year or so, I check back in to look at her videos, just to see if she’s still alive. There are often comments expressing that same intention, which is a testament to the draw of her shocking channel. There’s even an entire YouTube ecosystem of content producers who plead for her to get healthy.
But how can she? How can you get well when your identity is a reflection of your disease? How can you find healing when your sense of significance and is paired with your own suffering?
I have a unique understanding of her condition
Speaking as an influencer myself, with millions of views and useless internet points on Quora, I’m intimately aware of the addictive nature of authoring viral content. I couldn’t fathom my success being dependent on the perpetuation of a disease.
There was a ray of hope earlier this year, with an announcement that she was hospitalized under an emergency Code 5150 (mental health intervention), then later forced by medical professionals into a treatment program that lasted several months.
Unfortunately, when she was discharged, she immediately went back to making videos. And, within months, relapsed to being very, very skinny. Running a Youtube channel in the fashion category, known for extremely unrealistic body expectations, seems poorly advised for someone in her condition.
It begs the obvious question, should YouTube intervene? I reckon they can’t. After all, asking them to play doctor and decide who is sick and who isn’t, seems unrealistic. If anything, banning her account could be perceived as discriminatory against people with mental illness. But it’s a bit disappointing that they stand by silently, despite being well aware of her channel.
Major rule changes on huge platforms often stem from a very acute event that makes headlines. I hope that isn’t the case with Eugenia. But it’s hard not to worry, as her very public profile has become a marketing machine, seemingly designed to engineer her own death.
Many years ago, I was battling my own demons and was ordered by the courts to attend treatment (because of an alcohol-related arrest). I went to a giant three-storied home that had been converted into a joint treatment center. It was very quaint, with squeaky wooden floors and relaxing music playing.
There was a waiting room where I was sitting down until my therapist was ready. I was reading a magazine to pass the time. Then I heard the front door open. I’ll never forget, a moment later, five young women, all in their twenties filed in and sat on the opposite side of the room. They were all part of the eating disorder center which was in the conference room next to us.
I didn’t stare, but a quick glance had taken my breath away. They were skeletal. I couldn’t understand how they were standing. Every part of me wanted to help them. If only Eugenia’s online trolls saw the condition firsthand, they’d never make jokes again about Eugenia or those like her.
I don’t know what bothers me more, that someone can use the disease to market themselves, or that it works. In my ideal world, someone like Eugenia gets a full recovery and finds a welcome reception in that new life, not a world that pulls her back into darkness.