How Kim Kardashian Is Erasing the Stigma Surrounding ‘Invisible Illnesses’
The businesswoman and reality TV superstar’s public battle with lupus is shining an important light on the so-called “invisible illnesses” that disproportionately affect women.
The season 17 premiere of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which aired on Sunday, was largely preoccupied with familiar drama—Kourtney’s emotional distance from her sisters, the seemingly endless Tristan Thompson saga, and Jonathan “Food God” Cheban’s latest attempts to ride on the Kardashian coattails. One of the supplemental plotlines, however, centered on Kim Kardashian West’s recent health issues, culminating in an emotional phone call with her doctor.
“As far as your results, your antibodies are positive for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis,” explains Kim’s doctor on the phone as the stony-faced reality star holds her iPhone in one hand and stretches the sore fingers of her other. As the doctor rattles off possible symptoms—swollen joints, fevers, rashes, mouth sores, fatigue—Kim blots her tears with a Kleenex (ever-so-lightly, to avoid smudging the full face of makeup that undoubtedly took hours to apply). “I’m, like, freaking out,” she tells Kylie, who is there to comfort her in a butt-grazing weave identical to that of her look-alike older sister.
Throughout the episode, between scenes of Khloe debating the merits of inviting estranged ex Thompson to their daughter’s first birthday party and relenting to Kourtney’s demands that she hire a matcha latte cart for the soiree, Kim laments her inexplicable physical symptoms. Her wrist pain interferes with her ability to play with and hold her three children (baby Psalm had not been born yet). With a baby on the way and the stress of “law school,” Kim says, “I can’t live like this.” In one lighthearted moment, even an onion ring proves too heavy for her to lift with her swollen, achy hands. Luckily, the Food God is there to hand-feed his BFF.
Since the episode was filmed, Kardashian-West’s lupus diagnosis has been confirmed (at the time, she was awaiting further test results to verify that it was not a false positive) and she has spoken publicly about managing the autoimmune disorder. She went on the Today show on Tuesday to discuss her experiences. “I, unfortunately, had to be put on medication to stop the symptoms,” she said in the interview. “I tried everything natural for the longest time, and we chose the best route for me.” Thanks to her treatment plan, “everything is under control.”
Lupus is an autoimmune disease with varying symptoms ranging from fatigue and joint pain to headaches and memory loss. In extreme cases, the disorder can lead to kidney failure. It is one of many “invisible illnesses,” including Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome, that disproportionally affects women. These diseases are nicknamed “invisible illnesses” because they often cannot be perceived by others, due to symptoms that are not externally visible and differences in the way the diseases manifest from case to case. In addition to the disruptive pain and discomfort caused by chronic symptoms, sufferers of such conditions often struggle emotionally as they constantly have to prove to others that they are ill.
Because these illnesses are already so stigmatized, it is positive that someone like Kim K, with her army of 148 million Instagram followers, is speaking out about her medical battle. However, she’s not the first celebrity to use her platform to open up about the daily challenges of living with an invisible illness. After three years of keeping quiet, Selena Gomez revealed in 2015 that she suffers from lupus as well. In a 2015 interview with Billboard, the pop star explained, “I waited for the right time to talk about it because I am in a great place and I’m very healthy. I’m not trying to be loud about it: It was time to use my platform to help.”
Gomez’s lupus escalated to a “life-or-death” crisis in 2017 when the severity of her condition required her to get a kidney transplant. Her good friend Francia Raisa, who ABC Family fans may recognize from The Secret Life of the American Teenager, donated one of her kidneys to Gomez. In a moving Instagram post from after the surgery, the singer wrote that Raisa gave her “the ultimate gift and sacrifice by donating her kidney to me.” She concluded the message by linking to the Lupus Research Alliance website.
Lady Gaga, too, has made headlines for sharing her journey with fibromyalgia and chronic pain. In 2018, she announced that she had to cancel the final 10 shows of her Joanne tour due to debilitating severe pain. It was not the first time she had to cancel concerts because of the illness. Later that year, in the midst of her A Star is Born fanfare, she appeared on the cover of Vogue and spoke about the misconceptions surrounding syndromes like fibromyalgia.
“I get so irritated with people who don’t believe fibromyalgia is real,” Gaga said. “For me, and I think for many others, it’s really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder, all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result. People need to be more compassionate. Chronic pain is no joke.”
With the steam from the Jordyn Woods scandal blowing over and a (probably brief) pause in Kardashian-Jenner pregnancies, Kim’s health battle will likely serve as a source of ongoing drama in the new season. Hopefully, it will go better for her than it did for Yolanda Hadid during her four-season stint on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.