For kids and parents everywhere, the conversation around weight and weight loss can be traumatizing to navigate. Now try doing it with cameras all around you.
Jazz Jennings and her mom, Jeanette, have been under the spotlight for almost all of Jazz’s life — since the now 21-year-old became one of the most prominent transgender children in the world when she was interviewed by Barbara Walters in 2007 at just 6 years old.
Since then, Jazz and her family have been profiled in the TLC reality series “I Am Jazz” that chronicles her experience as a teen who happens to be trans living in south Florida. But this latest chapter, one that centers around her 100-pound weight gain and mental health battle, was new territory for the family and something that was especially challenging.
“It was hard but it was also necessary,” Jazz told TODAY via Zoom from her family’s home in south Florida. “I’ve been struggling with mental health issues for many, many years ... We really wanted to focus on it because it’s true to what I was experiencing. I was in this dark, dark place and this was the season I started climbing out of that space and recovering.”
Jazz addressed comments her fans tend to make about her mental health. The star hopes that this season will illustrate what she's actually dealing with.
“People were making assumptions that my mental health issues and my mental health decline had to do with my surgery and it’s a whole thing that we explore and talk about,” Jazz said, referring to the gender affirming surgery she underwent in June 2018. “It’s really important that people realize that yes, I do have mental health issues. No, it has nothing to do with me being transgender or my transition.”
The new season of “I Am Jazz” that premieres Tuesday, Nov. 30, features important stories focused on the LGBTQ community, including one of Jazz's brothers beginning to date a trans woman and issues the Black trans community faces. The upcoming season also takes viewers into Jazz’s relationship with her weight.
Yes, I do have mental health issues. No, it has nothing to do with me being transgender or my transition.”
“I have gained 100 pounds ... It’s something we discuss a lot; how my food addiction played a role in my weight gain and my mental health,” she said. “There’s just a bunch of different things that we explore that I feel like need to be discussed, because they aren’t talked about enough and so many people struggle with these issues.”
Talking about weight on TV
In many ways “I Am Jazz” is as much about her mom, Jeanette, as it is about Jazz, as many parents have turned to the series as a reference for how to navigate parenting trans kids. Her mom was really nervous diving into these topics on this season, especially with how social media critics and trolls can react.
“I was very concerned about her sharing her weight-loss journey because people are so cruel,” she told TODAY via Zoom. “They are so mean out there and everybody’s so focused on weight and hung up on weight. It can be so destructive.”
One look at any comments section may affirm Jeanette’s worries. Regardless, she is proud of her daughter, who has always been a trailblazer and is continuing to do so with this next chapter of her story.
“I’m so proud of her that she’s able to do that because I don’t know if I’d be able to,” she said. “I’m glad that she did it, but I also worry that when the show comes out ... there’s going to be that negativity and cruelty, but on the flip side, I know there are so many kids her age, especially girls that suffer with eating disorders, whether it’s anorexia or bulimia. She’s very relatable because food addiction is a real thing and so many people suffer from it.”
Over the summer Jazz shared a side-by-side Instagram collage that that showed her before and after her 100-pound weight gain, which she attributes to binge-eating disorder.
“We filmed the makings of that post and it was definitely a vulnerable moment for me,” Jazz said. “Here I am, many, many, many pounds heavier, sharing this with the world. People have already noticed, and I felt like it was important to address it just for myself. ‘Everyone I know, you may have noticed but I’ve gained a lot of weight and this is my reality.’ This is why. These are the issues I’m facing and I just wanted to be really blunt, honest and personal about what I was experiencing.”
What is binge-eating disorder?
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, binge eating disorder is a serious, life-threatening but treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very quickly and to the point of discomfort. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States, according to the organization.
While she hasn’t treated Jazz, Ann Kearney-Cooke treats many patients who suffer from binge-eating disorder.
“It’s when someone eats a large quantity of food usually within a very short period of time, like maybe two hours,” Kearney-Cooke told TODAY. “You eat to the point that you’re uncomfortable and you often feel depressed and disgusted with yourself afterwards. The difference is that people who just eat a lot, they might just eat a lot at each meal, but they’re not binging and feeling out of control for two hours or three hours.”
“She’s addicted to food, and you can’t kick that addiction until you’re ready to and it’s all on her."
Kearney-Cooke explains that despite only becoming a diagnosis a few years ago, binge-eating disorder has been around for a long time.
“There can be medical complications, but also social isolation,” she added. “A lot of people who I treat who have binge-eating disorder, they’re embarrassed, because it’s not only ‘I’m eating too much food,’ but 'I lose complete control of it.' So they often are socially isolated. Many of them do the binge-eating when they’re alone and often it’s to address psychological problems going on underneath.”
Jeanette said that Jazz suffers from an “organic depression” that stems from a chemical imbalance. While the upcoming season tackles her journey with these harrowing subjects, it also documents her family attempts to support her. In a trailer for the upcoming season, tensions seemingly arise when they intervene during one meal.
“It’s all about being supportive and not dictative," Jazz said of her family's reactions to her weight. "It was really hard to watch that trailer because my family really does support me and love me and they want the best for me. They want to see me be happy and healthy and it all comes from a place of love, but they’ve said comments in the past that kind of have been like, that’s not the kind of thing to say. They look at my body and make remarks that aren’t that kind.”
“We try to be supportive and yes, sometimes we’re annoying. We’re like, please don’t order it and then she orders and we’re like why did you do that?" Jeanette explained. “She’s addicted to food, and you can’t kick that addiction until you’re ready to and it’s all on her."
Kearney-Cooke said that it's healthy when people who suffer from binge-eating disorder bring people into their diagnosis "because again, there's terrible shame people feel."
"They feel disgusted with themselves," she said. "Depressed. So letting your family know is healthy. It's like the secret is out so that people can actually help them with it because hiding any behavior is often something we're ashamed of. The other issue is, for us to make changes in our life, we need other people to help and support us."
To other kids, teens and parents who may be navigating similar circumstances, Jazz — who just started her first year at Harvard University — said it's all about being supportive.
"You can be constructive at some points, but it's really just being there helping them make better decisions and allowing them to guide you every step of the way," she said. "Because you have to make the decision for yourself to be healthy and to want to lose weight and to make that impact on yourself."
On what she has learned about herself most through this experience, she said that she is "incredibly resilient."
"I realize and recognize how strong I am," she said. "... I'm proud to be me. I have a TV show. I'm successful. I'm at Harvard. For some reason, there was some sort of disconnect and I went to a dark place. I struggled immensely, but I've come out of that. I'm just proud of my resiliency and how far I've come."