There’s nothing like celebrity to draw attention to a medical condition.
On July 25, British pop star Dua Lipa tweeted her frustration at United Airlines while traveling with her sister, who has an allergy to nuts: “I can’t believe I’m on an @united flight rn and I told the steward that my sister was severely allergic to nuts and his reply was ‘we’re not a nut-free airline so if she has an EpiPen she might have to use that as we can’t not serve other passengers in your section nuts.’”
Lipa followed this up with another tweet to her 2.4 million followers, asking: “Is it me or is that kinda mental???” The first tweet was liked more than 41,000 times, but also drew a number of replies in which people defended United Airlines and said the airline shouldn’t have to make accommodations just for one person.
However, as those of us allergic to nuts and peanuts know, it is possible to have a reaction from nuts being served on a plane – studies show that about 10 percent of those flying with allergies have experienced one. The experience of this service becomes so uncomfortable – up in the air, far from emergency medical care – that it seems a minor to ask that passengers forgo their peanuts or nuts for a few hours in exchange for another snack.
The flap that Lipa started began trending on Twitter, and was picked by media outlets around the globe, from the U.K.’s The Independent to People, the New York Post, the Daily Mail and more. Besieged by attention, United Airlines apologized to Lipa via Twitter and asked to speak with her privately about what had happened.
As a Dua Lipa fan and someone with a nut-allergy myself, I was thrilled to see this tweet – not because of the frustrating situation described, but because when celebrities speak up about food allergies, we all win. I’ve been thinking about the bigger takeaways from this tweetstorm – including not just the impact of celebrity, but also the importance of famous people without food allergies lending support to this community.
While it is powerful for the food allergy community to have food-allergic celebrity role models and advocates, it can often be as powerful, to have non-allergic individuals speak up on our behalf. For example, when a celebrity like Lipa speaks up on behalf of her sister, she shows to the world that food allergies are serious and need to be treated as such – they’re not just something people with food-allergies exaggerate. Lipa’s actions serve as an example for other non-allergic people: help those of with food allergies to amplify our voice and help us navigate tricky situations.
Unfortunately, a lot of pop culture representations of food allergies poke fun at how truly serious food allergies can be. I had an unfortunate realization of this fact while watching an episode of one of my favorite shows, Broad City, where the plot line is that the two main characters, Abbi and Ilana, go to a fancy restaurant for Abbi’s birthday. Ilana has an allergic reaction because she’s been eating shellfish all night, even though she knows she has an allergy.
The use of food allergies like that propagate the impression to the non-allergic public that food allergies aren’t that serious – that it’s okay to eat your allergen, and that the effects of a severe reaction can even be funny. That’s just not true.
We need non-allergic people to stop making light of serious medical condition that is already very misunderstood, and instead to use their platform to help explain what food allergies are and how they should be handled. This can certainly be done using comedy, but an anaphylactic reaction should never be the punchline.
We need non-allergic people to support us and help make us safe. We need them to be mad when companies refuse to accommodate – like Dua Lipa did for her sister. I remember a situation when my best friend spoke up for me when another friend asked to take a sip of my drink – without my even having to explain why I had to say no, she jumped in and explained the risks of cross-contamination. It made it less awkward for me, and and seemd to come across as more serious and legitimate because it was coming from a well-informed, non-allergic person. You don’t have to be a celebrity to use your voice to help the food-allergy community.
So my main point is: we need non-allergic people on our side and we need them as advocates. After all, most people in the world do not have food allergies, so the better informed they are, the safer we, as food-allergic people, will be in turn. It magnifies our voice, our message and our strength as a community. On behalf of the food allergy community: thank you for leading the way, Dua Lipa!