Este Haim Is the Jewish Chronic Illness Icon I Needed

Like Este, I live with type 1 diabetes, and her openness about the illness makes me feel truly seen.

While getting dressed for my morning run recently, I was listening to a random YouTube music playlist when I stumbled on Haim’s song “Summer Girl.” It wasn’t the song’s upbeat melody that caught my attention; it was the music video. In it, Este, one of the three Jewish sisters who make up the indie pop band Haim, unabashedly sports a dexcom glucose monitor.

Haim released their third studio album, Women in Music Pt. III, this past summer. After discovering “Summer Girl,” I quickly fell into a spell of listening to nothing but their new music and then their entire discography. Naturally, I then read every Alma article about the sisters and watched every interview where Este references her diabetes.

Among other Jewish stereotypes that I fit into — freckles, curly hair, family from Brooklyn — I have an autoimmune disorder. Like Este, I live with type 1 diabetes, an incurable and unpreventable chronic illness.

Even though at this point in my life I’m comfortable with my chronic illness, I still get excited when I see or meet someone else who shares the disease. Because I don’t know many people who deal with chronic illness in general, especially type 1 diabetes, it’s easy to feel like I’m the only one.

Just like seeing differing sexualities, ethnicities, religions, and other forms of representation in media, Este’s openness about the illness makes me feel truly seen.

Before being diagnosed at 16, my understanding of type 1 was limited to Nick Jonas. I had lost tons of weight, constantly felt like I was about to fall asleep, and never stopped craving water. I wasn’t really sure what was happening to my body. At first, the diagnosis made me feel powerless. It seemed unfair that I had to take all of these extra complicated steps every day, just to make sure I didn’t pass out. Now, almost four years later, managing the illness is just another thing I have to do to maintain my health, like washing my hands or flossing.

In the “Summer Girl” music video, the Haim sisters walk down the Los Angeles streets, stripping off countless layers of clothing until they’re in appropriate summer attire. On Este’s sleeveless right arm, she wears a continuous glucose monitor patch. I recognized it instantly because I wear the same one. Este casually wearing it normalizes the everyday use of medical equipment, because for people like us, it is normal.

Este has been vocal about her health issues since her band rose to fame in 2013. In an interview with Diabetes UK, an organization dedicated to sharing diabetes-related knowledge, Este said, “There are times when I think – ‘Why do I have to put up with this and nobody else has to deal with it?” which basically encapsulates my feelings about having to navigate this incurable illness that sometimes seems to control my life.

On a 2013 tour, Este passed out on stage at UK’s Glastonbury Festival mid-performance. She recently talked about that moment with Marie Claire, saying that even though her blood sugar had dipped dangerously low, when she woke back up backstage, she was determined to go back out and finish the rest of the performance.

At a 2015 concert in Chicago, Este had to take a break because of low blood sugar. She paused her band’s performance to tell the crowd a story about her last doctor’s visit, where she was advised not to go on tour due to her out-of-range glucose numbers. “I looked at him and I said ‘fuck that’,” she said with a Coca-Cola in hand. “Because I love performing and I love doing what I do. And I’m not gonna let something like diabetes stop me, so I’m gonna sit down and drink this fucking Coca-Cola.”

When I was first diagnosed, there were public figures, like Mary Tyler Moore, Vanessa Williams, and Jay Cutler, who had been open about their struggles with type 1, but there wasn’t anyone I personally was a fan of or identified with. Seeing Este, who, like me, is both Jewish and diabetic, living her life as a successful woman who doesn’t let her chronic illness halt her career pushes away any reservations I have that make me nervous about pursuing my own.

Obviously, I know that my illness does not mean I have to minimize my goals, but it can often make them seem harder to reach. Acting as my own pancreas adds an extra layer of stress to everything I do. Having my doctor tell me at 16 that if I don’t take the right amount of medicine one time, my blood sugar could get too low and kill me in a matter of hours is something that worries me constantly. What helps is knowing that at least I’m not the only one.

Along with “Summer Girl”, Haim’s 2020 album includes the beautifully powerful track “Hallelujah,” which partly describes how Este feels about dealing with “diabetic burnout.” The song feels personal to me, especially her verse, where she sings about how even when she’s unmotivated, she knows she can lean on the people around her. Just like the support from her sisters helps her deal with her illness, her openness about it as a public figure helps me feel a bit lighter about mine.

I don’t expect everyone around me to know that it’s dangerous to leave the house without bringing my medicine, or that I frequently have to wake up in the middle of the night to drink orange juice so I won’t pass out. But public awareness keeps me from feeling the need to constantly explain myself. And little nods towards my chronic illness, like the ones Este gives, helps me recognize I’m not alone in this.

Juliet Norman

Juliet Norman (she/her) is a Boston based writer with a background in news and opinion writing about financial equity. When she's not writing, you can find her reading Jane Austen, waitressing, or listening to Vulfpeck.

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