Misconceptions about Bulimia

I read a news report this morning that another celebrity has admitted to having bulimia.

What are you thinking of?

Young starlets, the pressure to be thin, to be perfect. A desire for "control". Fear of womanhood and femininity.

Except it's a he. And the image isn't quite what you would think.

The confession is from former deputy Prime Minister of the UK, and he's nearing 70. He doesn't fit our society's ideas of what a person with bulimia is or looks like. Yet his struggles are still very real.

A response on the news blog of the Birmingham (UK) Post quite captures the continuing stereotypes our culture has about eating disorders and especially bulimia.

Prescott, an old-school political bruiser and somewhat portly gentleman, clearly loved his food, but no-one would think he was bulimic.

The public face of eating disorders tended to be female: Think Princess Diana, Sharon Osbourne or Geri Halliwell. The only other male 'celebrity' who has admitted to battling bulimia is former Coronation Street actor Adam Rickett - but that made sense, given his lean physique.

But given that Prescott's wife claimed she only realised something was wrong when "he refused a fourth helping", it makes you wonder a) what he would've looked like had he not been vomiting after a binge, and b) would he still be alive? Surely that much stress mixed with fats and cholesterol would have resulted in one or two major heart attacks.

There are several problems with this, namely:

  • Bulimia doesn't make you lose weight. Most bulimics are of average* or above-average weight.
  • You're far more likely to have a heart attack and die with bulimia. Vomiting causes the body to lose fluids and electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and chloride. Low potassium can cause arrythmias and cadiac arrest. Next to suicide, it is the leading cause of death in people with eating disorders.
The blog did praise John Prescott's bravery for speaking out (as well they should), though they also raised the question whether this might be a publicity ploy for his forthcoming autobiography. Which is completely valid, if you ask me.

Whether he's looking for publicity or trying to help others by sharing his story, he still did a brave thing.

*I don't like the term "normal" weight for referring to populations. I have my "normal" weight and you have yours, but large groups of people do not have a "normal" weight. Because normal means you have to have an abnormal. So average is a better term, and one that can be defined scientifically.

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fighting_forever said...

I doubt it would be a publicity ploy but it's possible. I just hope that his admission helps destroy some of the misconceptions surrounding eating disorders.

carrie said...

It doesn't really strike me as a publicity stunt either, but even if it was, I still think it's so important that these misconceptions are dismantled.

carrie said...


I love the title of your blog, by the way. Wonderful.

marcella said...

It isn't a publicity stunt as such - the autobiography is already being serialised in the press. They've just got to the bit where he describes his bulimia. There's certainly an argument that politicians shouldn't "reveal all" but given that he has chosen to write an autobiography he could hardly have left the bulimia out.

Personally I think he's done a brave thing which will help other sufferers especially older and or male ones to name their own problems, and I've written to him to tell him! He's come in for a lot of very cruel remarks but I hope that once the dust has settled those who are willing to listen will learn a lot.

Greg Katz said...

I'm glad he decided to come out and tell his story. I don't know if it's in the book, but it would be great for him to disclose how he manages/d the eating disorder.

It's always great when there are role models and goal models who can shorten the learning curve. Every tool that we can put in our health tool box is one step toward greater health and happiness.

carrie said...

I agree- whatever his reason, I think it's so important and brave of him to speak out. He could have omitted it and no one ever would have guessed.

IrishUp said...

Carrie I share your distaste for *normal*. I also dislike average for the same reasons; it means something very specific in statistics, and it has too many connotations in regular conversation. I'm trying to train myself to use "healthy". As in "People suffering from bulimia often appear to be of normal weight, despite the seriousness of their illness".

IrishUp said...

ARRG, I meant to write "People suffering from bulimia often appear to be of HEALTHY weight, despite the seriousness of their illness".
Apparently, my training is still in the early stages.
I shall now provide myself with positive reinforcement *reaching for chocolate*.

carrie said...

I like that, Irish. I shall reach for chocolate with you. I got a bag of Hershey's new "Bliss" chocolates (though don't get me started with the implications of the name) that I got for free with a rebate. They're quite good.


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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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