Thursday, 24 April 2008
The face of power in a binge nation
John Prescott has made eating disorders news again by coming out as bulimic. This, of course, is a perfect opportunity for me to lash myself to my favourite look-at-this-damn-issue-flogging horse. Eating disorders need celebrity chic to be news these days, but they don't cease to be a dangerous epidemic when someone famous hasn't just bared their soul in a lucrativebook deal. The thousands of brilliant young, and not so young people who are killed or mentally crippled by bulimia, anorexia, bulimarexia, binge-eating and other disorders every year fail to make regular headlines for one reason only: it's a 'girl's illness.'
This is a deeply feminist issue, of course. Although eating disorders are not, in fact, a 'women's problem' -10% of those afflicted are men and boys - is is a highly feminised disease in western culture, not helped by the fact that women and gay men make up the majority of sufferers, and this has everything to do with how it is handled by the state and press. Much was made of Naomi Wolf's erroneous statistics in 'The Beauty Myth', but she used them to make the very salient point that if an equivalent number of men and boys were suffering -even the real statistics, as the charity Beat "currently believes the number of people receiving treatment for anorexia or bulimia in the UK to be near to 90,000, while many more people have eating disorders undiagnosed, in particular those with bulimia nervosa" -there would be a national public health outcry, rather than a series of intermittent media farts.
Prescott having the disorder strikes a violent, on-air media punch of representation for the thousands of men whose lives are destroyed by the disease, and for that one can be reasonably grateful. Prescott does not merely 'represent a sick society', though. He was actually in power, actually helping to build and shape that society. It stuns me that the effect of Prescott's bulimia nervosa upon his role as a key political agent has barely been questioned. For myself, it was only after winning my 6-year battle with anorexia that I was able to properly engage with political power again, as a radical writer and an activist. This is because you cannot engage effectively with outer, political space when all your energies are being focused on fighting interior, emotional battles.
And this is perhaps the most worrying part of the Prescott affair: the fact that we have just been told that government was until not so long ago partly run by a politician who was deeply affected by a serious, chemically addictive mental illness, but because it's 'a girl's disease' that's somehow unremarkable. Charles Kennedy was only third-party leader and he was eventually forced to step down over his alcoholism, but because it's a a feminised concept, nobody takes bulimia nervosa seriously. In fact, it is one of the most physically dangerous psychoses, with a 5% mortality and 20% permanent relapse rate. But noone has yet questioned whether those years of nightly binges, vomit-swollen cheeks and emotional disturbance affected the former deputy Prime Minister's ability to govern during the years of the Iraq invasion. It's 'a women's disease' - of course it didn't affect his mental robustness, not a gruff old bulldog like Prescott!
All this talk has made me hungry, so I'll go and make dinner and muse on this more. If you, too, see John Prescott in the mirror from time to time, don't hesitate to call this helpline.