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.


  1. I'd say the principle of ignoring politicians' private lives should hold even when they include elements that could affect their work. Stigmatizing mental illness in politicians won't stop them being bulemic, depressed, paranoid, and so on. It'll just make them ever more careful to hide their problems - meaning they won't get support.
    Can't we crucify Prescott for all the bad decisions he made, and not try to second-guess what led him there?

  2. I really liked this piece, Laurie :) Thanks for writing and sharing. Glad you're doing so well.


    Kylie xx

  3. I'm interested to see where you got the 5% mortality rate statistic for bulimia nervosa-- in my experience the reports are notoriously vague about bulimia stats over anorexia ones (not particularly comforting)-- I've seen the 5% for anorexia, but rates as low as 0.5 for bulimia, though the difference might be factoring in timescale and whether suicide was included as a cause of death.

    As for Prescott-- I think it is extraordinarily brave of him to come out, the disease is definitely feminised in the media and elsewhere, and that has a devastating impact simply in terms of underdiagnosis of eating disorders in men by health professionals. On the other hand, I'm not sure that completely defining Prescott and his actions by his disease is a useful thing to do. Pathologizing his behaviour is a slippery slope, and it's difficult to make generalisations when we don't really know what came first, the 'bulimic behaviours' that you gesture at, or the bulimia.

  4. This is because John Prescott is everything every eating disordered person is frightened that they are: grotesque, violent, out-of-control, self-indulgent (think two jags), saddled with enormous responsibilities that they did not earn, and, as if to symbolise it all, obese.

    This disgusts me. You call yourself a feminist and an ally to the EDed and then post something like this. You seem to imply that he DESERVES his eating disorder because he IS fat and disgusting. How about a bit of "fat is not disgusting"?

  5. LT -I'm not at all implying that fat is disgusting. I'd say stop seeing red and read it properly, but if my article has caused more than one person to jump to that conclusion, then I've written it badly and made my point badly and I'll go and fix that directly after class.

  6. The sentence I have already quoted states that obesity is symbolic of being "grotesque, violent, out-of-control, self-indulgent". I really can't see what you intended to say with that if it was not an expression of anti-fat sentiment. I await your changes and clarifications with interest.

  7. "I'd say stop seeing red and read it properly"

    People reading things differently to the way you intended does NOT mean they are shit at comprehending, it means it was written in a way that is ambiguous. That doesn't mean you are a bad writer or that your readers are bad readers, it is just something that happens when people communicate.

    LT, you might want to read the comments here and know that you weren't just seeing red or being stupid.

  8. LT, MS: On my first reading I interpreted Penny's meaning as culturally rather than personally judgemental.

    ...everything every eating disordered person is frightened that they are... describes the internal judgement system of a person suffering an eating disorder. I was under the impression that it goes without saying, certainly in the enlightened circles which pass through this weblog, that those suffering from (broadly) image insecurity are subject to the damaging ideals propagated by their cultures. I thought it eminently clear that Penny was adopting this cultural focalisation rather than standing in individual judgement over the smorgasbord of variously pejorative and ambiguous cultural facets she listed.

    Penny does, perhaps, miss the point by attacking Prescott for holding office with mental illness (as Dan O'H has pointed out above), but the thrust of this article is obviously against her argued establishment belittlement of so-perceived "girls' ilnesses". Despite its in places misjudged angle, and usual polemic hyperbole, her non-judgement of obesity in the contentious sentence is very recognisable.

  9. Thanks James for clarifying this. I'd like to make it clear that 'grotesque, violent, out-of-control, self-indulgent' weren't intended to be targeted at Prescott's weight - merely that these are political qualities which Prescott has which symbolise what many ED sufferers feel on a personal level.

    By using those words, I wanted to make it clear that Prescott's POLITICAL 'grotesquery...etc' is of far greater significance than his personal or physical qualities, because he is in office. I made no cheap gags, and I think I actually mentioned Prescott's weight only once, and in passing, in this article.

    Yes, I think John Prescott is a politically and semiologically problematic figure, but not because he is fat - because he is selfish, pandering, violent, temperish, childish.

  10. I think you left "obese" out of your summary of adjectives that have nothing to do with his weight...

    "I think I actually mentioned Prescott's weight only once, and in passing, in this article."

    From article: "incidentally but as if to symbolise it all, obese."


  11. You suggest that bulimia wouldn't be a cause for resignation, whilst other mental illnesses or addictions would - but isn't that precisely why Prescott didn't come out about this whilst in office (along with personal shame - and the two are obviously linked)?Because, I think if he had, his resignation would have been forced.

    Forced but not definately necessary (and the same applies to alcoholism and other addictions). I think it depands upon the person maybe - You say you couldn't engage politically properly untial overcoming your personal demons, and |I believe you, but for me, my ed and how I feel about myself generally is caught up completely with my political views. The more ill I am the more political I become, and political and professional frustration aggrevates my illness just as personal unhappiness does - I don't separate very well.

    But then, I've had an ed as long as I can remember, have not recovered and probably never will, so I have to see it as functional. I'm not saying you're wrong - just that what you've found to be the case doesn't apply to everyone with eds - not least because you've been strong enough to achieve recovery. It is possible to live, work, engage, achieve things whilst still being very much bulimic.


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