Each year as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, writers share their experiences in Digital Spy of how entertainment can be part of the conversation around mental illness and associated conditions.
One of the most difficult parts of living with an eating disorder is the sense of isolation. As I’ve grown older and bulimia has moved from something in my present to something in my past, I’ve found it easier to talk about – and so have many of my friends. The painful irony is that so many people are privately struggling with bulimia and other eating disorders, but the shame means that we rarely discuss it.
I wish that season four of The Crown had aired when I was 18. The portrayal of Princess Diana’s eating disorder is not perfect, but it is the best I’ve seen in popular media so far. As someone who struggled with eating disorders for five years between 2014 and 2019, the series finally gave me the bulimia representation I needed as a teenager.
The series is the first to introduce Diana, played by Emma Corrin. It charts her journey from a teenager meeting Prince Charles for the first time, to a wife and mother in her twenties. Diana is unhappy, and one of the things that results from this unhappiness with herself and her life is an eating disorder – bulimia.
We watch the princess, who is already slim, begin to hate her body and life. She binges food to deal with negative feelings and then throws it up in pristine bathrooms. One of the main reasons she does this is because of the helplessness and lack of control she feels – something many people with eating disorders can relate to.
This is an important step in representation. In the past, many young women with eating disorders have been portrayed as solely concerned about their appearance. In reality, bulimia is often tied to feelings of anxiety or depression and used as a way to regain control of some part of the person’s life. The complex reasons for Diana’s illness are tackled well and reflect the experience of many people who have dealt with it.
Although a few minutes of representation on The Crown can’t break down centuries of stigma, it is still important. Seeing someone else go through your private struggles makes them seem less shameful and daunting. The choice to include more graphic scenes of Diana retching over a toilet is difficult to watch but lets people suffering from the illness feel seen.
Although The Crown has fictional elements, the fact that the real Princess Diana had bulimia makes the representation even more powerful. Diana has been held up by generations as the epitome of kindness, grace, and beauty. The fact that someone so seemingly perfect struggled with the same issues as people like me is enormously comforting.
Both Corrin and the show’s creator, Peter Morgan, spoke of the importance of portraying Diana’s eating disorder: not only to help those currently struggling, but to honour’s Diana’s memory and complex legacy. This is in stark contrast to some of the other portrayals of bulimia that have been found across the television.
In Glee and Gossip Girl, characters become bulimic for plot points before magically being cured seemingly with no professional help or therapy. Even in beloved shows like Friends or New Girl, being fat in the past and then suddenly thin is considered funny. The actors who play Monica and Schmitt don fat suits for flashbacks before reverting to their thin personas as a comedic gag. Although I love all four of these shows, they leave a knot in the stomach of viewers who cannot remove their illnesses like a costume when the drama is over.
Diana is pretty, sociable, well-liked – and still has bulimia. It doesn’t magically disappear when it’s no longer convenient to the plot, but lingers in the background uncomfortably – just like it does in real life. She isn’t defined by her eating disorder or portrayed as hysterical or self-obsessed, but has a complex and evolving personality.
There is a reason why The Crown is so loved by people across the generations. It shows the flaws of a family who have invested so much effort into seeming perfect, comforting those who share these flaws. If I had seen this sensitive and accurate portrayal of bulimia four years ago, I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my struggles with the disease. I hope that people currently dealing with eating issues can watch The Crown and realise that it isn’t their fault, and they are not alone.
The Crown is available to stream on Netflix.
Beat (www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk) is a charity which raises awareness and understanding of eating disorders, and supports those affected by them. Beat now has a one-to-one secure messaging service. Its phone helpline for those aged 18 and over is 0808 801 0677, and there's also a dedicated Youthline for those under 18 – 0808 801 0711.
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