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Princess Diana’s bulimia isn’t a children’s story

An excerpt from 'Little People, Big Dreams'

August 11, 2023 - 10:00am

In 1987, I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder. It’s hard to convey just how different things were back then. 

If people had heard of anorexia and bulimia, it tended to be through gossip columns on Karen Carpenter or Lena Zavaroni. Those with “slimmer’s diseases” were regarded as vain and selfish, even among members of the medical profession. Sufferers did not just feel overlooked; if we were discussed at all, it was rarely with any sympathy. 

This is possibly why, when Princess Diana gave her famous speech on eating disorders in 1993, I felt so grateful I could almost cry. It seemed as though it could be a turning point on how sufferers were perceived, and maybe it was. The past three decades have seen dramatic improvements in eating disorder awareness, and an end to sufferers being dismissed — officially, at least — as “middle-class brats”. This has not, however, been matched by a reduction in eating disorder prevalence or severity

We are definitely living in kinder times. I wonder, though, whether all publicity is good publicity, particularly when it falls into the hands of the not-yet-suffering. Princess Diana’s own experiences with bulimia are due to be featured in the latest instalment of the Little People, Big Dreams series of books for children. When I look at the way this will be presented, I can’t help but think it’s a terrible idea. 

“Whenever [the Princess] felt alone,” children will be told, alongside a brightly-coloured artwork of a sad-faced, beautiful princess, “she sought relief by eating all the cakes she could find in the royal kitchen. But that sweet feeling of comfort didn’t last. Once it was gone, she would try to get rid of all the food she had eaten by making herself sick.”

Reading that, I am certain it will inspire some vulnerable, deeply unhappy girls to experiment with bulimia. This is not because some girls are so stupid that they’ll decide sticking their fingers down their throats will make them the queen of everyone’s hearts. This form of contagion is never that straightforward. That does not make it any less destructive. 

In Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters describes the way in which the publicity surrounding the 1994 death of a teenage anorexia sufferer in Hong Kong led to changes in the way other teenagers there manifested symptoms. He links this to the idea of the “symptom pool”:

At another point in history, the population of troubled teenage girls might be drawn to a different unconscious behaviour to express their internal distress. But starting in 1994 a new belief became prominent […] Each newspaper article, magazine essay and television programme that depicted anorexia as a valid and dramatic expression of mental distress for young women made that conclusion self-fulfilling.
- Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us

It is very hard to discuss social contagion without being accused of trivialising or disbelieving girls. Nonetheless, we need to be honest about the way in which narratives of self-harm — even nominally “disgusting” ones, involving vomit and laxatives — offer girls a way of “telling their story”. You can’t choose to be a princess, but you can choose to hurt yourself like one.  

While the Eighties were generally a wasteland for anorexia awareness, there was the odd book about it — Maureen Dunbar’s Catherine, or Deborah Hautzig’s Second Star to the RightFor years, I couldn’t tell anyone about the way Hautzig’s book affected me for fear it would confirm their prejudices about sufferers being stupid and impressionable. I no longer worry about this, but feel that we should think hard about the impact of even seemingly innocuous eating disorder stories. 

Years ago, I was desperate for people to know and understand more about anorexia and bulimia. The truth is, I still am. I just don’t believe a picture book about a tragic princess who was loved by a nation is the way to introduce the topic to girls. I remain grateful to Diana, but that’s not how this story should be told.


Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.

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Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

It is by no means limited to girls; the first people I knew who did this were guys on the high school wrestling team. Fashion models I worked with would pig out on McDonald’s and casually puke in the bathroom before sitting down for hair and makeup. The Romans had vomitoriums.
Some (well, many) people overeat to the point of obesity, some starve themselves, some work out obsessively, some binge and purge. Some of it is a means to cope with deep unhappiness, or, in the case of the wrestlers and models, a need to maintain strict weight requirements. The Romans just wanted to keep the party going.
A children’s book about Diana’s bulimia will certainly inspire experimentation. Why must every human weakness be made public in this way? I understand that those who struggle with emotional or psychological problems need help, but must it be turned into some sort of confessional? I’m troubled by the seeming chic-ness of everyone claiming disorder status (“I’m on the spectrum”; “I’m non-binary”; “I have Celiac”). Where we once suffered in silence, we’re now shouting our troubles across social media, and affecting, thus infecting, others. This is not progress.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

It is by no means limited to girls; the first people I knew who did this were guys on the high school wrestling team. Fashion models I worked with would pig out on McDonald’s and casually puke in the bathroom before sitting down for hair and makeup. The Romans had vomitoriums.
Some (well, many) people overeat to the point of obesity, some starve themselves, some work out obsessively, some binge and purge. Some of it is a means to cope with deep unhappiness, or, in the case of the wrestlers and models, a need to maintain strict weight requirements. The Romans just wanted to keep the party going.
A children’s book about Diana’s bulimia will certainly inspire experimentation. Why must every human weakness be made public in this way? I understand that those who struggle with emotional or psychological problems need help, but must it be turned into some sort of confessional? I’m troubled by the seeming chic-ness of everyone claiming disorder status (“I’m on the spectrum”; “I’m non-binary”; “I have Celiac”). Where we once suffered in silence, we’re now shouting our troubles across social media, and affecting, thus infecting, others. This is not progress.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago

Teenage girls seem to have replaced eating disorders with gender dysphoria these days.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago

Teenage girls seem to have replaced eating disorders with gender dysphoria these days.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

I think it all boils from to age appropriateness. Children don’t need to be exposed to all the social disorders plaguing the world. However, at some point young adults need to be exposed to objective, critical information about all these disorders.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It very much grows out of the Progressive Left’s canon belief that Western culture is itself sick and false. The relentless exposing of children to such disorders ostensibly to help them “cope” with problems they didn’t know they had is in reality a way of promoting pathology as understandable and even in some ways appropriate response to the inevitable alienation of Western life. Of course this requires the Left to step forward and assume the role of saviors.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It very much grows out of the Progressive Left’s canon belief that Western culture is itself sick and false. The relentless exposing of children to such disorders ostensibly to help them “cope” with problems they didn’t know they had is in reality a way of promoting pathology as understandable and even in some ways appropriate response to the inevitable alienation of Western life. Of course this requires the Left to step forward and assume the role of saviors.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

I think it all boils from to age appropriateness. Children don’t need to be exposed to all the social disorders plaguing the world. However, at some point young adults need to be exposed to objective, critical information about all these disorders.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago

In the eighties or nineties, there was an advertising campaign against heroin use. It pictured a skeletal, sick-looking young woman whose health had been destroyed by heroin use. The intended message being heroin kills, but the message received by a significant number of young women was heroin makes you thin.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago

In the eighties or nineties, there was an advertising campaign against heroin use. It pictured a skeletal, sick-looking young woman whose health had been destroyed by heroin use. The intended message being heroin kills, but the message received by a significant number of young women was heroin makes you thin.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
11 months ago

Why would you re-“introduce” bulimia to girls at all? We essentially beat the bulimia and anorexia epidemics in the 90’s. Today, all the girls who would have been anorexic are slicing off their private parts instead.

Actually, maybe starving and barfing was better than doctor-assisted, genital self-mutilation. Never mind, bring on the bulimia books.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
11 months ago

Why would you re-“introduce” bulimia to girls at all? We essentially beat the bulimia and anorexia epidemics in the 90’s. Today, all the girls who would have been anorexic are slicing off their private parts instead.

Actually, maybe starving and barfing was better than doctor-assisted, genital self-mutilation. Never mind, bring on the bulimia books.

Bettina Reiter
Bettina Reiter
11 months ago

I am in the middle of reading Hadley Freedman´s new book: “Good Girls”. She discusses the overlap of transgender craze and anorexia / eating disorder.

Bettina Reiter
Bettina Reiter
11 months ago

I am in the middle of reading Hadley Freedman´s new book: “Good Girls”. She discusses the overlap of transgender craze and anorexia / eating disorder.

Sacha C
Sacha C
10 months ago

Thank you Victoria for your insight and comment.
Do we really think we should make a picture book for children, with princesses to boot, about every single human malady and trauma? Whoever thought that the best thing to do is to fill their heads with all the possibilities of all the things that could possibly go wrong…?!

It’s stupid beyond belief and also highly offensive. Because when certain young people develop eating disorders there won’t be a glamorous title and world adoration to jog it along, just misery, isolation and a solid commitment to deceiving those who love and care for you in order to hide and prolong this terrible disease. Young people with these illnesses don’t generally have the option to be a sad skinny princess that can still do the cover of vogue. Not only is this book sharing unhelpful ideas in an unhelpful way with children far too young, it is showing them the princess version. Anyone who has had or seen eating disorders up close knows that there isn’t really a princess option. Years of treatment, acute units, lack of genuine understanding….

Any other gems in the series? How about a book introducing kids to the suicidal rich and famous? Or how drug addiction took some of the most talented musicians of history..? That could be an audiobook with songs AND overdosing sound effects….

Glyn R
Glyn R
10 months ago
Reply to  Sacha C

It is stupid beyond belief but then we are at the height (hopefully) of the Age of Stupid.

Glyn R
Glyn R
10 months ago
Reply to  Sacha C

It is stupid beyond belief but then we are at the height (hopefully) of the Age of Stupid.

Sacha C
Sacha C
10 months ago

Thank you Victoria for your insight and comment.
Do we really think we should make a picture book for children, with princesses to boot, about every single human malady and trauma? Whoever thought that the best thing to do is to fill their heads with all the possibilities of all the things that could possibly go wrong…?!

It’s stupid beyond belief and also highly offensive. Because when certain young people develop eating disorders there won’t be a glamorous title and world adoration to jog it along, just misery, isolation and a solid commitment to deceiving those who love and care for you in order to hide and prolong this terrible disease. Young people with these illnesses don’t generally have the option to be a sad skinny princess that can still do the cover of vogue. Not only is this book sharing unhelpful ideas in an unhelpful way with children far too young, it is showing them the princess version. Anyone who has had or seen eating disorders up close knows that there isn’t really a princess option. Years of treatment, acute units, lack of genuine understanding….

Any other gems in the series? How about a book introducing kids to the suicidal rich and famous? Or how drug addiction took some of the most talented musicians of history..? That could be an audiobook with songs AND overdosing sound effects….

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago

Some religious sisters in the Middle Ages starved themselves for reasons other than piety, for which they were thoroughly shamed. Perhaps people might need a moral framework?

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago

Some religious sisters in the Middle Ages starved themselves for reasons other than piety, for which they were thoroughly shamed. Perhaps people might need a moral framework?