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Misconceptions about Bulimia

Posted Aug 24 2008 8:05pm
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 ab normal. So average is a better term, and one that can be defined scientifically.
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