“Does John Prescott’s admission that he suffered from bulimia while deputy prime minister deserve sympathy, suspicion or ridicule?” asks the Guardian’s Matthew Weaver, introducing a roundup of the British media’s coverage of Prescott’s recent revelation. Unlike Princess Diana, the last famous British bulimic I can recall hearing about all the way over here, Prescott is old, male and fat — triply turning our stereotypical image of a person with an eating disorder on its head. Predictably, this means the coverage includes mockery from those who think the portly politician must not have been trying hard enough at bulimia, as well as endless variations on the theme of, “But … but … eating disorders are for girls!”
While shame is a hallmark of bulimia in general, Prescott notes that his own embarrassment stemmed specifically from the emasculating aspect of having a disorder that’s typically associated with young girls. Of his first visit to a bulimia specialist, Prescott has written, “I turned up and found his waiting room full of young women. I was the only man there. I felt a right twerp.” Former bulimic and professional weirdo Uri Geller, quoted in Weaver’s roundup, puts an even finer point on it: “No one expects a man, especially a successful one, to have an eating disorder. It seems such a weakness.”
But naturally, we’re supposed to expect weakness from girls. (Can you imagine me rolling my eyes?) The stereotypical image of an eating disorder sufferer — a scrawny, attention-seeking teenage girl — makes the problem seem simple enough to solve. You just send a tough guy in to demand that she eat normally and quit barfing, already! But now John Prescott has gone and threatened to wreck that image and reveal something much more complex: that 10 percent of diagnosed bulimics and 20 percent of new cases are men; that a compulsion to throw up your food isn’t just about weight control, and most bulimics are not underweight; that these disorders aren’t restricted to kids who will eventually grow out of it; and that bulimia is not a personal weakness but a dangerous mental illness.
If you really can’t figure out whether that’s something that deserves sympathy, suspicion or ridicule, I don’t want to know you.