Old, fat, male ... and bulimic?

John Prescott's recent revelation reminds us that eating disorders aren't just a female thing.

By Kate Harding

Published April 21, 2008 6:50PM (EDT)

"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.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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