Bulimia: The Princess's Private Battle

In the considerable wake of newspaper reports about "the tormented mind of a princess" and allegations about her bulimia, Princess Diana put the matter to rest in a speech to charity workers.  "Ladies and gentlemen, you are very lucky to have your patron here today.  I am supposed to have my head down the loo for most of the day. I am supposed to be dragged off the minute I leave here by men in white coats. If it is all right with you, I thought I would postpone my nervous breakdown to a more appropriate moment," she said.

On her honeymoon, Diana raided the galley of the royal yacht, Britannia, for ice cream. At Windsor Castle, a footman caught her scarfing down an entire steak and kidney pie. During an evening of bridge, friends saw her devour a pound of candy, and at a 1989 charity dinner in Manhattan, a guest watched with alarm while the Princess "hunched over her food and shoveled it in, broke the roll with her teeth, and used her finger for a pusher. It was astonishing."

Hardly what one would expect from a lithe specimen like the Princess of Wales, who at 5'10 weighs in at about 127 lbs. But while she may have a humongous appetite, Diana has weathered two pregnancies, countless state dinners and 16 demanding years in the spotlight while keeping herself trim and, at times, even gaunt. Her secret is not a pretty one. Though only Diana and the therapists who reportedly have treated her know for sure, the Princess is believed to have suffered from bulimia nervosa; the binge-and-purge syndrome that afflicts millions of women across the globe.

Since the palace cold-shoulders inquiries about her condition and few intimates are talking, details about her struggle are elusive. Insiders disagree about when the disease appeared, how severe it was and whether it is under control. Most, however, note that becoming a high-profile royal seems to have set off the bulimia and that marital difficulties aggravated the problem.

The newly engaged Lady Diana Spencer felt she looked too "matronly"

Lady Colin Campbell, author of the best-selling Diana in Private, claims the condition surfaced in 1981, when Diana, an enthusiastic nosher who then weighed about 145, was getting ready for her wedding. "She saw engagement pictures of herself looking heavy, and she promptly went on a diet. She ate practically nothing, but she eventually went on binges. Then she'd make herself sick." After a staff member witnessed one such incident, Lady Diana "was open and amusing about it at first. She said that she'd found this wonderful new way of dieting. But then it became a problem, and she was trapped in a downward spiral," said Campbell.

In his book; Diana: Her True Story, author Andrew Morton asserts that it was life with cold-fish Charles that sparked the disorder. Princess Diana said she knew of his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles through overhearing telephone conversations between the pair, and she blamed the relationship for worsening the bulimia that developed shortly after the royal couple began making their wedding plans.

"Bulimia started the week after we got engaged. My husband put his hand on my waistline and said: ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?’ That triggered off something in me. The first time I made myself sick I was so thrilled. It relieved me of tension. I ate everything I could find and I was as sick as a parrot," said Diana.

This was an indication of what was going on between Charles and Camilla, her bulimia worsened during the honeymoon, and she was shocked to find Prince Charles had brought eight novels to read during their trip together.

Describing her suffering during the honeymoon cruise, Diana said: "The bulimia was appalling, absolutely appalling.  It was rife.  It was four times a day on the yacht.  Anything I could find I would gobble up and be sick and very tired two minutes later."

Penny Junor, Prince Charles's biographer, doesn't deny that Diana suffered from bulimia. Junor absolves the Prince of responsibility, however, and claims that Diana's troubled childhood is the cause of her eating disorder. Even Diana's eldest sister, Sarah, was treated for anorexia in 1977, while dating Prince Charles. Her parents divorced and began an acrimonious custody battle when Diana was 7, and though he was never publicly described as an alcoholic, her father, Earl Spencer, had a drinking problem at times.

The disease is triggered by either the onset or the breakdown of the victim's first major emotional relationship, and usually first sexualized relationship. According to authors of Diana's biography, Charles was her first lover, and the relationship broke down shortly after its onset. By Morton's account, Diana's problem was so pronounced by the late '80s that even her husband noticed. At mealtimes, Charles would sneer, "Is that going to reappear later? What a waste."

According to Morton's book, the Queen blamed Princess Diana's bulimia for the breakup of her marriage to Prince Charles; even members of the royal family accused her of "wasting food". The Princess was seen as unbalanced mentally, therefore, creating a nasty scenario for Prince Charles to cope with. Princess Di's bulimia was a symptom of all the dysfunction swirling around her not the cause of it. She found comfort in eating. However, the shame and guilt which occurred after the binges, led her to purge.

After her first pregnancy till mid 80s, Princess Diana grown so thin that palace watchers and press reports whispered she had anorexia

"It was my escape mechanism, and it worked for me at that time. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day. It gives you a feeling of comfort. Feeling of being no good at anything and failed in every direction; the comforting effects of a binge were fleeting to be replaced with the negative feelings of shame and low self-esteem. The relief from these emotions was found in vomiting," said the Princess.

This was Diana’s silent way to battle the problems in her life. Her life with Charles, according to her, left her suicidally depressed, and she often cut herself or purposely injured herself in attempts to gain attention from her husband, who, she claims, never showed her any emotion.

"I had bulimia for a number of years, and that’s like a secret disease. You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day, some do it more, and it gives you a feeling of comfort. It’s like having a pair of arms around you, but it’s temporarily, temporary. Then, you’re disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again. And it’s a repetitive pattern, which is very destructive to yourself," said the Princess.

Princess Diana refused treatment, insisting that she had no problem. When former flatmate Carolyn Bartholomew learned that her friend's depression and exhaustion might be caused by potassium depletion, she reportedly forced the Princess to seek help by threatening to tell the press. In 1988, Diana began a course of treatment with Maurice Lipsedge, a fashionable physician and consulting psychiatrist at Guy's Hospital in London. By one report, he convinced her that her illness was a symptom of depression and that it could best be countered by attacking the depression itself.

Has the Princess been cured? Morton says Diana "has bouts from time to time when she feels under stress, but that was very rarely. It used to be every day, then it went to once every three weeks in the early '90s, and she was just about clear during her final years."

As painful as it may have been, the Princess' struggle may have had an ironic benefit. Having suffered much, she was able to empathize with those who suffer far more. Whatever happens to her personally, it must be heartening for her to know that thousands of women have gone for help as a result of the publicity.

Reference: People Magazine. Published in 3 August 1992.