On Amy Winehouse, bulimia and me

I’m pleased – well, not exactly pleased – that the death of Amy Winehouse has finally been linked to her suffering from an eating disorder. I’d always suspected that about her but then, having suffered from an eating disorder myself, I never trust my own opinions. I’ve been through phases of thinking that everyone in the entire world has an eating disorder, while at other times I’ve thought no one has, with all the super-skinny people just being bizarrely self-controlled. It’s hard to make sense of it all when the prevailing ideal for body shapes is always marginally underweight.

Between the releases of Frank and Back To Black, Winehouse clearly lost a dramatic amount of weight but the eating disorder rumours were quite never as newsworthy as those relating to booze and drugs. After all, having anorexia or bulimia is, on a day to day basis, decidedly lacking in drama. It’s far easier to tell someone’s off their face than it is to witness their miserable, brain-numbing hunger. Still, at least in the months before her death the Daily Mail pronounced her “healthy” enough to deserve mockery for having the dreaded “muffin top”.

It’s not as though celebrity magazines aren’t obsessed with the weights of famous women. In an odd way, though, they manage to say everything and absolutely nothing. There are plenty of “body shock” spreads, plenty of “size zero hell” specials, but no one really discusses the practicalities of bulimia when you’re faced with an awards ceremony or a gruelling tour. Perhaps in an effort to be less uncouth it’s always assumed that if a celebrity looks too thin, she must have anorexia or be quietly “wasting away”, as it’s more politely termed. Of course you can’t really tell by looking whether someone has any type of eating disorder or not. Most people who do are not excessively thin. Nonetheless, the celebrity cult of excessive thinness hardly helps when you’re attempting to tease these things out.

In a selfish way I’m glad that it’s bulimia and not anorexia that’s been associated with Winehouse’s death. Anorexia is always everyone’s favourite ED. Bulimia is messier, more common and taken far less seriously (we’ve all heard of bulimics as “failed anorexics”). Old books I have on EDs tend to portray anorexics as literal virgins set against voracious bulimic whores. In truth, many sufferers oscillate between one disorder and the other (I did). During my last in-patient treatment for anorexia I lied to my therapist and the rest of the group about ever having had bulimic phases. I was afraid they’d look down on me.

At least Winehouse was thin, though. When revelations about John Prescott’s bulimia came out, the whole thing was treated with derision, with plenty of comments along the lines of he’s not very good at it, look at the size of him! I imagine these must have made the majority of bulimics, who are not thin, feel terrible. We are incredibly ignorant about bulimia. Pop stars make jokes about it. It’s assumed to be less serious than anorexia, despite the fact that it can kill in a variety of ways. It’s a very lonely illness because by and large you don’t even look ill. You notice the bite marks on your hands and the swollen glands under your jawline but other people don’t.

Much as I don’t wish to take a morbid interest in the private death of a celebrity, it matters to me that bulimia is spoken about honestly, even if – especially if – it makes a death less romantic and ordered. Bulimia offers all the hell of addiction with little of the scope for redemptive dramatization. There won’t ever be a Trainspotting or a Leaving Las Vegas about someone who stuffs her face on cookie dough ice-cream before ramming her fingers down her throat. The best you get is a bit part in a tragi-comic Mike Leigh film. But the damage can be just as great and it’s useful, if saddening, to be reminded of this.


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