Princess says victims suffer 'a spiral of secret despair': Celia Hall reports on an impassioned personal appeal for greater public understanding

THE Princess of Wales spoke yesterday of the 'shameful secret' of having an eating disorder and the spiral of despair that accompanies it.

While making no direct reference to herself and to reports that she has suffered from bulimia nervosa, she spoke with fervour. Her statements to an international conference in London on eating disorders were immediately interpreted as reflections on her own childhood and marriage, and the reported lack of support she received in tackling her problems.

The Princess told the conference, Eating Disorders '93, that the quest for perfection could leave an individual gasping for breath. She appealed for the disease to be taken seriously and not as expressions of vanity.

'From early childhood many have felt they were expected to be perfect but didn't feel they had the right to express their true feelings to those around them - feelings of guilt, of self-revulsion and low personal esteem, creating in them a compulsion to dissolve like a Disprin and disappear.

'The illness they developed became their shameful friend. By focusing their energies on controlling their bodies, they had found a refuge from having to face the more painful issues at the centre of their lives. A way of coping, albeit destructively and pointlessly, but a way of coping with a situation they were finding unbearable - an expression of how they felt about themselves and the life they were living,' she said.

'Eating disorders, whether it be anorexia or bulimia, show how individuals can turn the nourishment of the body into a painful attack on themselves, and they have at the core a far deeper problem than mere vanity.'

The Princess is president of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, co-organiser of the conference, which has its own unit for anorexic children.

She said that it was essential to reach children with eating disorders before it was too late, and reminded the audience that some children died as a result.

'Yet all of us can help stop the seeds of this disease developing. As parents, teachers, family and friends, we have an obligation to care for our children.

'To encourage and guide, to nourish and nurture, and to listen with love to their needs in ways which clearly show our children that we value them. They in their turn will then learn how to value themselves.

'With greater awareness and more information, these people, who are locked into a spiral of secret despair, can be reached before the disease takes over their lives. The longer it is before help reaches them the greater the demand on limited resources and the less likely it is that they will fully recover.

'I am certain the ultimate solution lies within the individual. But with the help and patient nurturing given by you the professionals, family and friends, people suffering from eating disorders can find a better way of coping with their lives by learning to deal with their problems directly, in a safe and supportive environment,' the Princess said.

Afterwards, experts attending the conference agreed that her statements will help in the recognition of eating disorders.

Wendy Sharman, a sister at the eating disorders unit at Great Ormond Street, said the Princess had visited the unit several times. 'It helps to have a person of her significance at a conference like this.'

Dr Dora Black, psychiatrist at the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, and specialist in eating disorders, said that the speech had been both interesting and helpful.

Dr Janet Treasure, of the Maudsley Hospital, south London, said on the ITN lunchtime news: 'It was a very clear speech and had a lot of insight into the condition.'