The Crown: Diana’s struggle with bulimia – when it happened and what she said about it

The Princess of Wales described the illness as ‘a symptom of what was going on in my marriage’

Joanna Whitehead
Sunday 15 November 2020 08:34 GMT
Princess Diana in 1983
Princess Diana in 1983 ( Photo by Robin Anderson/REX)

The new season of The Crown will depict Princess Diana’s struggle with bulimia.

In the fourth season of Netflix’s hit historical drama, viewers will be introduced to Princess Diana as she meets and marries Prince Charles.

Emma Corrin will portray Princess Diana in the new season, before Elizabeth Debicki takes over the role for the show’s final two seasons.

While Diana’s entry into the royal family may have seemed to many like a fairytale-come-true, behind the scenes she was suffering from an eating disorder that stemmed from low self-esteem and an unhappy marriage.

But, when did it happen and what do we know about it?

When did Diana suffer with bulimia?

In Andrew Morton's 1997 biography Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, the Princess of Wales said: “My husband [Prince Charles] put his hand on my waistline and said: ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?’ and that triggered off something in me. 

"And the Camilla thing … the first time I was measured for my wedding dress, I was 29 inches around the waist. The day I got married, I was 23½ inches. I had shrunk into nothing from February to July.”

What did she say about her illness and how long did it last?

The Princess famously spoke about her struggle with the eating disorder in her landmark interview with journalist Martin Bashir for BBC One’s Panorama in 1995.

Admitting that she had bulimia “for a number of years”, she described it as a “secret disease” and “a symptom of what was going on in my marriage”.

“You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a 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,” she said.

“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,” she said.

Diana cited her unhappy marriage with Prince Charles as a cause of her bulimia ( Photo by Steve Wood/REX )

When asked how often she would purge, Diana replied that it depended on what pressures she faced on a given day.

“I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals, and people were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger: they decided that was the problem - Diana was unstable."

She added that the cause of it was her unhappy marriage to Charles and having to “keeping everything together because we didn’t want to disappoint the public”.

Diana described the condition as an “escape mechanism” which “worked, for me, at that time.”

Bashir asked if her bulimia last two or three years, she replied: “A little bit more than that. But I’m free of it now.”

What did other people say about it?

In 2017, former Buckingham Palace chef, Darren McGrady, told Hello! magazine: “I always questioned why on earth she [Diana] wanted all of this food, any of this food. 

"I was there as a chef, my job was to cook and to prepare food. 

"I wasn’t a psychologist, or a doctor, who could say ‘you shouldn’t be eating all of this’. I knew something wasn’t right. But I didn’t know or understand what bulimia was.”

How has The Crown handled this sensitive topic?

Left Bank Pictures, the production company behind The Crown, said in a statement to The Independent that “producers worked closely with [eating disorder charity] Beat to ensure that their portrayal of Princess Diana’s bulimia in season four was both accurate to the disorder and sensitively handled."

Rebecca Willgress, head of communications at Beat, added in a statement to The Independent that while the organisation was not present on the set of the show, the charity offered guidance on how to depict the late Princess of Wales’ struggle with bulimia in a “sensitive and non-glamourising way”.

“We were consulted by Netflix and Left Bank Pictures during the production,” Ms Willgress said.

“We were not involved on set, but advised on how to portray eating disorders in a sensitive and non-glamourising way, including signposting to appropriate sources of help and providing trigger warnings where needed.”

Bulimia, otherwise known as bulimia nervosa, is a “serious mental illness” that involves a person becoming “caught in a cycle of eating large quantities of food (called bingeing), and then trying to compensate for that overeating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (called purging),” Beat explains.

According to the charity, approximately 45 per cent of people who develop bulimia make a full recovery, while 23 per cent suffer from the condition “chronically”.

To contact Beat, you can call the charity’s helpline on 0808 801 0677, the studentline on 0808 801 0811 and the youthline on 0808 801 0711.

The helplines are open every day of the year, Monday to Friday from 9am to 8pm and on the weekends and on bank holidays from 4pm to 8pm.

You can also contact the charity via its one-to-one web chat by clicking this link.

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