Princess Diana wedding dress.

The Crown’s Diana bulimia storyline pulls no punches, and that’s a very good thing

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Princess Diana famously said she had been “crying out for help.” Finally, in this season of Netflix’s The Crown, she is truly being heard.  

Warning: this article contains spoilers for The Crown season four, as well as some details which some readers may find emotionally disturbing.

When Lady Diana Spencer wed Prince Charles Philip Arthur George on 29 July 1981, it was an image of such mythic perfection that, nearly 40 years on, the spectacle has not been bettered.

750 million people tuned in to watch the epic, historic and ostensibly romantic union of the doe-eyed aristocrat and the future king. And that image of Diana on her wedding day – the froth of taffeta; the coquettish smile playing on her lips – is seared into the public imagination.

However, the reality of the situation was that the night before, as the clock ticked down to her big day, the 19-year-old had been kneeling on a Clarence House bathroom, as she put her fingers down her throat and made herself sick after bingeing, already in the throes of an eating disorder that she would live with for the better part of a decade. 

The Crown season four: Emma Corrin as Princess Diana.
The Crown season 4: Emma Corrin as Princess Diana.

On 15 November, the fourth season of The Crown is released which charts the period from 1979 to 1990, covering Diana and Charles’ all-too-brief courtship, wedding and the slow, excruciating disintegration of their union. It also brings Diana’s eating disorder to the screen in painful, heart wrenching detail.

It is an unflinching depiction. The Princess of Wales, played by Emma Corrin, is shown gorging on puddings out of the palace fridge and later making herself sick as she starts to understand the bleak reality of becoming a member of the royal family and marrying Charles.

Corrin did considerable research about eating disorders ahead of her portrayal and according to Variety, championed the scenes dealing with this issue be ‘fleshed out.’

“You can’t do justice to everything she was experiencing without including that,” Corrin told Variety. “It was so symptomatic of the emotional turmoil and all the suppressed emotions that she was feeling.” 

Elsewhere, Corrin commented: “I said very early on that if [Diana’s bulimia] was going to be included, I would like to show it properly and not have it alluded to. I think it’s important if these things are going to be shown then they’re done right.”

“Done right” in this instance means scenes that are uncomfortable to watch and that is wholly to the team’s credit. Corrin and The Crown’s decision to make her bulimia a significant plot point matters because it makes the princess flesh and blood. 

It doesn’t try and skid over her torment or shy away from the raw details of such a horrible illness, and in doing so, honours the trauma of her experience like no other movie, documentary, or biography ever has before.

Central to the Diana narrative that the world has long been familiar with has always been suffering: suffering inside the confines of a cold family; suffering trapped in an often miserable union to a man who was in love with another woman; and suffering through her own psychological hell which included an eating disorder, postnatal depression and self-harm.

We have always known this – Diana herself told us in 1992 when Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story revealed the full extent of her anguish and pain, including that she had suffered from bulimia. (It was only after her death that Morton finally confirmed that extensive interviews with the princess, undertaken via proxy, were the basis for the bombshell book.)

In 2017, a 25th anniversary edition of the book was released and for the first time, we heard Diana herself reveal in detail the extent of her eating disorder.

Of the night before her wedding, she told Morton: “I had a very bad fit of bulimia… I ate everything I could possibly find…I was sick as a parrot that night.”

By their honeymoon “the bulimia was appalling, absolutely appalling,” the princess told Morton.

“It was rife, four times a day on the yacht. Anything I could find I would gobble up and be sick two minutes later.”

However, there is a world of difference between knowing about Diana’s private hell and seeing it recreated in such high-resolution technicolour misery.

Netflix’s The Crown season 4: Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles.
Netflix’s The Crown season 4: Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles.

The importance of that realism, even if it is deeply confronting (and which has seen Netflix put warnings on three episodes) cannot be overestimated. The Crown’s handling of this aspect of Diana’s life is crucial to doing justice to her story. Showing the full, heartbreaking extent of her eating disorder renders her human and real, not just the wounded heroine of a thousand and one tabloid stories.

Diana’s bulimia is not only integral to our understanding of her as a person, but it is integral to understanding her legacy and how profoundly her decision to speak about her illness shifted the conversation about mental health and helped to begin to destigmatise eating disorders.

In 1995, during her infamous interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir, she told him it had been her “secret disease.”

“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.

“It’s like having a pair of arms around you, but it’s 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.

“I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals.”

The impact of her decision to go public was seismic, immediately shifting the public conversation about eating disorders and prompting what experts called the ‘Diana effect.’

In the wake of her revelation, the number of reported cases of bulimia jumped to 60,000 in the year after her admission, according to a 2006 study by the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

For the princess, her eating disorder would be a part of her life for nearly 10 years and it was only later with help from psychiatrist Maurice Lipsedge and psychotherapist Susie Orbach that she conquered the disease.

Nearly four decades since Charles proposed to Diana, her suffering and the bulimia that was a symptom of her wretched situation are being acknowledged in a way that they never have before.

Instead, as perverse as it might sound, having the camera linger on Corrin’s Diana hunched over a toilet, is to finally pay her the respect she has long deserved; to be seen as a person so woefully and inadequately failed by her husband and his family.

All those years ago, Diana told Bashir that she had been “crying out for help.”

Finally, with this season of The Crown, she is being truly heard. 

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity Beat website.

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