Cynics will write off New York Democratic mayoral candidate Christine Quinn’s bulimia confession — in her forthcoming memoir and previewed in the New York Times on Tuesday — as a shameless bid to soften her image and appeal to women voters. I’m torn on this issue. On the one hand, it’s an insult to women to suggest our votes can be bought like that, especially when we have legitimate reasons to doubt Quinn as an ally. On the other hand, I can’t help but approve of a woman who brings her eating disorder to the national political stage.
This is probably, in part, a side effect of the excitement of having a female contender for a major chief-executive office. Although Quinn’s gender and sexuality stand out among politicians, her eating disorder is not rare among women. One in 50 western women between 15 and 24 years old is bulimic, according to the U.S. News and World Report, and that’s not counting all the sub-clinical, but no less miserable, binge-eaters and crash-dieters.
It's so prevalent it’s hard to find an interviewer who can’t relate and, as a result, eating disorder confessions often beget eating disorder confessions. Katie Couric revealed her college-aged bout of bulimia publicly for the first time this year, while interviewing recovering bulimic Demi Lovato on her talk show. “I kind of hesitated to even bring it up,” Couric admitted to the Associated Press after the taping. “But I felt that if I expect people on my show to be honest, then, when relevant, I owe it to people watching to be honest myself.” The Times reporter who interviewed Quinn about her bulimia followed up the article with a blog post about her own history with anorexia.
Men suffer too, in increasing numbers, and it is even harder for them to get help. After leaving office in 2007, Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister John Prescott confessed to privately struggling with bulimia for decades. He never told anyone “out of shame, or embarrassment,” he wrote. “People normally associate it with young women, anorexic girls, models trying to keep their weight down, or women in stressful situations, like Princess Diana.”
As women accept more important appointments than princess, while receiving roughly the same media scrutiny, it’s logical that more politicians have eating disorders. I would bet the half-eaten bag of chocolate chips hidden in the back of my freezer that the bathrooms on Capitol Hill have already seen their share of bulimic relapses. Campaigning for vice president, Sarah Palin was rumored to have gotten a little weird about food, though she has since retreated into the realm of TV personalities, among whom eating disorders are practically mandatory — and fuel for their confessional interviews or diet/fitness books. (Palin is reportedly at work on the latter.)
But do these confessions have a place in politics? For celebrities, eating disorders can be used to drum up sympathetic press while pushing back on the pressures of their industry. Politicians usually save such confessions for the radioactive stories that could become weaponized in the hands of the opposition. Bulimia, which is not illegal, not sexual, and victimizes no one but one’s self, almost seems too innocent to “confess,” in the political sense. (The very cynical person would note that Quinn’s bulimia confession overshadowed her alcoholism confession.) Politicker reported that Quinn’s Barnard lecture and Q&A on the topic “felt like a talk show confession,” and Quinn told the Times the revelation “feels like an oddly nonpolitical thing.”
Unless you consider destigmatizing a kind of politics. For something evidently so common, bulimia carries an outsize aura of shame. “I’m embarrassed about it now still,” Quinn told the Times. “I wish I could say I wasn’t.” Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski managed to write an entire book about her exercise bulimia, Obsessed, without overcoming her humiliation about her eating disorder. “The subject is still so embarrassing for me, but I am just hoping that people will read this book and, if they have a problem, seek help,” Brzezinski told More magazine in a promotional interview for the book. The exception is writer Cat Marnell, who is proudly bulimic, among other things. She told Page Six magazine that knowing how to purge is “part of being a woman.”
But it would probably be better for women if it weren’t. Explaining why she is willing to deal with the discomfort induced by talking about her food obsession, Brzezinski said she hopes to inspire others to deal with it earlier, because it’s a waste of time. “I never want my daughters to spend so much of their lives consumed by this,” she said. (To this, I too can relate: I only abandoned my teenage mission to look like Rachel Bilson when the restrictive diet it required — interspersed with gagillion-calorie binges, naturally — left me too lightheaded to get through finals.) For Brzezinski, “getting better” means placing a bet on a future that relies more on one’s brain than one’s BMI.
It’s a therapeutic thought, but it complicates our admiration for the powerful woman who bravely shares her story, as they say. If the problem with eating disorders is that they are a first-world distraction that disproportionately preoccupies women, what good does it do to keep talking about them? Is this what they meant by the personal is political? Or is every minute women spend talking about Our Eating Disorders a minute not spent talking about how messed up it is that House found time to vote to repeal Obamacare again? Is it good for other women to see women in power opening up about issues so closely tied to feminine identity? Or is it better for women to see women in power not giving a damn about them?
My fantasy response to these questions would come from Hillary Clinton. In my imagination, she would laugh at the suggestion that she might divert any brainpower to something as unintellectual and inconsequential as her weight. She could not have survived this long otherwise. But who knows? Maybe no one is immune to being called old and fat. At any rate, I don’t expect to get any answers from her memoir, due in 2014. It will mostly be about foreign policy.