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10 December 2009

Prescott on bulimia

Why the former deputy prime minister didn't reveal his condition in office

By Sophie Elmhirst

For most of the two hours we spent in John Prescott’s office in Westminster, he talked energetically about politics: Blair, Brown, Bush, Iraq, climate change, the Murdochs. He was on fierce, bombastic form. But, towards the end, we briefly discussed a more personal side of his life. Last year, when Prescott admitted in his autobiography that he had suffered from bulimia, the press and public seemed astonished. Bulimia is usually associated with bony models or neurotic teenagers — not 70-year-old Labour politicians.

“Most people have got me down as a bloated pig,” he said when we spoke, conscious of how his image seemed at odds with the perception of bulimia as the disease of the thin. But his appearance masked a serious disorder that ultimately needed medical treatment. He reflects now that his revelation was treated relatively respectfully by the press — they wrote about it as “a serious subject”, which, given his usual treatment by journalists, was a change. But he noted that the reaction would have been very different if he’d spoken about his condition while still deputy PM:

It was happening in government. If I’d said it in government, the press would immediately have gone round saying, “Can he be in that job then? He’s over-stressed, he can’t do it.”

It’s an unwitting reference to the rumour mill that surrounded Gordon Brown earlier in the year as right-wing bloggers fuelled speculation that the Prime Minister was taking antidepressants — a story that took off when Andrew Marr asked him the question on his TV show. The media, as Prescott infers, are quick to pronounce on someone being unfit for office.

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As it was, he managed to keep his condition a secret, escaping interrogation and calls for his head (on this score, at least). But his awareness of his body and how he is perceived is still with him: he describes himself as we speak as “tubby and fatty”, talks about how TV cameras can change the way you look, and sympathises with other sufferers. Many people who suffer from eating disorders struggle to admit it to themselves, let alone to a nation. Prescott’s openness is surprising, but also genuinely impressive.

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