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What ‘The Crown’ got right in portraying Princess Diana’s bulimia: It let her voice be heard

Season 4 of "The Crown" draws on events such as Princess Diana's marriage to Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II's relationship with Margaret Thatcher. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

This year for Halloween, I almost went as Princess Diana, the biker shorts and oversized sweatshirts version. I was only going to an outdoor exercise class in a field, so I figured my short blond hair, peach biker shorts and big Champion sweatshirt, combined with the timeliness of the upcoming season of “The Crown” featuring her, would be perfect. I ended up not dressing up (too cold), but as I’ve watched this season of The Crown, I’ve never felt more in her skin.

For 27 years, I had an eating disorder that included anorexia, bulimia and overexercising. In college, I remember thinking if a celebrity like Diana can keep a secret like that, I can do it and no one will notice. Diana married Charles in 1981, and she first spoke about her eating disorder to biographer Andrew Morton in 1992. That’s 11 years that she suffered in the dark. If no one was even going to reach out to help the princess of Wales, I thought — if that’s how much we’re in denial about this — well, I should be good lying about this one for a while. And I was. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and exist in plain view. At least mine did. And clearly Diana’s did as well, as viewers of this season of “The Crown” are seeing in detail.

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In figuring out how to address her bulimia, Netflix worked with a United Kingdom eating disorder charity, the Beat. The charity advised Netflix to add a trigger warning at the beginning of certain episodes. And the actress playing Diana, Emma Corrin, championed for the bulimia scenes to be more developed, so that Diana’s voice could be heard. I want to amplify that voice: You are not alone. You deserve help.

Watching the past seasons of show, I have been sympathetic to Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth, and still am, but the entire family is one huge trigger for Diana — the loneliness, the boredom, the loss of control — and bingeing and purging are quite the time killers and givers of control.

Seeing her alone in Buckingham Palace, feeling completely out of place and unaccepted, sent me right back to college, when — overwhelmed by a campus 10 times the size of my hometown, J. Crew-outfitted classmates and a Greek scene that confounded and refused me — I sought the only levers of control I could find. I studied and studied and studied. I exercised twice a day, and I knew the location of every toilet on the Indiana University campus.

In that Gothic student union, I’d run the faucet and throw up in the bathroom at the top of the tower, hoping no one would hear me. I bet Diana knew all the palace toilets. My sophomore year, down 15 pounds, and grades way up, I met a boy and found a whole group of friends. And you can bet I gave plenty of credit to my eating disorder for allowing me to finally fit in. He called me his “little minx” and loved the way his sweatshirts swallowed me up. There was no going back now. My eating disorder had given me acceptance, love and safety. I couldn’t give it up now. I even won some exercise marathon fundraiser held in the gym on campus, earning me a half-jokey title as “Ms. IU Fit.”

When my boyfriend introduced me to his mom, that’s the anecdote he told. He didn’t tell her about my journalism, or my sense of humor or the fact I was from a teeny tiny town. Nope, I was already being defined by my size. (I think the boyfriend just thought it was hilarious, that I would grapevine and lift my knees for two hours on a Saturday night, but for me, that’s who I’d become.)

I think of that title when I watch Diana’s coming out on the world stage. Everyone had something to say about how she looked. Once her beauty became something people shouted about on the streets, the pressure to stay that thin only glazed over the wound and kept it in place.

As ‘The Crown’ tackles recent history with Princess Diana, the show hits a nerve

The producers of “The Crown” have done this part justice. The lonely nights, the sneaking, the glow of the fridge, the raw ugliness and the pure exhaustion. It’s hard to watch, but it’s one of the best portrayals I’ve seen, and believe you me, I’ve been watching for them.

Everyone’s tacit approval of her beauty, despite her pain, angers and saddens me. We all saw this. We read the People magazine stories about it. We cheered her on.

I’m in my third year of recovery and have worried this might be too hard to watch, might make me miss my too-skinny days. But Corrin captures the prison/security blanket of an eating disorder so well that it give me hope they’ll show Diana coming out of it. And it inspires me to keep writing about my eating disorder, to keep bringing my experience into the discussion when the topic comes up, to make it less awkward to talk about.

I’m 48. That’s not the face usually associated with an eating disorder. I grew up lower-middle class, out in the sticks. I wasn’t a gymnast or a dancer. But I got the message we all did growing up in the Jane Fonda ’80s, the SnackWell ’90s and the Ally McBeal 2000s. Thin is in. The lesser version of you is the better version of you. Exercise is always a good thing — just ask your doctor. That’s finally starting to change, but it will take more than a few body-positive Instagram accounts and plus-size models to change that. The fact that plus-sized is still the term (plus what, exactly?) shows how long we have to go. But I’m willing to push the issue. And I’m grateful “The Crown” hasn’t shied away from it.

I hadn’t cried watching this season until Episode 6, when Princess Margaret (and it’s always Margot who gets me) answered what would happen if Princess Diana didn’t finally bend to the customs of the royal family: “She’ll break,” Margaret says with finality. But you know what, she didn’t break. She recovered, and just when she was her strongest, she was broken — not by them, not by the eating disorder, but by our insatiable appetite to consume her. The irony.

We don’t get to see what Princess Diana would do in full recovery. So I can only tell you that it is possible. Even if you fight (and sometimes give into) your eating disorder for decades, like I did, recovery can happen. We have to keep talking about our obsession with a “healthy body” being defined by what it looks like. I thank “The Crown” for continuing the conversation, I know I needed to hear it.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Eating Disorders Association screening tool, toll-free National Eating Disorders Helpline and 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Amanda Long is a writer and massage therapist in Falls Church, Va.

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