Mental Health Literature: Spencer

Disclaimer: this post discusses eating disorders, particularly bulimia and the binge-purge cycle. It also contains spoilers for the movie, Spencer, and the fourth season of The Crown.

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Last year, fans of The Crown were introduced to Princess Diana and her tumultuous experience of living with the British Royal Family and its toll on her mental health, particularly with the development of the eating disorder: bulimia. Now, her story has been brought to the big screen in the release of Spencer.

Spencer depicts the experience of Princess Diana over the course of three days: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day; the year before her public separation from Prince Charles. It is a biopic, but not in the traditional sense. It is not factually correct and examines certain things more closely than others. This story conveys her battle with her mental health difficulties and bulimia with a closer lens. Now, as always, when portraying something like an eating disorder, you have to be sensitive and careful, but you also can’t shy away, at least in my opinion, from the experience of it. Time and time again, particularly as I grew up, the media pushed the glorification and romanticism of eating disorders. The one I often reference is Cassie from Skins. You know, that this is an illness that is ethereal and beautiful and quirky and angelic. It is pushed within pro-eating disorder communities as a thing to strive to, and if you have an eating disorder then you are special, delicate, and beautiful for it. So, you know, there is a line, and it is one that the media is gradually learning to depict on TV and film in a serious, safer, and more realistic way.

Before I go any further in this post, I am going to preface that these words are coming from someone who viewed the film through a lens of lived experience of an eating disorder that featured a binge-purge cycle, and through the lens of someone who is in recovery and feels far and safe enough in management of my recovery that I can watch Spencer without feeling the triggering effects of an eating disorder. So, my thoughts and experiences may be different to those who are experiencing active symptoms, especially one such as bulimia.

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Recently, there has been some criticism of Spencer, with warnings of its graphic depiction of eating disorders and specific mentions of weight etc., with audience members perhaps being blind-sighted by the lack of information provided about the inclusion of eating disorder behaviours as there was no mention in the trailer. However, I believe Pablo Larraín, the film’s director, and Steven Knight, the film’s writer, went in with the impression that everyone was aware of Diana’s experience with bulimia, as it was really no secret. She spoke about her history with it in an interview with Martin Bashir, and it was also shown throughout in season four of The Crown. But, yes, I will agree that Larraín left a lot to be answered from the trailers, as I wasn’t entirely sure what the film would be about. But, I did have an understanding that it may include eating disorder content, because it was about Diana, and appeared to be a uncomfortable, absurdist style of film. Perhaps, I’m being naive about the situation. That being said, I read these criticisms before I went into the cinema and was then made aware as a result.

As the lights went down, and the upcoming cinema trailers finished, I was presented with the BBFC age rating. It was rated a 12 with a warning label that there were eating disorder references. This was something that I rarely saw with eating disorder depictions in TV and movies before this. Usually you enter the viewing with an understanding that there were language warnings, gore etc., depending on the film. So, this was refreshing. But, yes, it would have been nice for people to receive an idea of the eating disorder content prior to the purchase of a movie ticket; maybe a written warning in the trailer?

I don’t want to dwell on the ins and outs of the BBFC age rating screen, as I want to talk about the film.

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As mentioned, I had already seen an earlier depiction of Diana’s experience of bulimia in The Crown, which was one I found to be honest and open; a portrayal that was effective and realistic. And, I have the lived experience so I do have an understanding of what it is like, despite the fact that I am nowhere close to royalty, therefore can’t relate to Diana’s experience in that way, but I could base my eating disorder triggers and developments on her eating disorder triggers and development. Because, most, if not all, eating disorders come from a similar place: a need for stability or control. For Diana, she was in a difficult position within the royal family, as she felt constrained and trapped in their rules, regulations, and traditions, as well being extremely unhappy in a marriage she desperately wanted out of; a marriage where there constant infidelities and disharmony. Diana appeared to be in a position where she felt unsupported and out of control, so, like many others, this was her coping strategy. It was my coping strategy. Because she had no other. Because I had no other.

Throughout Spencer, these feelings are explored in an absurdist manner, with the film having a surreal aspect to it. As a result, it makes you feel unsettled. Which, I found to be an interesting yet appropriate way to describe the discomfort and distress featured within an eating disorder. You get this idea of how it feels for someone with an eating disorder to try to regain control over their life with the control they believe they are gaining not being beneficial, true, or a provision of solace. There are numerous times in the film where we see Diana feel out of control and unstable, leading to a purge. It is portrayed as her way of feeling in control of the situation, trying to regain the power and stability she is struggling with. I found that this focus, this strange and disturbing and overwhelming illustration of control and eating disorders, to be a great way to show that part of eating disorders that do get missed out. Because, eating disorders for many are about control. And, despite the control we think we have, we really don’t have any, and all our control and ownership has been handed to the eating disorder. You feel like you are clutching at straws to feel stable, and it’s, frankly, a mess. Your life becomes a whole attempt at trying to feel in control when simultaneously not getting any of that control.

Diana’s constant self-harming and erratic behaviour of running out in the cold night to cross a farm to get to her derelict family home, running out in front of guns, cutting herself very quickly with wire cutters, dressing differently to what the royal traditions dictate … it’s all attempts at trying to feel in control, trying to feel like you are present and grounded, like you have some stability, that you have power over the situation. A situation that is distressing and uncomfortable; one, which you are not sure how to handle, because you haven’t learned or been taught how to cope or handle safely. I felt uncomfortable, and I know it was because I related and was facing something that I experienced. I was able to distance myself accordingly, but it still left feelings of discomfort because I knew what was going on.

Additionally, she is rude and irritable. She is not what Diana was portrayed in the public eye. This is not to say that Diana was secretly a nasty person, because from several accounts, she appeared to be a very lovely person. And, we can’t say for certain what she was really like. However, the assumption, in the film, that she is nasty and, sometimes, self involved, demonstrates another horrible side of an eating disorder: the irritability, the mood swings, the rudeness, the selfishness, the hatred, the anger, the erraticness, the starved mind. During my experience, I was angry, irritable, snappy, and constantly in defence mode. I was not firing on all cylinders, because I was not looking after myself, so I was sometimes impulsive and easily upset and angered. Some may watch this and think this is not the Diana they have been shown before, and, while that may be true, it is the stark reality of a person dealing with an eating disorder.

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Spencer does have scenes of purging behaviours that are quite gross and upfront, so, yes, I can understand that being an issue, but it’s not something that is the focus of the eating disorder portrayal. What I liked is that we don’t get the actual physicalness of bulimia constantly thrown at us, which is often the focus of eating disorder depictions, where we get behaviours shown constantly and graphically. Instead, we get a closer inspection of the psychological and emotional signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, as well as the various reactions from others, particularly during a time where mental illness carries a negative stigma, even more so than it does now, especially in a culture such as the royal family, where mental illness is scandal and emotion is not so easily shared or encouraged. So, it’s speculated that Diana would not have received the support she desperately needed.

In this film, we get moments where Diana’s anxiety concerning food and weight is apparent. She is weighed at the start in front of Major Alistair Gregory, who is in charge of looking after the family over the Christmas period at Sandringham, which is said to be a tradition, a bit of fun, with the idea being that if you put on weight after then you must have enjoyed yourself. This is a point in the film where we see Diana’s anxiety over finding out her weight, as well as having it recorded for others to see. For people with an eating disorder, it can be incredibly upsetting to be weighed, as we don’t want to know what we weigh, while also obsessed with the numbers, because then it’s all we think about. Having others see your weight can illicit feelings of shame and embarrassment because your eating disorder may make you think that people are disappointed and disgusted in you at your weight, with the attempts there to confirm you are not doing all you can to please your eating disorder. Additionally, there may be shame and anxiety that people may comment on your weight loss or fluctuating weight, threatening the break up of your relationship with the eating disorder, or making you feel guilty and ashamed of your behaviours, because there is a level of understanding that we know what we are doing is not okay. There is stark difference in how they view something like the act of being weighed, with what the royal families see as “a bit of fun” while Diana sees it as anxiety-inducing experience that will fill her with guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Particularly as she would be weighed again a few days later, with the results leading to further distress and perhaps an increase of eating disorder behaviours. There are also consistent remarks made towards her weight as the seamstresses and dressers have had to take in her outfits. It is made clear that Diana is uncomfortable with these remarks, as it further indicates she is embarrassed and ashamed, as she knows the people around her know. There are detrimental remarks made towards her binging and purging, which more create embarrassment and shame, further highlighting just how much stigma and shame there is around eating disorders, particularly one like bulimia.

We see Diana required to attend family meals and having to excuse herself several times to regain her composure or carry out purging behaviours to feel in control in a situation where she is not. She has eyes on her constantly during the meals such as Prince Charles and the Queen, as they watch her eat, or check if she will eat at all. And, this highlights another aspect of eating disorders: how people react. We see a range of approaches and attitudes towards Diana and her eating disorder. Prince Charles and the ilk view her bulimia as a stain on the family image. They want it to stop not for Diana’s sake, but for the public image, as they know it would be seen as scandalous with tabloids devouring them. This highlights the stigma surrounding eating disorders, and how some people, family or not, can see it as a disgrace and an embarrassment; something they want to just go away, because it makes them uncomfortable. Because there are people out there who see it as an issue for them, not for you, and it embarrasses them. They don’t want to deal with it, and they don’t want it anywhere near them. But, we also see the different ways people try to support Diana, with the limited understanding of an eating disorder like bulimia. The Royal Head Chef tries to encourage her to eat by making food he knows is her favourite; food especially for her. Those who support people with eating disorders may relate to this tactic, because you so desperately want the person to eat that you will do anything to encourage it. Yet, Diana still struggles, despite the chef’s best efforts, and Diana acknowledges this. She knows the course was made for her, but her eating disorder will not let her rest. A moment like this shows the hold eating disorders can have on a person, how much an eating disorder will not let up, and creates this anxiety over any and all food, especially food that is not under your control. Additionally, Major Alistair Gregory is somewhat of a tough-love approach. He is there to serve the Queen and country, so he really couldn’t care about Diana personally, but, throughout the film, I got the impression he was looking out for her in some regard, but not exactly sure how. He was a man within the military, who wanted to keep an eye on her, whilst also ensuring the Royal Family were not “subjected” to scandal. For me, I felt he did offer her some support, and it would be a type of support some of us have experienced before: a distant and unsure type, where the person doesn’t quite know what to do, and can only use previous support strategies such as a tough-love approach. Perhaps, because they are angry at the eating disorder, which often gets directed at the person instead. They want the problem to go away, because they know it is damaging to the person, but they don’t know what to do.

However, we also see how an eating disorder can affect the child of a parent with one, as Diana’s children, William and Harry, were old enough to have an understanding that something was wrong, with William having more comprehension of the gravity of the situation. I found this to be an interesting focal point, because when eating disorders are portrayed we often see it as a child or adolescent with an eating disorder, whereas, here, we see a woman with children, and we see how the children cope and react. This allows for a portrayal of children trying to “save” their mum, and try to understand what is going on. They ask things simply and openly like “mummy, what makes you so sad?” But, we also see the panic and distress it creates when their parent is also going through distress, and how they sometimes need to be carer. There’s an important scene, where William begs Diana to come out of the bathroom and come to dinner, because he is aware of the traditions and requirements of the Royal Family. He doesn’t want to see his mum get in further trouble, and he doesn’t want to see his mum upset, or carry out eating disorder behaviours. William is trying to look after his mum, but he also still holds that concern usual of a child of not getting in trouble. He wants his mum to be well, and wants to help her, but feels trapped and lost himself.

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Diana was a fragile person at this time, with a lot of pressure on her shoulders, so the film does push this stereotypical narrative of someone with an eating disorder, being delicate and skinny; a damsel in distress, almost. So many of us who has historic experiences and current experiences of an eating disorder do not align with this stereotype. We see scenes where Diana looks gorgeous and delicate in fantastic ballgowns, being sick into the toilet, so this can be a hindrance to someone recovering, as eating disorders can be competitive and a lot of the content consumed on pro-eating disorder communities can manipulate you into believing that eating disorders are beautifully tragic, that you too can be a princess and be pure and delicate, so, perhaps, this choice to have Diana in a gorgeously pure ballgown wasn’t sensible. Unfortunately, I can see these images being used as ‘thinspiration.’ However, looking at it from a film perspective, it does develop a contrast of the beauty and grandiosity of royalty and expensive fashion against the contrast of the cold, dark reality that is eating disorders, particularly an eating disorder treated so shamefully as bulimia, even within the eating disorder community.

And, at the end of the day, Diana was a princess, and she was known for her fashionable.

There is also an overt focus on the purging side of bulimia, compared to the binging side. We see a brief moment of binging, but not as much as the purging. In contrast of portrayals, The Crown shows the binge-purge cycle, creating a true to life understanding of bulimia. It is unclear why Larraín chose to focus more on the purging side, but I felt it misunderstood what bulimia was, and may have accidentally pushed a stigma towards binging as though it were just that bit too disgusting and indelicate so would not be fitting in theme with the film.

However, that being said, I enjoyed this film as I could see myself and my experiences. I could see others experiences. I understood the discomfort. The loneliness. The shame. The guilt. The embarrassment. The paranoia. The constant scrutiny. The anxiety.

I understood that need to be free from what was holding me down. I could relate to that desperate grab for control. To feel like I had some stability and reclaim power that I had lost or never had in the first place. How that control I thought I had was not all it was made out to be. I could feel how trapped Diana felt, and could relate it to how trapped I felt and how much I constantly felt like I was falling and failing.

This film is recommended if you want to gain an understanding of an eating disorder like bulimia and the binge-purge cycle. Bulimia is treated with such shame and disgust as the behaviours are not considered pure and clean compared to what is associated with restrictive eating disorders (something indicated in both public opinion and pro-eating disorder community opinion) so it was ‘great’ to see it be given the same serious treatment as restrictive eating disorders and shoved out into the cold light. Not treated as an oddity and an act of indulgence and disgust, but instead a way person copes and a psychologically and physically damaging disorder. It doesn’t hide away eating disorders and further encourage stigma and stereotype by not depicting it as openly.

But, and this is a big but, please be mindful of your wellbeing, because it does have eating disorder behaviours such as purging, as well as a self-harm scene. If you are actively experiencing symptoms or do not feel ready in your stage of recovery then please be careful if you decide to see this film. If you believe you will be negatively affected, and it may cause distress, then I would advise you not to see it. Always be understanding of your limits. I am in a position where I feel able to watch media like this, because I have been in recovery from an eating disorder for several years now. You are not any weaker or struggling in your journey to recovery just because you don’t feel ready to see a film such as Spencer.

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If you are affected by eating disorders, then please visit the following sites for further information and support.

Beat

Eating Disorders Association NI

National Eating Disorder Association

First Steps ED

SEED

Spencer Movie Review on Common Sense Media – a site that highlights the warnings and encourages conversation around the topics in the film.

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