It’s not easy to disclose an eating disorder, much less discuss in detail where you feel its origins are and how you coped with addressing it. Doing this as a public figure—and a political one at that—is even more difficult. As someone who researches eating disorders, I have to say, I was both proud of and moved by Christine Quinn’s recent interview in The New York Times in which she discussed her battle with and eventual overcoming of bulimia, and how it shaped who she is today.
For those who don’t know, Christine Quinn is the Speaker of the New York City Council. She is also the first openly gay person to hold this position, which has given her admittedly more popular attention than Speakers in the past have gotten, and has made her no stranger to unnecessary controversy.
Previously, she has also gotten the kind of attention that many powerful women in the media get — that is, negative in tone with the insinuation that she is pushy, too aggressive, and even vindictive. Let’s not even get into the fact that those words can define virtually anyone in politics.
But this profile of her was a bit more personal as it touched upon, for the first time, her attempts as a teenager to control an uncontrollable family situation—her mother’s illness and eventual premature death from cancer—by bingeing and purging.
I liked that she specifically addressed the issue of isolation and loneliness that went hand-in-hand with her bulimia—a couple of the reasons it can be so difficult for those struggling with eating disorders to reach out for help.
She also beautifully articulated her initial justifications for her developing bulimia (thinking that if she was the “perfect daughter” she could save her mother), as well as the feeling from purging that many bulimics underscore when overcoming their disorder: “For a brief moment, you’ve kind of expelled from your being the things that are making you feel bad,” she said.
Here’s why I think this matters: Quinn is right that eating disorders can be intensely lonely and isolating, and one of the big issues many survivors face is recognizing that others have felt this way and dealt with these issues in the past.
As a woman in a powerful, high-profile position, Quinn has given people who may be struggling with an eating disorder a picture of recovery that is very different than the narratives of more well-known celebrities who can be more difficult to relate to.
I also love that she states she doesn’t want to be seen as a victim and says one reason for wanting to talk about this openly and publicly is because, “I want to be affirmatively proud of what I have made my way through.”
Positively coming out the other side, while acknowledging the reality of struggle and pain, is the picture of reality for many survivors, one that I think is both inspiring and relatable.
Larkin Callaghan is an epidemiology and health communication fellow at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, where she also received her doctorate in Health Behavior and Education. She blogs regularly at her own site, I’m Not Tired Yet, about women’s and adolescent health issues.