There are many labels pinned on Diana: one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, the most photographed person of her time, a great humanitarian, the People’s Princess.
I was six years old when she died, so I have only vague memories of the news about her passing. Her aura seemed to come closest to the real-life version of how all the great fairytales portrayed their princesses. Her kind, gentle spirit could radiate through pictures and interviews taken thousands of miles away from where I was growing up, that much I remember. However, as I began to realize just recently, I didn’t know an awful lot about her life. I found it shocking, for example, that she spent such short time, 36 years on this planet. (36, you see, means something entirely different when you’re six than when you’re 30.)
Have you watched The Crown? And if you have, were you as curious about the episodes that revolved around Diana and Charles as I was?
Whether it tends to sensationalize real-life events or not, it’s a well-done series, for the most part, but let me cut to the chase: it was through watching The Crown that I began to be more curious about Diana’s life and her struggles. I also watched the Netflix documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, followed by practically any other source I could put my hands on. I watched TV interviews she gave with Charles, other documentaries I could find, like The Story of Diana. I looked up old newspaper clips of her with disgustingly sensational headlines like “Di’s Secret: She Fainted Before”, “Thoroughly Modern Mummy”, and perhaps one of the most heart-breaking “Will Diana Grow Old Gracefully?”.
She was born on 1 July in 1961. She would be 60 years old today.
Eating disorders: In a different light
The fact that she was bulimic came as a surprise. As I have my own experiences with eating disorders – anorexia in my case – I deeply empathize with others who suffer from an eating disorder. People tend to think of bulimia or anorexia – often without care to learn about the differences between them – as some sort of attention-seeking behavior of spoiled, white, wealthy teenagers who “don’t know what to do with themselves in their too comfortable life” or ballerinas and supermodels obsessed with their looks and carriers. To hear actual stories of real people, instead of the made-up characters we create to incarnate our own prejudices is simply liberating.
In Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana: Her true Story, she revealed: ”The bulimia started the week after we got engaged and would take nearly a decade to overcome,(…) My husband put his hand on my waistline and said: ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we? and that triggered off something in me – and the Camilla thing.”
On one of the tapes that served as the source of the biography, she said: “The odd thing was when I was bulimic, I wasn’t angry because the anger, I thought, was coming out that way. And it always felt better after I’d been sick to get rid of the anger. And I’d be very passive afterwards. Very quiet.”
In the infamous 1995 BBC Panorama interview, Martin Bashir also brought up the topic:
“It was subsequently reported that you suffered [from] bulimia. Is that true?”
“Yes, I did (…) I had bulimia for a number of years. And that’s like a secret disease. You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day—some do it more—and it gives you a feeling of comfort. It’s like having a pair of arms around you, but it’s temporarily, temporary. Then you’re disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again.(…) You have to know that when you have bulimia you’re very ashamed of yourself and you hate yourself—and people think you’re wasting food—so you don’t discuss it with people,(…) The thing about bulimia is your weight always stays the same, whereas with anorexia you visibly shrink. So you can pretend the whole way through. There’s no proof.”
Again, based on my own experiences, eating disorders have much deeper roots than a plain obsession with looks. During the 90s, people seldom talked about such issues, I think it’s only recently became a topic that can be discussed more openly. Today, it’s because of those who use social media to raise awareness and offer comfort to people with similar problems. I believe Diana played a huge role in paving the road for that.
Giving voice to the voiceless
If you watch those documentaries, one of the most recurring elements of public opinion about the Princess of Wales is that she had a warm, affectionate personality, a charisma that quickly won over the crowds. That quality brought a new color to the Royal Family, whether they liked it or not.
Whenever I’m reading or watching documentaries about such remarkable people, I wonder how prudent their decisions were when it came to choosing the matters they supported, pioneering by speaking their truth about certain subjects others did not or could not talk about. Did they just act from the heart and went after what felt important to them? Did their passions simply overwrite their fear of criticism or failure?
She did a great deal to dispel the myths that surrounded HIV and AIDS at the time. She spoke up for those who suffered from the disease and made sure the public understood how HIV/AIDS could be contracted, despite what was widely believed back then. She seized every opportunity to emphasize that it was okay to be around those who live with the disease.
On an April day in 1987, Diana visited the Middlesex Hospital in London to open their first ward dedicated to HIV and AIDS patients. For the most part of the 80s, AIDS was considered to be affecting the guy community alone, the newspaper headlines trumpeting homophobic remarks every step of the way. UK tabloids worked hard to consolidate prejudices by, for example, referring to the virus as “the gay plague”. Diana appeared and without wearing gloves, shook hands with doctors, nurses, and all ten patients of the ward.
By this simple motion, she was able to banish the common – though false – belief that HIV/AIDS could be transmitted by touch,
She didn’t stop there: she supported various charities worldwide. You can get a glimpse of her devotion to the cause from her speech at the 1991 Children and AIDS Conference.
Another of Diana’s many remarkable trips was the one she took to central Angola in January 1997. It was organized by the British Red Cross, a charity she had already been connected to for years. She travelled to Huambo province where she learnt about HALO Trust, an NGO that had been clearing mines in Angola – a country that is, to this day, one of the most heavily landmine-contaminated places in world – since 1994, and with an ongoing civil war at the time of Diana’s visit. (It lasted for more than 25 years, from 1975 until 2002.)
While in Angola, she visited landmine survivor children, and walked through a cleared lane of an active minefield. The pictures of her wearing the protective garment quickly made headlines all over the world.
These are, of course, just two examples of her extraordinary efforts to use the platform provided by her title as the Princess of Wales to better the circumstances of the sick, the underprivileged, and those living on the edge of society.
Her greatest legacy perhaps is that her children continued to advocate similarly important matters.
Breaking traditions as a mother and wife
In 1983, it was time for the Prince and Princess of Wales to take their first overseas tour together: Diana, 21 at the time, was adamant about bringing their child with them to Australia, and by that broke protocol. She became the first royal to ever take their child along for an overseas visit.
Many around her described her as a devoted mother. She was there to take the boys to school and pick them up whenever she could, she read them bedtime stories, and in every way possible made sure that her children felt the love and affection that all children crave for. That type of parental care wasn’t necessarily encouraged or practiced by the royal family’s previous generations. Even though the media attention and their exceptional circumstances made it impossible for the kids to have a “normal life”, she tried to engage them in less royal and more ordinary activities that kids their age liked doing: she took them to Disney Land or McDonald’s just like any mom would.
She also wanted to pass on her passion to help and support others, that is why she asked them to accompany her on visits to hospitals, AIDS clinics, shelters for the homeless. As written in the above paragraph, her efforts certainly paid off as her sons carried on Diana’s sense of altruism.
There was obviously a lot of talk about the breakdown of the marriage. And we all know that when it came to the husband’s affair(s), for the most part of history, the wife would not, could not object. But this was the beginning of a new era, where not even a princess was going stay silent about her prince’s adultery. I’m sure there was a tremendous amount of pressure on her whenever she opened up about Charles’ relationship with Camilla, but it must have taken guts for her to speak about that. Let alone to confront Camilla, which she described on one of the secret tapes herself.
Growing into a role and into herself
The documentaries usually give you the journey of Diana’s short stay in this world, and I just find it astonishing that during this short time that only stretched though 36 years, she managed to do so much. At the beginning of every film, she appears as an insecure 18-year-old, whose life is said to become a fairy tale. But when the dream ends and reality hits, she goes through a lot of pain, struggling with herself, the isolation inside and the tireless hunt of the press outside. Sometimes she barely manages, but she does manage to get though the dark moments of loneliness, or the anxiousness caused by the expectations of others. She married someone who’s already been in love with someone else. And yet, all through those stormy years, she only became stronger, smarter, and instead of hardening, even more gentle, more loving. Her death is especially tragic because it seemed like she just started this new chapter, where she felt so much more at peace with herself, and could break away from an unhappy marriage, a defeated self-esteem; finally, she seemed to be comfortable, maybe even happy, in her own skin.
As far as the life and legacy of the Princess of Wales can seem from you or me, just ordinary citizens of the world, there are great lessons to learn here: about how we want to conduct ourselves, what we want to put energy into, where we want to direct the love or whatever else we crave – how to use our own pain and our own battles to fight for others. And by that, ultimately saving ourselves in the process.