‘Anorexia is narcissism, says Joan Bakewell’. On seeing this headline on the cover of this week’s The Sunday Times, I was pretty appalled, but unfortunately not surprised. After over three years of treatment for anorexia, I’ve become kind of used to hearing ignorant remarks in regard to my condition. Then I read the article itself and even I was astounded at the level of ignorance it contained. Not only does Baroness Bakewell claim anorexia is narcissistic, the comment which appears to have caused most uproar, she bases her argument for this entirely upon a string of inaccuracies, before essentially shaming sufferers for not being able to just ‘carr[y] on’.
Bakewell’s statement that anorexia arises in young people presumably because they are pre-occupied with being healthy and beautiful particularly struck a chord with me. Now, if my illness was a mere obsession with being ‘healthy’ why did I ignore every warning I was given about the dangers of not eating? Why did I not ‘stop’ when I was told even walking to the shop was putting my body at severe risk? Why could I still not ‘stop’ when I found myself in a hospital bed? If there is one thing I know, it is that starving yourself does not equate to health, yet I, and thousands of others, still have to fight every day not to do so.
The ‘desire to be beautiful’ element of this painfully ignorant argument is equally flawed. It cannot be denied that in our society a high emphasis is put upon the way we look, something which does lower self-esteem. However, this in itself does not cause anorexia. During my admission to a specialist eating disorders unit I came across a range of people. Each of us was very different, each of us had different fears and each of us spoke of different reasons for why our eating disorder had first developed and why we now found ourselves so unable to escape. Despite having heard such a range of reasons, I can state with all honesty, not one person cited a desire to be ’beautiful’ as the cause. Sure, I heard people say they ‘were not beautiful’ just as we hear in every school dining room across the country, but hearing that this is the reason they had fallen into anorexia’s clutches? Not once.
It is not merely Bakewell’s remarks concerning ‘narcissism’ and a fixation in regard to one’s own appearance which contain blatant inaccuracies. I’d like to ask Baroness Bakewell how, if anorexia is a modern day fixation with weight as a result of the ‘over-indulgence of society’, the earliest medical descriptions of the illness appeared in the seventeenth century, with the term ‘anorexia nervosa’ being coined in 1873. True, the number of recorded cases may have been less, but that doesn’t actually mean fewer people were suffering. Yes, we may not have openly started discussing the condition in the mainstream until the eighties, with Karen Carpenter’s death bringing anorexia into the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Silence doesn’t mean no one suffering, it does, however, most likely mean that they weren’t getting better.
Bakewell’s attempts at justifying her opinion through her own life experience actually serve to do quite the opposite. In asserting that she only knew one girl in her youth who may have had an eating disorder, rather than suggesting this means self-indulgent modern day society is to blame, she instead shows us she really isn’t qualified to be making a judgement on the topic at all. If her statement that her granddaughters have ‘breezed through life’ is accurate, I’m very pleased for them, I truly am, however not all of us get that privilege. No one chooses anorexia and it doesn’t come about as a result of character weakness, as the Baroness seems to believe. Rather it is a reaction to events and pressures, which others, including her granddaughters, may not have been exposed to, or have dealt with through less obvious or destructive means.
In response to questions on twitter about her comments Bakewell has stated she was only ‘speculating loosely about what might cause it’. Now I for one would argue that as a public figure, you shouldn’t really be ‘speculating’ in such a public domain, no matter how ‘loosely’ about, well, anything, never mind an already highly misunderstood illness which causes the deaths of 20 per cent of its sufferers. But hey, what do I know? I’m merely a self-regarding narcissist after all.
My problem with Bakewell’s comments does not however simply lie in the fact they are downright inaccurate, but also with the dangerous consequences her words could have. My first reaction to reading the interview? She’s stating what the anorexic part of my mind has been trying to convince me of for years, that I’m nothing but vain and should just stop being so self-centred and get on with my life. Not only does she suggest that self-centredness is at the heart of eating disorders, but she also rolls out a whole range of statements suggesting that psychiatric treatment is in itself a form of over indulgence. Speak to almost any mental health professional, and they will tell you that early intervention is what gives people with anorexia the best chance of recovery. A problem we see today, and possibly a reason for such high numbers of inpatient admissions, is that people are too ashamed to come forward and ask for help as they fear they will be seen as vain or unworthy of treatment. Statements like this, no matter who makes them, reinforce this idea. This in turn pushes back the time it takes for someone to access treatment and thus reduces the chances of them gaining their life back completely, or severely extends the period of time their recovery takes. Believe me, I would know.
So if Baroness Bakewell’s ignorant interview has encouraged anybody to start thinking about the reasons anorexia is becoming ever more prevalent within our society, the one good thing which may come from it, I’d urge you to inform yourself via years of psychiatric research, rather than the loose speculations of a Labour peer who openly admits she has no experience of the illness. Creating a dialogue surrounding mental health is important, however, to me at least, it is obvious that this should be done on the basis of factual information. If you have no knowledge of a topic, ask questions about it, don’t try to answer them.