F ollowing Joan Bakewell’s opinion that growing rates of eating disorders among teenagers is a ‘sign of narcissism’, this veteran broadcaster has admitted to causing ‘enormous upset’ and has apologized. But is Bakewell really remorseful about what she said or does she just want the public back on her side?
I think, at one point or another, most of us have been referred to as narcissistic, whether it is because we take too many selfies or are so caught up with ourselves and our own happiness. Many young people have been called out on loving themselves too much. While I can understand why the term is thrown around, I didn’t realize that some people viewed those who are anorexic as narcissistic. That’s right, according to Baroness Joan Bakewell, a noted British journalist and television presenter, anorexia is a sign of narcissism. Now, if you’re having as hard a time as I was comprehending that sentence, let me break it down for you. A grown woman in a high and influential position has degraded this dangerous eating disorder to nothing more than another example to show that teenagers in today’s society are full of themselves.
Anorexia, according to the Centre for Eating Disorders, is “a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterised by self-starvation, excessive weight loss, and negative body image … and is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents in the United States.” It stems from many complex causes, but someone with a negative body image does not mean that they are narcissistic.
There can be pressures from outside sources, such as the media and society that can influence one to view him or herself negatively. Eating disorders, such as anorexia, represent a self-hate relationship, not a forged love for one’s self. Bakewell had said that “no one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food … it’s a sign of the overindulgence of society, over-introspection, narcissism.” In societies where there is not enough food, the people aren’t labeled anorexic — they’re starving and emaciated.
I don’t like to kick someone when they’re down, but Joan Bakewell’s wildly misleading public comments about anorexia cannot go unchallenged. For the many thousands of anorexics out there, recovering or still ill, such careless talk only adds to their self-hatred.
Her comments fuel the guilt felt by parents, the shame felt by sufferers, and the general confusion about what eating disorders are and where they come from.
But I’m not only angry about those careless comments; I’m also sad. They are too close to the bone to be dismissed – many people still suspect there’s something narcissistic about anorexia. From the outside, it looks like another version of the female obsession with dieting (although on the inside the two are poles apart). It may be nonsensical, that going on a diet to lose a few pounds for a wedding, and starving yourself through anorexia are different – it doesn’t even make sense when you’re anorexic – and yet it’s the truth.
Eating disorders are highly complex. They’re highly individual, with a myriad of causes: from the serious, including childhood trauma and sexual abuse to the relatively common, such as peer pressure, body dysmorphia and low self-esteem.
So how do we distinguish between ‘normal’ dieting and disordered eating? Is anyone who diets at risk of developing an eating disorder? In recent years there has been important research into the neurological and genetic causes of eating disorders. Brain scans of anorexics have found that specific areas are not functioning properly, which explains characteristics such as the distorted body image and altered perception. It may also explain the anorexic’s curious ability to block signals of intense hunger and pain, and their rigid cognitive thinking.
The physical effects of not eating lock you into vicious psychological cycles; lack of food leads to starvation; starvation weakens the body and warps the mind; disturbed thinking exacerbates disordered behaviour. Put simply, severe weight loss affects your brain. More research is needed, but these neurological findings may offer hope, and eventually treatment options, to anorexics and their families.
To live with an eating disorder is to live in a constant state of internal warfare. It’s exhausting, fighting your appetite every hour of every day, fighting an overwhelming fear of food and fat. In bulimia you’re fighting a deep sense of shame and greed, as well as self-disgust.
Anorexia is a mental illness and not a lifestyle choice. When Joan Bakewell draws parallels between anorexia and the “preoccupation with being beautiful, healthy and thin”, she fundamentally misunderstands the nature of eating disorders, and just how grave the consequences can be. It’s about control and self-punishment, not beauty.