Anorexia, not Narcissism

Anorexia, not Narcissism

The Joan Bakewell row that erupted over the weekend has hurt my head. Put simply, the Labour peer and broadcaster made speculative comments suggesting the rise in anorexia (particularly among young people) is a sign of narcissism and preoccupation with beauty and thinness. She went on to say that cultures in which food is scarce (her example being a Syrian refugee camp) ‘do not have anorexia’, thus apparently reinforcing her point.

Oh, Joan.

Unsurprisingly, her comments meant she wasn’t in for the best weekend ever, and felt the full force of the eating disorder community wanting their pound of flesh (pun intended). I resisted the temptation to write an immediate response, because I wanted to sit and fully wrestle with what she had to say. I’ve had both anorexia and bulimia and so not only do I fully understand (and bear the scars) from the unbelievable horror those illnesses entail, but it also means I am entitled to – and qualified to give – an opinion.

I remember my teenage years involved a LOT of time stood in front of a mirror. First thing in the morning I’d leap out of bed and stand side-on, analysing my shape and trying to determine whether I was thinner than yesterday. I would do this repeatedly throughout the day and what I saw (or didn’t see) would then determine how much I felt I could eat. Read that again through Bakewell’s assertion that anorexia = narcissism and you could be fooled into thinking she has a point, but that’s the thing about anorexia: it fools.

Being preoccupied with how I looked and much I did or didn’t weigh was exactly that: a preoccupation. My brain had realised that allowing me to think about the things that were making me unhappy was too painful, and so to stop me going ‘there’ I needed to stay busy focusing on other things, and so food, calories, exercise and waist measurements stepped in to fill the void and protect me. Controlling food meant controlling emotions, and controlling emotions meant a big barbed wire fence got erected around the nasty stuff. Keep controlling, keep the fence up, keep smiling. It was about as far removed from narcissism as I think you can get – rather than an excessive obsession with myself or how I looked or what other people thought, I actually just wanted to be invisible and unable to feel anything.

I’ve no way of knowing if Syrian young people are affected by eating disorders – Bakewell seems convinced they’re not. But what I do know is they’re deeply wounded young people who are facing some of the most unimaginable horrors the world has to offer right now. Their trauma may not manifest itself as an eating disorder either now or in the future, but it’ll show its face in one way or another unless they’re supported to process their experiences. This is about mental health, and anorexia is just one way in which people try to cope, particularly when faced with post traumatic stress.¬†Anorexia is a complex illness, and has the highest mortality rate of all mental health conditions; let’s use this as an opportunity to undo the stigmas that still exist and reinforce a message of hope, recovery and acceptance rather than more labelling and misconceptions.

So thank you, Joan Bakewell for the chance to do that. I have no doubt you never intended to insult or upset anyone, and I hear your concern for young people. Please use your voice and influence to make a difference: we need early intervention programmes, we need preventative measures and we need fully funded mental health services that are open to more than just the most severe cases. Help us to help ourselves, and save a generation.

@FreedomFromHarm | @RachelWelch

You can read some coverage of this via The Guardian here.

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