Anorexia is a serious mental illness – we shouldn’t label it as anything else

Lady Bakewell said that anorexia in young girls “arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin. No one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food.”

Siobhan Norton
Monday 14 March 2016 15:58
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How do you tackle any illness if the consensus is that it doesn’t exist?
How do you tackle any illness if the consensus is that it doesn’t exist?

You could almost picture Joan Bakewell’s eye-roll as she equated the increase in anorexia to narcissism this weekend. And, amid the howls of protest, there were some who quietly agreed with her, who have shared a collective eye-roll when it comes to eating disorders.

Lady Bakewell said that anorexia in young girls “arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin. No one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food.” In some respects, she has a point. It appears to be the epitome of a western, modern affliction. The culture of thinness, of selfies, of presenting a perfect version of ourselves, has become all-pervasive. Girls in the grip of anorexia can follow their ‘Ana’ heroes on social media, or connect with fellow sufferers for tips and encouragement online.

But anorexia reaches far deeper than vanity, is much more complex. Experts say it is often more about control than self-image, and some research suggests that genetic factors can come into play as much as societal.

Lady Bakewell has now apologised for her comments, first published in the Sunday Times. She said ‘I am full of regret that my reported views have caused distress. I am deeply sorry.’ She also said that she did not expect that the newspaper would quote her views on the illness. It appears it was a throwaway comment to the reporter, perhaps when she was wrapping up, putting her coat on. And this is exactly why it is so harmful.

Labels are funny things, and we often feel uncomfortable with them. If we cannot understand the label, we often substitute with one of our own, one that fits in with our own worldview and experiences. So depression becomes navel gazing; chronic fatigue – laziness; bipolar - attention seeking and anorexia - narcissism.

Narcissus was so in love with his own beauty, so transfixed by his own reflection, that it destroyed him. For anorexics, one’s reflection can indeed be destructive and devastating, but there is little preening and posing in the mirror. Every glimpse of oneself can be torturous, every forkful loaded with trepidation. It is a mental illness that brings with it extreme anxiety, fear, secrecy and self-harm. And it is one of the leading causes of mental-health deaths - usually down to malnutrition, or suicide.

The labels we impose on people, and ourselves reach far beyond illness. From our school days we are quick to categorise people - the geeks, the cool kids, the weirdos. Even our parents do it - siblings must often live with their label of bookworm, artist, or ‘sporty’ kid. ‘Gifted’ or ‘backward’. And from early on, of course, we categorise ourselves by another major factor - body shape. In our battle to understand ourselves as we grow, we take these seemingly throwaway labels to heart, for good or for ill.

Those that label anorexia make the battle so much harder. How do you tackle any illness if the consensus is that it doesn’t exist? Or worse, that it’s a result of our own vanity, our own self-involvement.

One imagines Lady Bakewell has never had the misfortune of having a loved one among the 2,500 or so hospitalised every year for anorexia. If she could see how ugly this illness really is, she would have thought twice before that ‘eye roll’ moment.

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