Baroness Joan Bakewell found herself at the centre of a social media storm this week after making comments to a newspaper about anorexia that many have slammed for adding to the stigma surrounding the illness.
“I am alarmed by anorexia among young people, which arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin,” Bakewell, 82, told The Sunday Times. “No one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food. They do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.”
“To be unhappy because you are the wrong weight is a sign of the overindulgence of our society, over-introspection, narcissism, really.”
Bakewell also said in the interview that the current fashion for psychotherapy and counselling — even for children — “can get out of hand.”
Young men and women who have battled anorexia criticised Bakewell for her comments and suggested that they showed a misunderstanding of eating disorders in society.
My eating disorder was triggered by years of mental and physical abuse – how narcissistic of me. 😑 #JoanBakewell
— Challis Zillwood (@challiszillwood) March 14, 2016
— Dr Anna Colton (@DrAnnaColton) March 14, 2016
Anorexia is about wanting to disappear. Not to exist. Finding the pain of living too much. Does this sound narcissistic? #joanbakewell
— Dr Jane Mackelworth (@Jane__Victoria) March 13, 2016
On Monday the Labour peer and veteran broadcaster apologised for her comments, acknowledging the “enormous upset” she had caused, reported MailOnline. She used her platform as chairman of the Wellcome Book Prize — which focuses on books with medicine, health or illness as themes — to apologise.
“I naively participated in a speculative conversation, expressing off-the-cuff remarks, without reference to evidence or current thinking,” said Bakewell. “Now that has caused enormous upset and I am deeply distressed that it should have caused so much pain.”
When asked if she had changed her mind she replied, “I’m withholding my opinion… I’m keeping it to myself until I know more.”
However many spoke out in support of Bakewell’s comments including comedienne Jenny Eclair, who had anorexia herself in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and TV presenter Dr. Christian Jessen.
Eclair said her own experience had been caused by “self-obsession and sheer panic” and Jessen pointed out that some studies suggest eating-disorder sufferers do display “elements of narcissism.”
The Supersize vs Superskinny presenter said: “Joan [Bakewell] was a victim of the usual Twitter Offended. She was actually right. I’m amazed no one said so. I posted a study showing up to 15 per cent do [display such signs]. So clearly she wasn’t completely wrong. It’s a fact. I’m merely pointing out the evidence. It’s not all, but it is some. If she was guilty of anything then it was oversimplifying and making generalisations.
“I strongly suspect much of the indignation came from a lack of understanding of the word narcissism,” he added. “I also think that to many narcissism equals vanity. I use it in the psychiatric sense of narcissistic personality disorder. Please show me research showing that narcissistic personality types play no part in anorexia. Then you can call me an idiot.”
James Arkwell, consultant psychiatrist and specialist in eating disorders among young adults at the Nightingale Hospital in northwest London, told The Sunday Times: “Anorexia is really driven by a need for control, not by narcissism.”
Bakewell is entitled to her opinion — as we all are. Rather than get angry about her comments, we should use this opportunity to raise awareness of what anorexia actually is: a serious mental illness. That’s a fact and not something that should be up for debate. So let’s make that the big news story — not the fact that an 82-year-old woman has offended people on Twitter.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article please contact Beat for advice and support.