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Anorexia – a sign of narcissism?

Baroness Bakewell recently commented about the fact that she thought that anorexia nervosa was a sign of the ‘overindulgence of our modern society’ and a ‘sign of narcissism’ in teenagers. This comment sparked a backlash of responses and I was lucky that my comment to the Sunday Times was published. This is what I said:

“The suggestion that eating disorders are a modern phenomenon caused by focus on body image is not only unhelpful but also inaccurate: the first case of anorexia was written up in 1873.  (‘Anorexia is narcissism, says Joan Bakewell’, p1 13 March, 2016).

Anorexia carries the highest mortality rate of all mental health conditions, has a devastating impact on individuals and their families, and is extremely complicated to treat.

Sufferers are not gratifying a “narcissistic” impulse.  On the contrary, they usually lack self-esteem, have high levels of anxiety and depression, and present with complex psychological difficulties.

Given the difficulty of motivating them to accept help, suggestions that their illness is the product of vanity is potentially very damaging.  Far from seeking to enhance their appearance by simply deciding not to eat, sufferers often feel caught in a trap where their disorder helps them to cope with a bewildering range of emotions and difficult experiences.

Whilst I welcome the public discussion that these comments have provoked since we undoubtedly need to question why looking good is portrayed by our society as the best way to improve self worth, we also need to do more to educate people on the painful reality of eating disorders, and on mental health problems more generally.