Calling anorexia narcissism doesn’t help anyone

The mental health crisis isn’t about vanity

Elder generations are fond of explaining the ills of ours.

For example, this morning, in an interview with The Sunday Times, the broadcaster Joan Bakewell suggested that anorexia could be a form of 21st century narcissism.

“I am alarmed by anorexia among young people,” she told the newspaper. “Which 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. They do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.”

Firstly – to get it out of the way – the remark about Syria is incendiary, insensitive and unhelpful. Certainly, there are lower incidences of eating disorders in less-developed nations, where there is less food. However, a food shortage is not the only difference between the developed and undeveloped world. There are hundreds of different variables; to reduce the complexity of mental illness to a single factor is facetious. It is also a gross and clumsy use of a humanitarian crisis to illustrate a point about the 21st century.

So that’s clear. What is also clear, though, is that Bakewell is sceptical, aloof and simplistic about mental health in the young. She sets up the “we versus them” opposition, and observes out that “we had no chance to discuss that when we were young. We just had to survive. If you ask people, ‘Are you really happy?’ it gives them a chance to think about things they are not necessarily concentrating on.”

Personally, I don’t fetishise an era in which repression of emotions was the codified social policy. I don’t think it’s better that people suffered, and couldn’t talk about how much they were suffering. Or didn’t even realise that they were suffering because no one talked about it in the first place. Bakewell remarks that the only schoolfriend she suspected might have had an eating disorder “lost a lot of weight after the death of her mother . . . she remained at the school, she carried on.”

Great, that sounds ideal. Anorexia is is a corrosive and complicated mental illness – but sufferers should probably just “carry on”.

Yes, there are more eating disorders in the modern western world. And yes, as the Sunday Times article points out, the incidence of mental health issues in the young is rising. Clearly, there is something about our culture that fuels them. But don’t treat a mental health crisis like a nuisance – like something spoiled, brattish and silly. A growing trend should be cause for investigation, not eye-rolling. 

This stiff upper lip thing peddled by elder generations is bullshit. Of course, their narrative about how it was better is conveniently closed to rational disproval – no one our age can testify otherwise – and they really want us to get angry: to beat our breasts and rend our garments, for it substantiates their argument that we are silly and flappable. And eating disorders are an emotive topic – it is hard to think when the blood roars in your ears. 

But when it does, keep talking about them. Keep talking about anxiety. Keep talking about depression. Keep talking about everything that scares you. Together we’ll drown out the voices. Then perhaps we’ll all be happier, too.