‘Anorexia is narcissism, says Baroness Joan Bakewell‘. It’s a headline that has found itself into multiple news publications in the last few days. It’s click-bait journalism, but each click undermines the work of doctors, counsellors and charities like Beat which work to end the stigma around eating disorders and to educate patients, parents and the general population about the truth of anorexia.
I’ve been putting off writing recently, in part because of a paralysing self-awareness of how my words may be twisted and misinterpreted, of how I might appear to the external world. Baroness Bakewell’s comments validate this anxiety. Her misinformed perception of anorexia perpetuates an unhelpful stereotype of the anorexic as a self-absorbed, white middle-class teenage girl. I acknowledge that while I may fit parts of this stereotype, eating disorders can — and do — affect anyone. Any race, any sexuality, any age, any gender, anyone.
For eight months, I’ve taken a bus, two trains and another bus to Oxford every week for treatment. For eight months, I have sat in blue fabric chairs in the waiting room, staring at a board pinned with notices of group therapy and university psychology studies, while listening to the same garish eighties pop on the broken radio. On occasion, there have been other patients waiting at the same time, giving furtive glances as they size you up; always focusing on the thighs first, complying with the compulsory competitiveness of anorexia. It is as if there’s an invisible scoreboard; you can feel eyes dart and rank your stage of treatment.
Whether the girl compulsively twitching her foot opposite is newly referred or nearly ‘recovered’. Whether they’re a repeat offender. Whether the person who looks like the poster-girl for recovery in the seat beside is on the edge of collapse. Even within a 10-foot square waiting room, it is impossible to know all stories by sight. Even within a specialist Eating Disorder Clinic, it is impossible to tell whether someone has an eating disorder, or why. When I hear people who so easily dismiss eating disorders and other mental illnesses as having a single, socially-universal cause, I think of the final line of W. H. Auden’s ‘At Last the Secret Is Out’- There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.
I do not know what Baroness Bakewell hoped would come from her comments, but dismissing another’s pain compacts it, rather than dismantling it. In an article written for The Guardian about her decade long experience with bulimia, Caroline Jones wrote, “I had no idea that my disordered and secret behaviour came from somewhere with a logic that might be understood. Until I finally sought help for my illness, I was convinced that my failure to curb my behaviour came down to a lack of will, a lack of self-discipline, greed or self-indulgence — to something that was fundamentally wrong with me, some shameful weakness.” Mental illnesses too often come with a side order of shame which serves to compound that disorder. It took me months after diagnosis to recognise that my eating disorder was an illness, not a shameful, self-indulgent weakness. It took me six years, a late-night trip to A&E with heart palpitations and a near hospitalisation to admit that I needed help. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, it is such a secret place, the land of tears.
When I’m in that waiting room, though I sit feeling slightly anxious about another forced weigh-in, I feel safe. I know that for that hour, whatever I say within the walls of the hospital will remain un-judged. That if I unload troubling verbal knots into the air, they will meet the understanding ears of a psychologist, who will help to unravel and smooth them. It’s only an hour. An hour which acts as a sanctuary (“a word which here means a small, safe place in a troubling world. Like an oasis in a vast desert, or an island in a stormy sea” - Lemony Snicket)- and which I cling to during the following week. I use that hour in an attempt to shield myself from the outside barrage of advertisements for weight-loss and the chatter of fatness, of obsessions about fitness and food and ‘clean eating’, of phantoms of perfection and imposed self-hatred. Treatment is an island which allows me to simultaneously open up and seek refuge, from messages of dieting, from my own mind and from the misinformed opinions of Baronesses.
If our society is narcissistic, that’s not why anorexia exists. It’s been around far, far longer than the ‘selfie generation’. Eating disorders have existed in society since — and likely before — the middle ages. ‘Anorexia Mirabilis’, reported to affect the 14th century ascetic Catherine of Siena, is thought to have been a religiously motivated precursor of the form of the illness we see today. That, like today’s anorexia nervosa, was not caused by narcissism. Eating disorders are intensely private forms of self-harm. Often, anorexia operates within a mentality which is the antithesis of narcissism; the perception that one occupies too much physical space, the desire to literally fade away, to become invisible, obsolete. Again, eating disorders affect all genders, but part of the exaggerated prevalence in girls is not an inherent narcissism in the female sex, but largely due to the way girls are treated in our society.
We are repeatedly and pervasively told that we deserve to occupy less space than our male counterparts. In an article by Caitlin Moran, it’s reported that, ‘when women talk 25 per cent of the time or less, it’s seen as being “equally balanced”. And if women talk 25–50 per cent of the time, they’re seen as “dominating the conversation”‘. Women are still celebrated for being quiet, submissive and compliant. For girls, being ‘seen, not heard’ too often extends out of childhood into adulthood, when women are more often lauded (or criticised) for their appearance than for their words, intelligence or opinions. We live in a society where women are constantly observed and judged for their attractiveness, where their sexual experience and intelligence alike are judged by their external image.
A common thread that unifies many cases of eating disorders is the perception of never being ‘enough’. It’s an adjective, adverb, and a pronoun; it’s something we can have, feel, or be. Most often though, it eludes us, escaping into the negative like a balloon disappearing into the ether. Not pretty enough, not good enough, not clever enough. A couple of years ago, after being asked about my interests by a man I’d recently met, and I answered with talk about dancing, he replied with derisive surprise, ‘Aren’t ballet dancers supposed to be, like, skinny?’ — quickly ushered by with a ‘no offence’.
Not skinny enough. Not ill enough. It’s that abusive motivation which drives so many of us down the pursuit of perfection, a path which is too late revealed to be a punishing phantom. We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, threatened with drowning if we stray too far over each side of the river. That single word, ‘enough’, is a Hobson’s choice — either you can stay on the treadmill, never to reach that perfect destination of satisfaction, or step off, and in doing so radically unsubscribe from that societal propaganda which says that to not attain perfection is to fail. While the latter may appear the obvious choice, it requires considerable strength.
To accept oneself as ‘enough’ is to acknowledge our own power. Recovery has often felt like sticking two fingers up at those many sources which, multiple times a day, tell us to lose weight, to reduce / shrink / minimise ourselves. Two weeks ago, I reached my target recovery weight. Only recently have I been able to genuinely say to myself — and believe — “I am enough”. William S. Burroughs wrote, ‘The first and most important thing an individual can do is to become an individual again, decontrol himself, train himself as to what is going on and win back as much independent ground for himself as possible’. I’ve spent enough time on that treadmill, and enough time being ill. So I’m stepping off, and allowing myself to move on from this place. I am no longer anorexic. I am enough. And I intend to take up space.