RowlandAs far as serendipitous scheduling goes, the decision to repeat a documentary about the career of The Carpenters on BBC4 Monday night was somewhat ironic. The sad story of Karen Carpenter’s surrender to eating disorders was screened on a day when venerable veteran broadcaster and Labour Peer Joan Bakewell publicly apologised for comments she made on the subject of anorexia nervosa. I haven’t seen the original piece in which Dame Joan aired her opinions, though from what I can gather she suggested the sickness was a consequence of narcissism amongst adolescent girls. I presume they provoked the usual storm in the twitter teacup, hence the climb-down by a woman from an era in which opinions were expressed without the need to retract them 24 hours later.

Without reading the original statement, it’s not fair to base one’s judgement on the basis of a hasty apology, though if Baroness Bakewell did indeed uphold the outdated notion that eating disorders are the province of white, middle-class teenage girls who have the ‘luxury’ of starving themselves to death, she should really have done her research first. Anorexia is a physical manifestation of mental illness, and like all mental illnesses, it doesn’t recognise race, class, wealth or social situation. I speak with a degree of experience in that I have suffered from eating disorders during large chunks of my adult life, and supermodels or social media had nothing to do with it.

For me, it all stemmed from puberty. Anyone old enough will recall ‘Row-land’ from ‘Grange Hill’, the bespectacled podgy schoolboy whose torment at the hands of resident bully Gripper Stebson was a long-running story in the early 80s. I was that boy! My fat year was 1980, and while I usually attribute a sudden weight gain to both the pubic season and the fact that my mother’s sandwich shop provided a steady stream of crisps and chocolate bars before tea, I can also see a traumatic rejection at school probably played its part. If the common consensus is that only girls are bitchy little shit-stirrers, think again; I had three close friends who inexplicably ejected me from their group without any valid reason and I was an overnight Billy No Mates for several months, which is pretty heavy going at 12.

Fortunate to fall in with another crowd and then facing up to the fact that I had a weight problem was my salvation; but though I’d lost the excess plumpness by the time I entered my teens, the painful memory of being that roly-poly four-eyes never really left me. Around 15, I developed an obsession with David Bowie, to the point of putting his name on a school exercise book in place of my own and leaving a particular teacher to presume I was actually called David Bowie. Although this was the era of the healthy, tanned Bowie of ‘Let’s Dance’, I’d been seduced by his previous incarnations of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke and began to emulate their physiques.

This process continued even when the intensity of my Bowie fixation lessened and it reached a peak (or low) in the early 90s when I remember once weighing myself and seeing I had shrunk to six stone, something I was both thrilled and scared by. I don’t think I’ve ever weighed myself since, as I don’t regard it as a particularly good idea for someone with a penchant for self-loathing. After that, I suspect my weight hovered around the eight-nine stone mark if the few photos from a three-year ‘drug’ period in the late 90s are anything to go by. The last fifteen years have been characterised by a lingering paranoia over any sign of perceived fatness, leading to prolonged bouts of what I call a ‘Stalin’ diet, imagining the menu from a Soviet gulag standing on the dining table. Bar one day a week, I still don’t have proper meals, tending to snack my way through the day. That’s how long this thing can remain a fixture in your head.

To restrict eating disorders to teenage girls from a specific social strata suggests a lack of first-hand experience; yes, it is a common condition amongst that demographic, but not an exclusive one. Much as I would have fancied it, I never actually was a teenage girl. Discussing the topic with the addition of listeners’ phone calls, Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ received stories of people in their 80s undergoing treatment for anorexia, and middle-aged male accounts of the illness as well. Whilst one or two praised Joan Bakewell for raising the subject and daring to link it to narcissism, the general consensus was that eating disorders spring from the polar opposite. A narcissist loves what he or she sees in the mirror; most anorexia victims detest their reflection, some even going to the extreme of removing every looking-glass in the house. It is true that one’s mind becomes detached from one’s body and it often feels as though it belongs to somebody else, somebody one hates. You take out your frustrations on them.

As some voices pointed out on the ‘You and Yours’ phone-in, controlling the flow of food through the mouth is sometimes the only degree of control one possesses when external events appear beyond one’s control. At times of personal crisis, having that solitary power to wield is a curious comfort, albeit a dangerously self-destructive one. Like most mental illnesses, each individual’s experience is unique to them, making the concept of a cure-all solution nigh-on impossible. Even if professional treatment can appear to put the brakes on what is perhaps the slowest form of suicide outside of alcoholism, it never entirely leaves you. If one is lucky, being able to control it supplants the sense of ‘control’ it generates at the height of its nihilistic powers.

© The Editor

One thought on “BODY TALK

  1. A brief scan of the published statistics estimates that 75% of anorexia sufferers are female and the vast majority of those are in the younger age-group, so to that extent Joan Bakewell may have been on solid ground.

    The attribution to ‘narcissism’ is more difficult but maybe that should be seen in the context of some other ‘conditions’, such as allergies and asthma, where it is reported that as few as 10% of the claimed victims actually suffer from those conditions, rather these have become methods of attention-grabbing in a society hell-bent on turning out clone-people from clone-schools and clone-colleges into clone-lifestyles. I suspect that was Bakewell’s real message. In my school-days, and certainly in Bakewell’s, no-one had anorexia, allergies or asthma, so either the environment has worsened dramatically (unlikely) or the people have changed – it’s one or the other, you choose.
    But whether narcissism or attention-seeking, these are still symptoms of a marginally troubled personality, which may be labelled under ‘mental health issues’, if only because such behaviour falls outside the box marked ‘normal’ – the challenge is to understand why so many young people are now choosing that route.
    Genuine eating-disorders are serious manifestations of an unstable mental state, they are serious because the outcome is potentially fatal – the loss of Karen Carpenter’s unique voice was a heavy price to us all to pay for her personal issues – that’s a quite different mental-health challenge to solve.

    Joan Bakewell’s sin was in her broad-brush painting technique which, although statistically reasonable, did not give due recognition to the real issues faced by real sufferers every day of the week, rather it seemed carelessly to classify everyone as a self-centred waster.
    (I never thought I’d ever end up defending Joan Bakewell and I don’t think I have, but I’ve tried to explain where and why she went wrong in a throw-away comment.)

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