Was Joan Bakewell right to link anorexia to narcissism?


Before I answer that, let’s have a bit of a Greek Mythology lesson:

Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope. He was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image.

And from that vain lad we get the expression “narcissism” which means (according to Dictionary.com) an inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity. And in a psychoanalysis context, erotic gratification derived from admiration of one’s own physical or mental attributes, being a normal condition at the infantile level of personality development.

So, no. Baroness Bakewell was emphatically wrong to link anorexia with narcissism.

An anorexic is not in love with the way they look, or indeed in love with themselves. Believe me, I know. I’ve been there.

After being teased about the way you look, or made to feel worthless, or that you are the stupidest person in the world, you feel hopeless and helpless and not in control of anything in your life.

You look in the mirror and see fat, ugly and stupid.

There’s a little trigger that switches on in your brain that says, “if you lost a little bit of weight, you’d look and feel amazing!”, and then after losing, say a couple of kilos, the trigger switches on again, and so you lose a little bit more, and then a little bit more.

And there isn’t a problem, you see, because you’re in total control – but when you look in the mirror that fat, ugly, stupid girl is still staring back at you, so you lose another couple of kilos.

You start exercising in secret – 100s of abdominal exercises to trim the wobbly bits around your tummy.

You start hiding food, pushing it around the plate and making it look as if you’ve eaten something.

You become clever at hiding the fact you don’t eat. You find ways to skip breakfast. You lie about having lunch, and then you eat a tiny amount for supper.

When I was a teenager, I lived on a sandwich a day for 2 years. Not a fact I’m particularly proud of now, but at the time it was the only way I could feel that I was worth anything.

I didn’t have many friends at secondary school – I was different (a bit geeky (something I’ve embraced as I’ve grown up), preferred performing arts to make-up and boys, etc), I was never one of the “special pretty” girls at dancing – just the tall, plain one at the back.

I just wanted to fit in! And I thought if I was thinner, maybe I would be prettier.

Nowadays, I love being different. Different is me! 😉 And, as I’m always telling SC “why fit in, when you were born to stand out”. The one thing I have learned in life is to be yourself. People will either love you, hate you or blow hot and cold no matter what you do.

But back to the point in question, anorexia is not about vanity, it is ultimately a cry for help.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I never got so bad that I had to be hospitalised. I could never make myself throw up, tried it – stuck my toothbrush down my throat, gagged, but couldn’t do it.

If anorexics were narcissists, then they wouldn’t self-harm either, would they?

Self-harming, like eating disorders, is again brought on by feelings of such low self-esteem and self-worth and trying to grasp back that sense of control.

Even a recovering anorexic will always have an issue with food. Sometimes they go the other way and become bulimic. But again, that’s just the control coming in to play.

I had both anorexic and bulimic tendencies – meaning I munch an entire packet of biscuits and crisps and cake in one sitting, then I would starve myself for a couple of days to punish myself.

For the record, I never self-harmed!

I had periods of anorexic-skinniness throughout my teens, twenties and thirties.

Did it make me feel happier? Did it make me feel prettier? Did I ever feel thin enough?

No, no and no.

So, what changed, if anything?

One word. Me!

I realised that the only way to feel happy, is to feel happy with who you are. You may be different, quirky, geeky, normal, flamboyant, etc. But the thing is you’re you. Nothing can change that – and just because you don’t fit into some conventional society-labelled pigeon-hole – why should you?

If we can feel happy with who we are on the inside, then it shows on the outside.

I tend not to look in the mirror these days – only to apply make-up. I don’t weigh myself 5 times a day any more. I exercise, but not to excess.

I still am careful with what I eat – but nothing as bad as it was. If I want cake these days (admittedly I tend to ration to once a week- still a slight issue of control) – I’ll have a slice – after all there are just some days when you need cake. So you buy cake, eat cake and the cake is good 😉

In conclusion, society and the media has a lot to answer for. We tend to always point out the negatives about people, rather than the positives, which is a shame, because everyone has something good about them.

Focussing on the positives is a great thing to do.

Here are my 3 positives about me that I’m grateful for:

  1. I love my very long legs
  2. I love my pixie chin
  3. At long last, I have grown to love me 😉

What are 3 positive things you love about you?

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