You can’t do an interview these days without someone trying to catch you out. This week it was the turn of Joan Bakewell, who — speaking with The Sunday Times — offered an opinion on anorexia. Speculating on the causes of the eating disorder, she said: ‘No one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food,’ before adding that it was a sign of ‘the overindulgence of our society’.
Poor Bakewell didn’t know what she was in for, clearly, but anyone else could anticipate the sound of the high-horse brigade mounting their saddles, ready to charge. Since the interview was released, Bakewell has been flooded with angry messages and ticked off by mental health organisations. Naughty Joan, indeed.
What’s ironic about all this is that Bakewell’s comments have a certain degree of validity. Though she has been largely interpreted as saying ‘Anorexia is narcissism’ — suggesting it is a result of individual vanity — what she actually proposed was that anorexia is a sign of a narcissistic society.
Such a hypothesis is not too far away from other, scientifically referenced ideas about anorexia. We know that it’s a complex disorder, with a variety of causes — one of which is media influence. This means things like exposure to Photoshopped images, thin celebrities across television and magazines, and ‘perfect’ friends on Facebook. All of these are endemic in a narcissistic society.
And, truthfully, she is right to question the cultural components of anorexia when — as she points out — it is less prevalent in poorer parts of the world.
But even if she was completely off the mark, so what? Bakewell was entirely entitled to voice her opinions.
Still, that doesn’t matter to the high-horse brigade. She joins a number of high-profile women who have found, in their later years, society to be more intolerant than ever of their opinions. Last August Chrissie Hynde was attacked after suggesting responsibility for her own rape, and let’s not forget the whole saga with Germaine Greer. It must come as somewhat of a surprise to these individuals, who played such a large role in promoting others’ intellectual freedom, to be suddenly vilified.
Responding to her critics, Bakewell said she was ‘full of regret’ and ‘sorry’, before adding she must head to bed, as she was too tired to deal with the rest of the criticism (which surely seems like the saddest thing of all — when an 82-year-old is hounded off Twitter). I wish she would do what Chrissie Hynde did back in August, and tell everyone to get stuffed — for it’s the intolerant who should feel apologetic. There’s only one lesson to be learnt from this debacle: society must learn to digest different opinions better, even if they’re on something as sensitive as anorexia.