Rod Liddle

Why Joan Bakewell must be right about anorexia

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

You can always tell when a public figure has said something with the ring of truth about it by the abject apology and recantation which arrives a day or two later. By and large, the greater the truth, the more abject the apology. Often there is a sort of partial non-apology apology first: I’m sorry if I upset anyone, but I broadly stand by what I said, even if my wording was perhaps a little awkward. That, however, won’t do — by now the hounds of hell are howling at the back door. Social media is beside itself, wrapped up in its moronic inferno, the cybersphere splenetic with self-righteous outrage.

People who feel themselves to be a victim of this truth are the first to go berserk, then the multifarious groups who depend for their living on giving succour to one another’s victimhood get in on the act — charities, academics, specialists and so on. Witless liberals in the media start writing damning criticisms of the truth and the person who was stupid enough to tell the truth. Sooner or later even that cornucopia of incessant whining, Radio 4’s You and Yours programme, will have got in on the act.

By now there will have been the properly abject apology from the truth-sayer, all the more abject if it is someone regarded as being otherwise politically correct. But it may be too late. Already the truth-sayer’s employers are looking closely at his or her contract. The universities or quangos where the truth-sayer holds honorary titles or non-executive directorships are urgently convening meetings to discuss what this foul besom has said and what can be done about it to quieten the clamouring mentalist hordes out there. Sometimes — quite often — the police get involved. There is nothing more damaging to a career than telling an unfortunate truth. Even if it is only a partial truth.

So it is with the thinking man’s crumpet, Baroness (Joan) Bakewell. Poor Joan. She delivered herself of one or two opinions about anorexia nervosa, which was probably an unwise thing to do. There is nothing more likely to send liberals on the internet into a frenzy than to question the orthodox shibboleths of a primarily middle-class illness, which is of course what anorexia is.


Dyslexia is another one. State your doubts that in very many cases it exists at all and argue that it is simply a question of a thick middle-class child being given a diagnosis to placate its querulous parents (which current research suggests is the case) and all hell will break loose.

Alternatively, cast doubt on one of a myriad of supposed and again — in the vast majority of cases — wholly fictitious childhood allergies and see what happens. Or question yuppie flu — ME. That really gets them going. When I reported the latest research, which suggests that this illness is probably entirely mental in origin (with physical manifestations, of course), a sufferer really did call the police. Obviously one is cheered by the fact that she had the energy to lift up the phone. She later commented on a website dedicated to the illness that the police had asked her the name of the hate-monger who had made this vile assertion. ‘Rod Liddle,’ she replied. The police told her it was probably best just to ignore it, as Liddle was a ‘well-known arsehole’. Good to know there’s still at least one copper in the country with common sense.

So, Bakewell and anorexia then. She has already delivered herself of the customary two apologies, but the furore still rages on — and yes, You and Yours has got in on the act. They had one caller, mind, who suffers from anorexia and said that the Baroness had got it dead right. The presenter, Winifred Robinson, sounded as disgusted as if he’d defecated in her handbag, or announced that he was voting Ukip.

Bakewell said she thought the illness was something to do with narcissism, and the wish to be thin, and pointed out that there was no anorexia in countries where there was not enough food. There is surely some truth in that, even if it is not true in every case of anorexia. One of the first modern studies of this mental illness was written in 1982 — just as the modern, developed world was being swamped with case after case of what seemed to be a new disease afflicting, in the main, fairly affluent girls and young women.

The author, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a professor at Cornell University, revealed that the affliction was well known in late-Victorian times and had been given its name (by a British doctor) as early as 1873. She revealed that it was first and foremost an illness of the middle class and added: ‘In the 19th century, there was a certain emotional and material privileging of girls. In a culture of affluence, food and eating become very important to people.’

‘Anorexia nervosa emerges in cultures that are food-abundant,’ she continued. ‘You don’t have anorexia nervosa in the third world: what you don’t eat, someone else will. Do you see it in Ethiopia? No. You see it in countries, like Japan, which are increasingly westernised.’ Professor Brumberg did not actually use the word ‘narcissism’, but her meaning is fairly clear — and almost identical to the statement made by Baroness Bakewell. But you could say that stuff back then and get away with it. Now you can’t.

As with a whole array of what we consider modern afflictions — alcoholism, fibro-myalgia, ME, dyslexia and so on — a whole industry has been built up to sort of sanctify anorexia. The charities and pressure groups have, in a sense, taken anorexia away from its sufferers and constructed around it a canopy of medicalised victimhood. As that rogue caller to You and Yours pointed out, this removes from the individual the need to take responsibility for his or her predicament. Of course, people with anorexia suffer. They are mentally ill. But this does not gainsay Joan Bakewell’s commonsense view of the matter.

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Show comments
  • Rik

    Spot on as usual Rod,and hence the rise and rise of Donald Trump,who just tells it like it is and rightly laughs and sneers when the cry-bullies go into meltdown.The self righteous PC leftards have got so used to dominating and shutting down debates with their “phobes” and “isms” they go into shock when you refuse to play their game.

    • Paul

      Exactly. Homophobia, Islamaphobia and all the rest. The old Soviet ploy of insisting one’s opponents are mentally ill if they don’t hold the same absurd views. At the moment in the UK they just try to shut down the debate but the law has been increasingly used to enforce their views. Salt mines for the unbelievers soon.

      • Andy Pandy

        Hadn’t realised that Joan commented on anything other than anorexia, Paul.

        • Paul

          My comment is a reply to Rik’s comment re ‘phobes’ & ‘isms’

    • Donald Trump is an a r s e h o l e. Impolite language, but very true. Funnily enough, I can’t write that word on here without spacing out the letters so that the prissy profanity filter can’t see it. Funny considering the context of the article – you can’t say it as it is on this part of the Spectator either, even though Mr Liddle used the word too.

      I don’t disagree with anything you said there by the way, but thought I couldn’t let the mention of the Mussoliniesque Republican hopeful pass without giving my appraisal of him.

  • ludography

    Indeed. Spot on.

  • James Chilton

    “Victims of the truth” – an astute observation by Rod Liddle that’s worth remembering.

    Joan Bakewell couldn’t be thanked for her common sense view of nervous disorders in an Age of Affluence to the extent that common sense isn’t all that common now.

  • davidshort10

    And what about Repetitive Strain Injury, which hogged the headlines some years ago? I once said to a friend that if RSI really existed, then all young teenage boys would have it. He repeated this observation when having dinner at the house of a young woman – who maintained she had it and in fact got compo from a national newspaper – who had more or less agreed he could stay the night. A gay man at the dinner got very puffed up (no pun intended) and said my friend wasn’t taking her seriously. He was ejected forthwith.

    • post_x_it

      Cracking anecdote. Worthy of Molière.

  • Dr Bock

    I just wonder if people should, in all good conscience, avoid making thin and slender arguments when it comes to the issue of anorexia. We should also, as a society, avoid fat-headedness when it comes to discussing obesity.

    • Tamerlane

      You’re largely right there.

  • Suzy61

    a) ‘He’s very good with his hands – just not academic’.

    b) ‘she’s a bit slow’

    c) ‘He’s a naughty little sod – needs a firm hand’

    d) ‘She’s bone idle’

    e) she’s a fussy eater

    Circa 1965

    a) On the autistic ‘spectrum’

    b) Dyslexic

    c) ADHD

    d) MS

    e) Anorexia

    Circa 2015

    • Dr Emil Schauffhausen III

      MS???

      • Suzy61

        Oops – you are quite right and now corrected. Thanks.

  • Tamerlane

    The cry of outrage is always in direct proportion to the b0ll0cks-0-meter of truth, the more they bleat the more you know it’s a b0ll0ckys industry they’re trying to protect – environment, racism, homophobia… We all know the list by now.

    • Ian

      wtf since when was homophobia an industry? Are you on drugs?

  • putin

    It’s always disappointing to see someone explain or apologise for a remark even when there is a degree schadenfreude as in this case. I do feel the more enlightened of us have moved beyond caring about the PC movement now though and we are entering the renaissance of “say what you like and be damned”. After all, it’s only ever the dim witted who make themselves “offended” and who cares about them.

  • Freddythreepwood

    The Bakewell Tart just followed the usual ‘Oops’ convention when she realised she had ‘offended’ her own kind. She should have been aware that it doesn’t take much to get the twits on Twitter twittering. But, by prompting this excellent article, she has done us all a favour. Perhaps we should all Tweet to thank her.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Poor Joan! Met her once and she was terribly nice, friendly, decent. Anorexia? I knew and briefly dated a girl who’d been “anorexic” – didn’t surprise me. She was very bright, middle class, but ever so slightly off her rocker, self-obsessed.

    • goandplay

      I also knew a girl who had been anorexic – how did I know she’d been anorexic? Because within five minutes of meeting her, she’d got out a photograph of herself weighing less than a pine cone. This was in the days before the internet. I think the ‘look at me, I’m special’ thing has kicked off big-style since Facebook and instagram; what’s the point in being ‘special’ if no one sees you?

      • Ian

        Ha ha, I met a girl with AN, got down to five stone, ah wasn’t she proud and vain.
        No, she was my sister and had to be force fed with a hose pipe and had a mental illness which came within days of killing her.

  • Innit Bruv

    As is usual with Mister Piggy class envy seems to main motive.

    • The Patriarchy

      As usual with your comments a dim sort of jealousy seems to be the main motive.

  • You talk bollocks all the time, Mr Liddle, which is why you’ve never had to apologise, presumably.

  • Rod Liddle, you clearly know as little as Joan Bakewell does about the biologic, genetic basis of this life-threatening mental health illness that NO-ONE chooses to have. You say, “…primarily middle-class illness” – that just proves how you haven’t done your homework, either. ED’s can affect anyone of any ethnicity. I hope you never have to watch a loved one suffer with Anorexia Nervosa, particularly as the UK’s treatment of ED’s is nowhere near good enough, with nowhere near enough beds, therapists etc. People die from lack of treatment, or poor treatment, all too regularly, sadly.

  • Jacobi

    Two afflictions, Anorexia Nervosa and Obesity need different treatments. The first needs to eat a bit bit more and the second a bit less.

    They both require one further form of treatment however and that is a boot where the sun normally doesn’t shine, a bit harder I would suggest in the case of the latter.

    As for dyslexia, that used to be commonly referred to as not being very clever, which is I suppose just what it is.

    But one thing does get me annoyed however. That is the complete lack of sympathy and understanding for us Dis-numerates!

    • Haz

      I am dubious whether this is a really fair judgement of the situation;

      Firstly, please say you’re being ironic? Surely there is no place for demanding “sympathy and understanding” for one cognitive-related illness while dismissing another. This could only be hypocritical. You use the collective “us”, I assume including yourself in the group of the “annoyed” therefore. Are we to understand that illnesses are only relevant and feasible if we ourselves suffer the symptoms? Perhaps flu is a myth – after all, I’ve never had it. Surely alzheimer’s , dementia are just signs of “getting on”, therefore? Can I dismiss cancer, as I merely know people who have contracted it, without having suffered myself?

      Secondly -“The first needs to eat a bit bit more and the second a bit less.” There’s a lot of comments here, but I would have to say this wins out for sheer ignorance. Fantastic to see someone who’s done their research so thoroughly and is practising what they preach. Both are in fact mental illnesses curable by intense therapy but nonetheless difficult to combat. There is no magic pill or magic solution.

      Thirdly, I would query your statement that “a boot where the sun normally doesn’t shine” is valid treatment; furthermore, “a bit harder I would suggest in the case of the latter” demonstrates complete lack of understanding for the multiple manifestations of an eating disorder. Again your choice to prioritise one over the other is problematic and frankly unsympathetic. Both have severe consequences on the suffer’s health and it is more than a little unfair to suggest the diagnosis of obesity is equitable to one of laziness?

      Jacobi mate, please do your research before generalising like this ! Bear in mind that those with anorexia are suffering and this is upsetting and shows very little compassion..

      • Jacobi

        Yes Haz, a bit tongue in cheek or rather about 50/50.

        And I have done some research over the decades as well as having observed from many different situations including poverty and having travelled much of the world .

        Anorexia and obesity rarely if ever exist where people are poor or have real problems to worry about.

        Alzeimers and /or dementia are a function of age and brain deterioration. You and I
        will get it if we live long enough

        Personality mental illnesses do exist but in my humble opinion only some say 10-15% of those who trail along to NHS clinics and thereby keep the various well paid
        professionals in their nice comfortable consulting rooms as occupied as they the well paid professionals choose to be.

        You are not one of those professionals are you??

        Can’t say I am a Pro but I did do a spell of four/five years in N.D.C., ( google that if you don’t know what it means ), and was probably not bad at it . At least they kept coming back!

        So Haz , laddie please, do a little detached thinking for yourself – unless you are one of those professionals, Heavens forbid!

  • The Patriarchy

    Mr Liddle, like the Baroness, commits the unforgivable sin of questioning someone’s hard won victimhood privilege, the ultimate violation of the safe space of the self-pitying.

    It’s surprising that in that huge body of law about the bogus concept of “hate” the idiot Blair left us, there wasn’t provision for legal protection (and monetary compensation) for those with voluntary, optional, hysterical or fashionable afflictions. Obviously an oversight.

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    Alcoholism is a modern illness?

  • Simon Bowler

    Sad to see that the debate around anorexia, and indeed many other illnesses, is so often one of blame. It is clear that there are cultural and environmental influences which contribute to anorexia. Does that mean those with this disease deserve it? Do the poor and undernourished deserve rickets?
    In my unfortunately long and difficult experience of this disease, every sufferer’s story is their own. Narcissists are no-doubt amongst those with anorexia, as are many other personality types. Many sufferers are doing a very good job of blaming themselves, without the need to have others piling on yet more guilt. The people who suffer from this illness are in desperate need of help. So, stop seeing them as victims. Stop seeing them as attention seekers. Stop trying to define them as anything other than someone who is suffering from a life-threatening mental illness, and then try to actually help.

  • Robert Backus

    Not a subscriber but it would be interesting to see what the stats are on those in developing world nations who have anorexia, tho it’s probably difficult to find any in places where it’s nearly impossible to get 3 square nutritious meals a day.

  • Mary Barnes

    Liddle you a creep for writing this article. To call people with severe mental illness problems narcissistic is evil and vile. It is the same old things of bitter old men taking out their hatred on innocent young women, and claiming that the victim of this illness is just being selfish.
    Bullies are using the term narcissistic more and more,/.. I say the real narcissistic is the psychopathic bully who feels the need to insult vulnerable people. And how can it be narcissistic to worry that you are fat. That is a sign of low self esteem.

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