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Why Narcissism Is Out of the Anorexic's Hands

18/03/2016 16:10 GMT | Updated 16/03/2017 09:12 GMT

"I am alarmed by anorexia among young people, which arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin," said Baroness Joan Bakewell in an interview with the Sunday Times, "I think it's possible anorexia could be about narcissism."

Making such a statement, when anorexia kills more people on a yearly basis than any other mental illness, is dangerous and completely undermines the fact that there are hundreds of causes of the disease, both psychological and, to some extent, physical. Anorexia can be caused by an underlying mental illness such as anxiety or OCD, it can be bought about by turmoil in someone's family or private life. Anorexia can come as a means of seizing control after the sufferer has been through a traumatic experience, such as sexual abuse. Anorexia can even emerge from the chemical changes that occur in someone's brain after a period of dieting. Saying it is merely about narcissism is naive and reductive.

Granted, in some cases of anorexia, the sufferer starts dieting because they believe that a lower body weight might make them prettier, more popular and more successful. But even if that is the sole background reason for someone to become anorexic (which it rarely is), it is unfair, or even outright wrong, to put it down to someone's innate narcissism.

Many men and women, particularly women, will strive to attain the impossible goal of "perfection", as defined by the media, at some point in their lives, not just those who have, or who develop, anorexia. Countless men and women are on a diet at any one time, obsessing over calories, juicing kale - you name it, most have tried it. If anorexics are narcissistic, everyone else is too.

And even if someone doesn't want to lose too much weight, or isn't even that bothered about their appearance but just jumps on the dieting bandwagon, when the body goes through even just a short period of semi-starvation, certain psychological changes occur.

One of the most important studies on the psychological effects of periods of restrictive eating was published in 1950 by a group of researchers at the University of Minnesota. The experiment studied a group of physically and psychologically healthy men during and after restricting their food intake for six months. During this time, the group was restricted to half their former food intake and each man lost, on average, 25 per cent of their body weight. The three months that followed the weight loss gradually saw the men being refed and a subgroup of these men were tracked for a further nine months after this refeeding.

One of the biggest changes that occurred during the process of semi-starvation was that the men, who had all been mentally stable before, found themselves preoccupied with food and plagued with thoughts about food and eating. Not only did this manifest itself in constant conversations about food and diet, but also in an obsession with reading cookbooks and collecting cooking utensils. Interests in activity and sex drive decreased. Essentially, food became all they could think about.

If we transfer this to dieters or people who are maybe on the cusp of developing anorexia, yes it could be perceived as a sort of narcissistic obsession with oneself and eating as a means to perfection. However, as the study suggests, when one is deprived of food, food is all the brain can think about, whether the person undergoing semi-starvation had previously given a second thought to their body shape or not. During the refeeding phase of the experiment in Minnesota, most of these abnormal attitudes persisted.

Not only did the participants in the experiment experience increased obsession with food, eating and cooking, a number of striking social changes were observed. While many of the subjects had originally been outgoing, the men became progressively more withdrawn and introverted. Their senses of humour diminished and they experienced growing feelings of social inadequacy. Romantic relationships they had with people before the study began became strained.

Of these social changes, the increase in social inadequacy is particularly interesting. Other studies have shown that anorexia, or at least the desire to be thinner, can be brought about by feelings of social inadequacy. In this case, then, the Minnesota study suggests there is a sort of catch 22 in those that suffer from anorexia, or disordered eating of some sort. People briefly strive to be thin as they think it will make them more acceptable to society, but on losing weight, this feeling of social inadequacy only gets worse. Far from being narcissistic and obsessed with their own image, a sufferer of an eating disorder is literally wholly and completely trapped in a vicious circle of destructive thought patterns. It is an entirely involuntary self obsession that, once the ball has started rolling, is quite impossible to shake off.

Although there are indications that, with refeeding, the mind and the body gradually revert to normal, often sufferers who have been hospitalised because of anorexia will be left to their own devices again before their thought patterns have returned to normal, meaning relapse is a fairly inevitable consequence, and one that can happen time and time again.

More recent studies have delved deeper into the neurological changes that come about as a result of dieting. Results show that starvation affects the functioning of the insula in the brain, resulting in distorted body image. A sufferer cannot even see what they actually look like - so if you take narcissism at it's literal meaning, a fixation with one's appearance, then at least be aware that this supposedly narcissistic anorexic literally, physically can't help it. Instead, all they have is constant chemical messages telling them they don't look good enough - a far cry from mythical Narcissus who thought he was so handsome that he fell in love with himself.

And if the "narcissism" that Joan Bakewell describes comes from western, capitalist, society, then what help labelling anorexics as narcissists? In that vein, anyone who spends £30 on a new foundation is a narcissist, anyone who gets laser hair removal is a narcissist, anyone who snubs birthday drinks in favour of the gym is a narcissist. If we are to tackle one of the many causes of obsession with image, perhaps we should shift the focus on to the effects capitalist society has on young people as opposed to singling out a small, mentally ill subsection of society. The causes of anorexia are complex and manifold and the way the mind works in an anorexic is distorted. Neither the causes of anorexia nor the thoughts of an anorexic stem from straight up, cold, narcissism.