Allison Pearson: Yes, today's teenage girls are crippled by narcissism
Anorexia cases have doubled in three years as our teens find themselves living in a hall of mirrors, writes Allison Pearson
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
I have known five girls who became anorexic. One was a high-achieving perfectionist from a happy family, where the mother was as slender as a wand and neurotic about food. The second had an obese mother and a plump sister. A third girl was an only child whose parents had gone through an ugly divorce and whose beloved daddy had left the family home for a younger model. To my untutored eye, it looked as if the 15-year-old had chosen subconsciously to return to a time before puberty, to a childhood when things had been safe and her family whole.
The fourth girl was a gentle, bespectacled, bookish type who started secondary school and developed obsessive habits to deal with anxiety over her new workload. Her devoted parents looked on in horror as, each evening, their once carefree child took the scales and measured out the tiny amount of rice that had become her evening meal.
Finally, there is my friend's gorgeous, funny, big-boned daughter who got tired of being The Fat One in her friendship group of selfie-taking hotties. She lost weight. Felt giddy with delight at her achievement. Lost more weight. Started obsessively taking pictures of her new slender form and posting them on Facebook. By then, she was unable to see how frighteningly emaciated she was. You could cut yourself on her shoulder blade.
All of this is to say that anorexia is a dreadful mental illness. No family is safe from it, though those where the mother has issues with food seem more vulnerable, and there appears to be a genetic component.
Our selfie-taking culture, in which teenagers are required to peacock themselves every three hours on social media or be marked down as a loser, acts like petrol on the barely constructed, balsa-wood self of the teenage girl. It has turned a relatively rare condition into an epidemic.
Surely, this is what Joan Bakewell was getting at when she said that anorexia "could be about the over-indulgence of our society, over-introspection, narcissism really" and that it arises because girls "are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin"?
For this, Baroness Bakewell was called "crassly insensitive" and a lot worse.
Poor Joan issued a hasty apology, as anybody must these days when they have stampeded a herd of sacred cows, but some of what she said is observably true. Girls are preoccupied to a crippling extent with being beautiful and thin. Not because they are not naturally more disposed to vanity than their mothers or grandmothers, but because they live in a hall of mirrors.
I probably have 10 photographs of me as a teenager; today's teenage girl takes 10 a day. New technology is solipsism's best friend. The screen of a phone is like the pond where Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, and was unable to stop himself looking until he lost the will to live.
Seventy years ago, when Joan was a child, mothers raised on Sabbath Day self-abnegation would counsel their daughters sharply: "No one's going to be looking at you, young miss." I've tried that with mine, but my heart isn't in it. I know it's a lie.
People will not only be looking at her, they will be giving her a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down according to how cool they find her image. That is the curse of her generation, and the worm that is eating them all from within.
My friend Louise says that, when she attended a school back in the Sixties, pupils were encouraged to give up looking in the mirror for Lent.
In 2016, you would need to be in a convent or a coma to escape your ever-present face.
Joan was slapped down for using "a pejorative term like narcissism". Emma Woolf, who wrote An Apple A Day, a memoir of recovery from anorexia, angrily suggests the Baroness should visit an eating disorders clinic and see the depressed inmates before she starts speculating on its causes.
As it happens, I don't think Joan was making a moral judgment about individuals, but a broader point about a society blighted and warped by self-obsession.
It's a fact that the number of teenagers being treated for eating disorders has doubled in just three years. The UK is also suffering from a sexting crisis, with tens of thousands of schoolchildren sharing sexual images of themselves online.
Does anyone seriously think there is no connection between a pornographic culture of display and young people hating and starving their bodies?
All her life I have done my damnedest to protect my daughter from those pressures. When she was six, we took her to look around one of the top girls' schools.
A mother I recognised bounded over to us and beamed: "I know they all have anorexia in the sixth form, but it does offer a marvellous, well-rounded education."
Her actual words, I promise. So, your child may be under intolerable pressure and come to resemble a human coathanger, her hair may fall out in clumps and her eyes retreat to dark sockets, but the good news is she will get her place at a top university. Phew!
I hope Baroness Bakewell will continue to speak her mind, because plenty of people agree with her. There is no one simple cause of anorexia, but it is a sick society that makes so many of its children mentally ill. Pity our girls brought up in the hall of mirrors, and dying to be thin.
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