Does television give us an insight to the nature of eating disorders?

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Photo: Creative Commons
As my university colleagues fell prey to the lure of cheap alcohol and licking ice-cream off each other’s elbows under the moderate glare of foreign March suns, I decided that spring break would be a convenient time to get a chest infection (I hear that they are 20% off at M&S at the moment). A little downtime coughing up blood is always stellar, and it turns out that there was a positive correlation between how much of a mummy my mum deigned to be on any given day and the likelihood of my reversion back into a whining pseudo-babyhood. And so for two weeks, I was a passive presence in my childhood home – a human receptacle for homemade soup, and a keen critic of exploitative Channel 4 documentaries by day and of old episodes of ‘A Place in the Sun’ by night, despairing at Jasmine’s heinously patterned assortment of sundresses and the mediocrity of the programme in general.
Though loathe to admit it, I think of TV with the kind of fondness one might associate with the funerals of dead pets and rainy Saturdays spent indoors. Given that I live in the Annexe of St Regulus Hall and the common room usually seems like a rather grisly, and often wet, trek away, TV watching (if we are talking about the original ‘box’, and not the new and glorious mediums of Netflix etc) has become something which I fondly associate with another period of time, one which feels almost entirely removed from this current one – another life, perhaps.
And so, being feverishly ensconced in my living room, the aesthetics of which have not drastically altered since I was about eight, again ill, feeling as one might imagine a Victorian with consumption might feel, surrounded by my family, all of us surrounding the television, was nostalgic. There was the disconcerting, deceptive feeling that nothing had really changed, that perhaps we had always been there, that perhaps I had never gone away; that I had never left them, or my childhood.
One of the programmes we watched as a family – dragging my younger brother from the self-imposed shackles of his headset – was one which recently aired on BBC1 titled ‘Back in Time for the Weekend’. The show revolves around a typical middle-class London family of four who spend ten days recreating ‘living’ through each ‘decade’ of the latter half of the twentieth century. Though there was definitely a certain appeal in the
parallels we drew between our family and theirs, and the offbeat charm and the lack of pretension or prescription to ‘cool’ of the family itself, the programme struck me for other reasons. It was interesting to observe the ways in which technology, particularly, has gradually developed toward the interests of the ‘individual’; as the decades wore on, family leisure time was exchanged for personal, individual leisure time. Though the show served primarily as a visual timeline of how our recreational pursuits have evolved – and potentially to our detriment, and the detriment of the ‘united’ family as a concept – I found it interesting to consider this progression towards individualisation in the context of our current society.
Recently, Joan Bakewell, a prominent journalist and sometime feminist spokesperson, caused controversy
when she stated that she believed the exponential rise in cases of anorexia and other related disorders amongst
young women was linked to a prevalent narcissism within 21st century western culture. Though I’m hesitant
to fully agree with Bakewell, I understand her point. Her use of the word ‘narcissism’ is unfortunately problematic, drawing connotations of sociopathy or of a general lack of care for others, which distracts from any potential truth in what she is saying. ‘Introspection’ is perhaps one better to describe what I feel is a root cause of this terrible, augmenting ‘trend’. It would be stupid not to question why there has been such a dramatic rise in the number of young women – and some young men – suffering from these awful diseases. People seem to have inferred from Bakewell’s statement that she is advocating judging or condemning these girls – that their pain and suffering is as a result of their innate selfishness. People, as people tend to do, have, I believe, gotten it wrong. There is no evidence to suggest that this is what Bakewell was implying. It has been repeatedly demonstrated to us that ‘keep calm and carry on’ is often a null and void philosophy – taking a no-nonsense, Enid Blyton boarding school-esque approach to mental illness achieves little. This is not to say that there is no truth in Bakewell’s suggestion that self-focus promotes self-obsession which in turn leads to such illnesses which are (often, but not always) related to self-esteem issues. As someone who did, as a young girl, suffer from self-esteem related illness, I can confirm that, whilst my problems were not invented, an inclination
towards both intensive self-focussing and over-analysis were deeply unhelpful.
I would argue, however, that a root cause of this worrying particular trend is due to the excessive promotion of the importance of individualism within society – the promulgation of the idea that to satiate one’s own
desires is the ultimate ends. Clearly, the individual is important, but too much inward focus is unhealthy. The
act of caring for someone should involve encouraging them to look outwards instead of inwards; perhaps
by bending to what is now viewed as outdated tradition, and maybe even watching terrible daytime television
with their loved ones.

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