Dear Ms. Penny

I\’m afraid that you\’ve really rather confused me here over anorexia:

The real problem is that we live in a neurotic, miserable society with a deeply disturbed attitude to food, nurture and consumption, a society which teaches children, and particularly girls, that their growing bodies and normal desires are unacceptable and must be starved away.

The implication there is that society teaches young women that being young women, having feminine curves, is unacceptable. These are what must be starved away to return to a pre-pubertal state.

Yet the other 50% of your journalistic output is about how society sexualises young women, fantasises, drools, over the firm curves and chest fats of young women.

I can see that either could be undesirable, even disturbing and dangerous: I\’m just not sure how it\’s possible to believe in both.

Could you please advise?

30 comments on “Dear Ms. Penny

  1. Tim

    Good pointing out of a classic, “I can have it both ways” (no pun intended), from the woolly ones.

    In any case, as a man, you are to blame and I expect you to castigate yourself with only one glass of wine tonight.

  2. Much as I heartily agree with your attitude to the only-too-estimable Miss Penny, in this instance I fear she can have it both ways-at least if she said “parts of society” rather than society.
    Both pushes are there and the results can be sad.
    None of which means that Miss Penny is not a self-serving arsewit and demagogue.
    Oh bugger-I should have said Ms!

  3. Just read the whole thing.
    Hmm!

    I am beginning to get the feeling that our Ms. Penny is using media to work through her own problems and project these on to society at large making the rest of us to blame.

    She regularly (and here does it again) describes a world which I didn’t realise exists. Your highlighted text is illustration.

    A little therapy perhaps.

  4. Hard to see why she practically has a key to the front door at the BBC. Oh, hang on, it isn’t really.

  5. Hmmm, so first she makes the excellent point that it is usually not glossy magazines that are driving the behaviour:

    “When I first developed anorexia at age 12, I didn’t care about celebrities. I stopped eating because I was desperately unhappy and wanted to disappear. It was only much later that I started reading glossy magazines”

    She then contradicts herself completely by claiming it’s size zero culture that bullies girls into starving themselves, as per your blog quote.

    Marvellous.

  6. The problem is the ruling class. They set what is fashionable in the public mind- giant wigs, slashed jerkins, trousers or hose, and so on- and that is true for standards of beauty too. Back in the old days, being “pale” was a sign of upper classiness, because it proved you weren’t a peasant out in the fields under the baking sun. It’s basically about class distinctions, “we are upper class because we are this, or that” and then everyone takes that as a standard and tries to ape it. Rich people wear jewellery to show off how rich they are- literally wearing their wealth hanging from their faces and hands. Poor people ape it with crap from Argos.

    The Anglo upper class has been for a long time ideologically puritan (and ideologically Romantic, but that is a matter for analysis of Greenism more than this issue). A slim figure thus is used to demonstrate moral superiority; it says “I am restrained and do not over indulge unlike the gorging chavs”.

    So that’s where the “size zero culture” comes from. It is a real effect. But “the media” are just the conduit that transmits that information to the rest of society, not its generator. The Daily Fail and their, “see minor celeb’s stunning bikini body” stuff, what a ghastly rag they are.

    But people like Penny, and general leftie commentators- being puritan upper class themselves- need to seek scapegoats and deflect blame. So, while on the one hand stoking an imaginary panic about “obesity” they have to blame others for the inevitable result that some people are going to take the “you can never be too thin” message too far.

    So anyway, waffled off the point a bit as is my wont. The two attitudes which appear contradictory are not. They are both puritan derived. The first is that your figure is very important because it indicates moral restraint by being the correct shape. The second is that you should not be “sexualised” in order, again, to display your moral restraint (simply in a different way, regarding shagging rather than eating).

    It is all very much the result of a strong ruling class belief that there is a particular ideal type of person one should be, and everyone should be one of those.

  7. Oh, right. I’m not sure that one meta-analysis, deserves more than “a recent study strongly suggests that …”

    I can think of all sorts of reasons for it to be correlation rather than causation too.

  8. @BenSix

    That’s one interpretation of ‘deadly’, I’d like to see what the absolute figures are for the whole population, rather than the relative ones for those diagnosed with anorexia.

  9. And, as opposed to (just as an example):

    “Fifty people die each year and hundreds more suffer serious side-effects as the result of taking powerful tranquillisers prescribed by the NHS, The Times has learnt. ”

    Now, I appreciate that is a secondary effect of the treatment of the condition rather than a primary effect of the condition itself. But dead is still dead.

  10. The ever excellant Jamie Whyte deals with this on about page 57

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/46216215/Crimes-Against-Logic-Jamie-Whyte-McGraw-Hill-2005

    “The British Medical Association (BMA) is always calling on people to stop doing this or that on accountof its dreadful effects on the health. Normally, their mistake is in thinking that health is all people careabout. I may know that smoking is bad for me but persist in any case, because I prefer a short andsmoky life to a long fresh one. On this occasion, however, they went wrong on what should be their home ground, namely, on the medical facts and figures. The idea that anorexia affects 2 percent of youngwomen and kills a fifth of sufferers is ridiculous.”
    ..
    “The figure of 14,000 is more than a thousand times greater than the truth. The number of young women who died from anorexia nervosa in 1999 was 13. Not 13,000. 13.”

  11. IanB, I agree with some of what you say but there’s some big gaps there.

    The ‘ruling class’ do not ‘set what is fashionable’. Not-so-successful people imitate successful people (or at least, those believed to be successful). Hence bling, bikini bodies, and huge spoilers bolted to nissan micras. But any ‘ruling class’ is just a subset of ‘successful’, and this is probably a
    fractal pattern.

    And I have trouble with the idea that puritanism might lead to ‘be thin so you can wear a bikini, like this Z-lister’.

    Lastly, you’re still assuming that even a saturation culture like ours is able to destroy a persons self-confidence so thoroughly as to trigger problems like anorexia. You’re not wondering what kind of background these anorexic children come from? Whether this background, or even genetic predispositions, might be underlying the anorexia?

    Digging through the links a bit gets the telegraph article below, which like most of the others focuses on anecdotes and the proclamations of eating-disorder charites, but throws in a few more meaty points:

    “Separate research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry earlier this year suggests one in five children diagnosed with an eating disorder have a history of early feeding problems, such as fussy eating.

    “Almost half of those diagnosed with disorders by the age of 12 had a close family member with a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression. ”

    “Last year a survey of women suffering from anorexia found almost half said they had a problem with food by the age of 10. ”

    “Georgie Bevan, from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, was 11 when signs first appeared of a problem with food.

    For the boarding school pupil, it began with a class lecture on healthy eating, which appeared to trigger an obsession with cutting out fat from her diet. ”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/children_shealth/8672564/Hundreds-of-preteen-children-treated-for-eating-disorders.html

  12. Is stress a mental illness, as and of itself?

    I know it is reported to be a causal factor in mental illness (eating disorders being one of them) and has been long been accorded physiological symptoms – sleep difficulties, hypertension, etc.

  13. I don’t know where they’ve got that statistic from (well, I do, but the “consultancy” it’s sourced to is hard to find). They’re also claiming that stress is a cause of cancer, which sounds dubious. (Except, perhaps, as an inspiration to take up smoking!)

  14. Niels-

    The term ruling class is rather crude, but just describes that general class who are dominant. The jet set. The beautiful people. The in crowd. Whatever.

    I’m not claiming that these standards cause mental illness (although they may lead to a greater incidence, I think). Rather, that they shape the form that mental problems will take- self-starvation, self harming, obsessive compulsiveness regarding particular issues such as health, “toxicity”, germs and dirt, etc.

    As with your example, where a teenager latched onto the “healthy eating/fat is evil” message.

  15. “For the boarding school pupil, it began with a class lecture on healthy eating, which appeared to trigger an obsession with cutting out fat from her diet”

    Hectoring nanny staters cause eating disorders!

  16. Hectoring nanny staters cause eating disorders!

    Well, yes :)

    Those hectoring nanny staters are the primary conduit for dispersion of ruling class ideology[1]. The major problem we have is that they have taken class-based preferences and turned them into a fully-fledged belief system, and thus developed into a kind of nominally secular equivalent of the Islamic world’s ulema, the religious councils who decide doctrinal issues and hand out decisions for enforcement by mullahs and mutaween.

    [1] I will now go sit in a corner with a copy of Socialist Worker, planning the revolution.

  17. IanB,

    thanks for the response. Appreciate you weren’t being strictly literal when you said ‘ruling class’, but I’m still not convinced by your description of the problem with anorexia. You seem to be suggesting these beautiful people are exercising power here (‘ruling’, ‘dominant’, ‘in crowd’).

    But surely these people are simply conduits for public opinion and indulgences, just as you describe the media to be? Or at least primarily – they are able to encourage a bit of hype around themselves, but they cannot engineer celebrity entirely from thin air. See any X-Factor winner for proof of that…

  18. Niels, I’m arguing that certain groups in society have more (considerably more) ideological influence than others, and it they who choose what value systems the society as a whole should adopt (whether they achieve this or not is another matter).

    The class in which Polly Toynbee moves is vastly more influential than the one I move in, basically.

  19. Niels, I’m arguing that certain groups in society have more (considerably more) ideological influence than others, and it they who choose what value systems the society as a whole should adopt (whether they achieve this or not is another matter).

    The class in which Polly Toynbee moves is vastly more influential than the one I move in, basically.

  20. Niels said: “they cannot engineer celebrity entirely from thin air. See any X-Factor winner for proof of that”

    But see any Big Brother winner for contradictory evidence. (Not to detract from your major point, of course.)

  21. Ian Bennett – nice try, but I’d be hard put to name the last three winners, and I can’t think of any that are influential enough to cause anorexia (just nausea).

    Ian B, sure, but you’ve also argued that the media (and those making a living from appearing in it) is just a conduit for our own pre-existing prejudices.

    But in that case, there doesn’t seem much power there – nothing changes, and if anything those wanting to stay in the public eye without taking too much flak have to adapt their (public) behaviour to avoid rubbing the readers up the wrong way! See the Giggs saga, or the Keys/Gray/Massey stuff. Hell, you can probably think of half a dozen yourself. The papers and magazines spend about as much time tearing ‘slebs down as they build them up…

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