Peer apologises after anorexia Twitter storm

Eye of the storm: Two of the tweets in this week’s row.

Joan Bakewell’s views on eating disorders made front page news. After a furious reaction on social media, she apologised for them. Was the response justified, or illegitimate censorship?

As Sunday dawned, Joan Bakewell was on the front page of one of Britain’s most respected newspapers. By the day’s end, she had issued a grovelling apology on Twitter.

‘I am full of regret that my reported views have caused distress. I am deeply sorry.’

The peer, president of Birkbeck College at the University of London, had been interviewed by the Sunday Times. One subject had dominated the piece.

‘I am alarmed by anorexia among young people, which arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful, healthy and thin,’ she said. ‘Lots of young people worry about what shape they are; no one did when I was growing up.’

‘No one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food. I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.’

The issue was pertinent. Last year, a record number of children were treated for psychological problems, and admissions in UK hospitals for eating disorders rose by 12%.

But experts responded with scepticism. One specialist said: ‘Anorexia is driven by a need for control, not by narcissism.’ A charity chief executive said eating disorders ‘arise from a complicated interplay of social, genetic and neurological factors’.

Meanwhile, Bakewell spent six hours answering angry tweets. One user called her ‘ignorant’ and ‘highly irresponsible’.

In the mid-20th century, the phrase ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ was popularised in the UK to describe people who sent outraged letters to newspapers. But controversial comments are received with louder indignation in the age of social media.

There were calls to ban and punish writer Germaine Greer last year over her view that transgender women ‘are not women’. Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt was sacked by his university after joking about the role of women in science. And in 2014, scientist Richard Dawkins was criticised for saying he would abort a foetus if he knew it had Down’s syndrome.

Shut up?

Good, say some. Remarks have consequences, and social media is allowing ordinary people to hold others to account for them. Bakewell waded into a debate which she did not understand — hence her word ‘presumably’ — and worsened a stereotype that anorexia sufferers are to blame for their illness. That view causes suffering and deaths.

That is censorious, respond others. Self-appointed guardians of the truth are trying to change the parameters of acceptable thought. Society’s problems will not be solved by making people scared to express their opinions. If Bakewell is mostly wrong, she may still help to find a solution to anorexia; even if she is completely wrong, the public need to know what she thinks.

You Decide

  1. Would you apologise if you were widely criticised for something you had said?
  2. Are outraged users of social media a force for good or a force for ill?


  1. In pairs, choose five words or phrases in this article which you would like to know more about. Then research their meaning and find out at least one interesting detail about each of them.
  2. Write two 300-word newspaper reports on this story — one which is sympathetic to Bakewell, and one which is critical of her. Afterwards, write a paragraph showing which case you find more convincing and why.

Some People Say...

“Some thoughts are best left unsaid.”

What do you think?

Q & A

An 82-year-old peer said something, then apologised for it. Has anything changed?
The people who criticised her say she is a powerful woman who made a horrible illness worse. If you had an eating disorder, they ask, would you want to hear someone say you must spend too much time looking in the mirror? But her supporters say you should be able to say what you want without being bullied into silence, and to hear what others really think — not just what they think is acceptable to say.
What common eating disorders are there?
The NHS identifies three — anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. But there are other, rarer, disorders too. See the links under Become An Expert for more details, and more advice on what you can do, and who you can talk to, if you’re worried about such disorders.

Word Watch

Obsession with yourself.
Psychological problems
Including self-harm, eating disorders and depression.
A total of 2,965 children were treated for anorexia and other eating disorders in 2015.
James Arkell, a consultant psychiatrist who focuses on eating disorders in young adults at a London hospital.
Chief executive
Jane Smith, of Anorexia and Bulimia Care. She also pointed out that anorexia was first diagnosed by Queen Victoria’s physician.
Related to the nervous system including the brain.
The author of pioneering feminist text The Female Eunuch. When Greer was invited to Cardiff University, some students started a petition to ban her from speaking. Transgender former boxing promoter Kellie Maloney also said she should be ‘punished’ for her remarks.
In a speech to a group of female scientists, Hunt said he had ‘trouble with girls’ and asked whether there should be gender segregated laboratories. He then added: ‘Science needs women and you should do science... despite monsters like me.’ He was sacked by University College London.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.