There’s one thing worse than the limp tit in the Sun’s view, and that’s the absent one.
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Page 3 vs breast cancer: whose side are YOU on?

The Sun's Page 3 is a malignant growth of sexism on our press, and trying to use it to raise awareness of breast cancer only perpetuates the kind of single-organ fetishism that makes it all the harder for women with the disease.

Do you like Page 3? Or do you hate breasts and want them to have cancer? That is the dilemma that the Sun issues on today’s front page, where the paper announces a collaboration with the charity Coppafeel to promote self-screening among young women. The initiative is called Check ’Em Tuesday and it’s not so much a public health initiative as a war: according to the headline, it’s “PAGE 3 V BREAST CANCER”. So which side are you on?

It’s very sweet of the Sun to take an interest in my boobs. In fact, it’s downright incredible, since my boobs are basically anathema to Page 3: they’re had-a-couple-of-babies, been-through-a-few-years-of-breastfeeding, gained-and-lost-the-odd-cup-size, attached-to-a-30-something-feminist boobs. I mean, I like them a lot. We have good time together. But Sarah, 32, from Bath is not likely to make a topless visitation to the newsagents soon, or indeed ever (unless the Sun decides to give me the Clare Short treatment).

I don’t want to sound cynical, but consider this: the Sun’s concern for my rack may not be fully sincere. Page 3 is under pressure. The No More Page 3 petition has over 130,000 signatures, and there’s a growing feeling that a topless teen is not a good use of a page of newsprint. However much the Sun and its defenders want to cast Page 3 as a cheeky bit of fun or a charming Fleet Street tradition, women are taking a second look at it and coming to the conclusion that, actually, this is some sexist bullshit.

The biggest circulation newspaper in the country devotes more column inches to a salivating portrait of a pair of tits than it does to the achievements of, say, British sportswomen. What does that tell women about their place in the world? It tells them that their place is to look sexy, be quiet, stay young, make themselves available to male sexual interest – and if they can’t reach the requisite standards of perkiness then for God’s sake don’t try to force yourself on the public view, because this is no country for saggy women.

But there’s one thing worse than the limp tit in the Sun’s view, and that’s the absent one. That’s the problem with so much breast cancer awareness work: it’s all about the tit. Coppafeel’s founder has advanced breast cancer herself, and I can only admire the energy with which she’s devoted herself to raising awareness. Nevertheless, I cringe at some of the tactics the charity uses, such as sending runners round half-marathons with giant disembodied foam boobs joggling on their backs: you couldn’t really get a better example of the single-organ fetishism that pervades some breast cancer campaigns.

For the Sun, Coppafeel is a reason to put a gorgeous young woman on the cover giving herself a grope. For the women who get breast cancer, it not a sexy disease. It is painful. It is tiring. The women who contract it are not, for the most part, young and fresh-faced: they are middle aged and older. The treatment can be almost as unpleasant as the disease, invasive surgery may be required, and many women would die without a mastectomy – and it can be extraordinarily traumatic to lose a breast when you live in a culture that thinks a woman only exists if she’s got the wherewithal to fill a bra.

I wonder how much thought Sun editor David Dinsmore gave to those women’s feelings when he was signing off the front page. Did he realise that the Sun’s breast fixation might be an insult to these survivors? Or did he give any thought to those who have cancers every bit as menacing, but which tragically afflict only non-sexy organs: the cervix, the pancreas, the prostate? Of course not: this is a move of strictest self-interest from the Sun. Page 3 is a malignant growth of sexism on our press. If the Sun really cared about women, it would start by losing the boobs.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times