Mika Brzezinski, co-host of Morning Joe, released a book this week, Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction and My Own. It made me want to tell a personal story.
Like most Americans, my relationship with food is complicated. I once told a friend that if I won the Nobel Prize, my first thought would be about my weight. He was shocked. If you are a woman and don’t understand that feeling, I am jealous.
When I was a child, my abusive father used to call me fat. He would “jokingly” poke at my stomach and call it “jellyroll.” My two ways of dealing with the troubles in my personal life (you can read about some of that here) were books and food. I ate a lot. When I look back at the few pictures I have from then, I don’t see a morbidly obese child but that’s what I saw in the mirror and my self esteem was in the toilet. I may have gotten a little chubby but nothing like what I thought.
In junior high school, a girl in my class spread a rumor that I was pregnant. I was 14. One morning on the bus she said, “We’ll know when you start gaining weight.” One response I had was good — I played tennis for HOURS a day after school, it was a great stress release. I also stopped eating. One of my roles was to make sure we had the right food in the house and I just stopped. My father worked at night and he would get us dinner at a deli each night and most days that’s all I ate. Unless I was at my grandmother’s house, I just didn’t bother.
Then I learned about bulimia. Have all you want and lose weight! That’s awesome. I can write you a manual about what to eat or not eat if you are planning to puke later. For instance, chocolate ice cream tastes the same coming up as going down but pizza is a killer. This is NOT a “pro-ana” site so please don’t think I am telling people to gorge themselves on anything.
The year I turned 14 was a big one for me. I discovered two things; beer and boys. That just made the desire to be thin more intense. My stomach was flat but it never felt flat enough. A few years later, the crowd I “ran with” was much more interested in being thin than being healthy (if you read the piece above you’ll see we were also more interested in drugs and alcohol). We congratulated each other for not eating or for purging if we did.
This attitude towards food, that eating was more of a reward than a life sustaining thing lasted until less than ten years ago.
There were two exceptions; Everest and Kilimanjaro. When I trekked to the former’s base camp, I was in terrible shape (from campaigning). One day we were climbing a hill and had to stop every five minutes. After lunch, everything changed. Breaking news! Food is fuel!On Kili, I had a similar experience. Every day when we stopped I become colder than I have ever been in my life for about fifteen minutes. I think it was when my body went from burning carbs to fat but that may be crazy talk.
In 2004, my life changed. I had major stomach surgery. It was not gastric bypass, it was a Billroth II (partial gastrectomy). In English, that means the bottom third of my stomach was removed. That completely changed my relationship with food because eating isn’t pleasurable anymore. It also put me on a path where eating is not always necessary. In 2004, I found I could literally go weeks without eating anything. It’s true. I spent most of that year in the hospital “NPO” — it stands for the Latin “nil per os” or in English, “nothing by mouth.”
Ever since then eating has been a challenge. Even if I enjoy while I am doing it, it hurts later. That’s a problem I have now. A few years ago, I took a really stressful job and found the way to deal with it was to do the opposite of what I did as a child. Rather than run to food, I ran away. The result has been weight loss.
The irony is that I look lighter than I am (the same person who told me not to lose weight, took my weight and didn’t tell me, per my request, but put it on the prescription she gave me — was that really necessary?). I have to use a belt with pants that used to be too small for me to wear. A medial professional told me on Thursday that my weight is “perfect.” She said, “Don’t lose any more weight.”
The upside is that I have a new wardrobe. The downside is pretty much everything else. My physical health is terrible. I am much better person when I weigh more. I have seen sides of myself this year that I never knew existed. I am not blaming my behavior on my weight loss, my actions are my fault and I take responsibility but the obsession with looking a certain way has done nothing good for me.
We live in a strange time. We spend less of our income on food than ever before, yet the quality is lower than it has ever been. Do we need endless pizza for $5? No. That’s not remotely good for us. And don’t get me wrong, I love Egg McMufffins. LOVE THEM. We are addicted to food that is bad for us.
At the same time, we practically worship thin people. Look at any woman’s magazine. Girls are taught that’s what you should look like. Fat people are discriminated at work. I have noticed that all I have received about my weight loss is praise (ironically from some of the same people who want me to eat more can’t help but tell me how great I look, I still think I could lose 20 lbs but I think my brain is set on that you need to lose 20 lbs mindset, am working on changing that but it’s a process).
How are things today for me? I bike almost every day. This week I am going to add weights and yes, I still exercise during Morning Joe, which I do watch every day. I am working on eating five or six small meals a day. I don’t always succeed but I am working on it and I do eat every day (that’s a big deal for me). Again, this is a process. I am even eating meat (per doctors’ orders), though I suck at cooking it.
This is a hard thing for me to talk about but Ms. Brzezinski’s book and the discussion it has raised is important. Thank you for starting it.
Last note: Dear guys, this is not about you. I have a lot of guy friends and my boyfriends have all told me the same thing, “Guys don’t want super thin women, you don’t have to lose weight.” This isn’t about what you or anyone else sees when they look at me, it’s about what I see. It’s called body dysmorphic disorder. I have never been officially diagnosed with it but when I am wearing clothes that didn’t come close to fitting me before and I see a whale, there’s a disconnect. I am working on it. It’s still a process.