Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eating Disorders and their Discontents

The New York Times' food critic, Frank Bruni, is publishing a memoir about his childhood bulimia. The book is excerpted in last Sunday's magazine. I enjoy reading Mr. Bruni's restaurant reviews. I enjoy knowing that there are people out there who, like me, love food. I'm sorry to hear that what he does for a living is related to an eating disorder. It's kind of a killjoy.
At least he parlayed it into an enjoyable occupation. I doubt that many bulimics end up being restaurant critics or chefs de cuisine. Some commenters (one commenter actually) wondered if this was not T.M.I. But in this country, unless Dick Cheney has something to do with it, there is no such thing as too much information. Everybody else is happy to share their most intimate miseries with the world. It's not Mr. Bruni's fault. America is a culture of the confessional. The public laps it up.
We have literary memoirs, we have books such as this one, and we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to people making asses of themselves on TV. For a country that can seem so callous in so many ways, (I'm not paying taxes, fuck the immigrants, screw you and your communist healthcare plan) Americans are surprisingly mawkish and empathetic when it comes to the individual tale of woe. Whoever spills the beans (I was an addict, a shoplifter, an anorexic, an alcoholic, a compulsive shopper, a fugitive from a chain gang, etc) is considered some sort of brave creature just for doing so.
Bruni's article was interesting, but the comments section was fascinating. Apparently, everybody in this country has, had or will have an eating disorder or issues with food. All kinds of reasons are bandied about, from lack of self-esteem to genes, to bad parenting.
But the truth is, food is complicated.
Contrary to what some Americans think and what some energy bar companies would have you believe, food is not fuel. Food is comfort, culture, and civilization. If food was fuel, nobody would have an eating disorder. Cars don’t have eating disorders. Food is love, or its withholding. Food is emotional. Food is pleasure. But in this puritanical country it is viewed as something sinful and suspicious. It is also disrespected and degenerated into garbage (see Food, Inc.).

I have always thought that parents who berate their kids for being chubby and who instill premature fat obsessions in their kids are much more noxious than parents who show their children love by feeding them, even if it means placing too much emotional weight on what's for lunch (see: my mother).
When I was about 15, I was a day camp counselor and I will never forget a 7 year-old girl who was mortified about wearing a bathing suit. She was the only kid who had issues at meal time. She was a miserable kid, unable to enjoy herself at all, because her mother had been feeding her this nonsense that she was fat. She sounded like a 40 year old kvetch. It was unnatural for a child her age to be so obsessed with her body image. She was a little chubby, that’s all.
I was the opposite of Mr. Bruni, who was a prodigious eater as a child. I hated food. I had a mother and a grandmother who would have been happy to force feed me like a goose about to donate its liver to foie gras. They literally ran after me with plates and spoonfuls of food. And the more they tried to shove food on me, the more I resisted. I was a horrid, finicky, nasty eater. If my mom could see me now...
I only started really enjoying food as an adult, and I gained considerable weight. I have never been fat, buy I have been overweight.
Would I like to lose 10 to 15 pounds? You bet. Am I willing to deprive myself from the pleasure of eating? Not really. I try to stay away from desserts and fatty foods but I eat like a truck driver, and I need to feel satisfied. Nothing puts me in a worse mood than having a bad meal. So I'm thinking, if I am not willing to make the sacrifice, shut my trap and eat salad, I might as well start loving myself the way I am. Because what is untenable is to live, like so many of the people commenting on the Bruni story, eternally hating your body, and by extension, yourself.

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