Binge eating and boys

Food critic Frank Bruni's memoir sheds light on a little understood disorder, especially as it affects males


Kate Harding
July 17, 2009 10:18PM (UTC)

"I was a baby bulimic," writes New York Times food critic Frank Bruni in an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater," that runs in the NYT Magazine. The self-diagnosis is meant to be tongue-in-cheek but also portentous: As a toddler, Bruni would demand huge quantities of food and, when denied even more, vomit. After the first time it happened, "Mom figured she had witnessed an unusually histrionic tantrum with an unusually messy aftermath. But I've always wondered, in retrospect and not entirely in jest, if what she had witnessed was the beginning of a cunning strategy, an intuitive design for gluttonous living. Maybe I was making room for more burger. Look, Ma, empty stomach!"

Eventually, Bruni did become a grown-up bulimic, but for most of his childhood, he overate without purging. (Puking in his highchair turned out to be a phase.) Although he notes that for his mother, "it was a point of pride to cook and serve more food than anybody could eat, and the normal course of things was to shove food at people," his was a special case. His two brothers, both close to his age, were served the same outsize portions but seemed to have a natural shut-off switch that little Frank was born without; unlike him, they got full. Bruni always wanted more.

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"The riddle of overeating is a profound one," Bruni says in an audio slide show that accompanies the excerpt. Indeed, binge eating disorder -- the most likely diagnosis for Bruni before he became bulimic -- is thought to be the most common and yet the least understood eating disorder. Though it's widely recognized by professionals in the field, it's not yet an official diagnosis. And because the average person's understanding of overeating is so simplistic -- undisciplined people eat too much and get fat; disciplined people eat normally and stay thin -- there's not much pressure for doctors to investigate why some people are compelled to eat well past the point when most of us would be sated. Fat people with normal eating habits are treated as non-compliant liars if they can't lose weight, while the relatively small percentage of people who do binge on a regular basis are thought to have a simple, stereotypical lack of willpower, not an illness. And what of people like Bruni, who overeat compulsively but never become obese? If you're only a bit chubby, then surely, being shamed into making modest diet and exercise changes will solve all your problems!

Bruni went on his first diet, the Dr. Atkins "revolution" (the first time it was ridiculously popular), when he was 8 years old. "When I think about that now, an 8-year-old on a low-carbohydrate diet ... it sounds like madness," he says in the slide show. But at the time, he writes, "Ketosis was my preadolescent nirvana. It was what I wished for: ketosis, along with a new five-speed bicycle." His mother, he says, was "a sucker for fad diets ... at any given moment, between 5 and 15 pounds over her goal weight," who encouraged him to join her on that one. And even though Bruni -- who for some time was a competitive swimmer -- was never much more over his "ideal" weight than she was, his doctor reinforced the message that he needed to lose weight. "Sometimes he said, 'I'd like it if you lost 5 to 10 pounds.' He never said, 'You're fine the way you are.' I know because I listened for that -- listened for some indication that I was wrong about myself."

That's what's so fascinating and heartbreaking about Bruni's story. As his eating disorder raged on untreated, his body shame grew, far out of proportion to his actual appearance. In the slide show, he talks about looking at old pictures of himself and feeling two contradictory things at once -- the same old self-hatred for being a "fat" kid, tempered by a new adult perspective: He really wasn't fat. Just a bit chubby at times.

But because so many factors conspired against his getting help for his disorder -- the era, the fact that he was male, the fact that he wasn't obese despite eating vastly more than other kids, his mother's assumption that the next fad diet would fix everything for both of them -- he channeled his conflicted feelings about his problematic relationship with food into searing shame over occasionally having to shop in the "husky" section. And when he gave up swimming, that terror of getting fatter drove him to bulimia. He couldn't stop overeating, but he could take other measures to keep the weight off. As happens too often to too many people -- both in their own minds and in their interactions with medical professionals -- the focus was not on his disordered eating, but on the size of his body. (Consider that the opposite end of the spectrum, anorexia, cannot be officially diagnosed unless the patient is underweight. Fat people can starve themselves until their hair falls out and their hearts are damaged, yet never cross the weight threshold for a proper diagnosis.)

The excerpt ends with a couple of Bruni's college friends confronting him about his purging, which leads to his stopping. But it is not (yet -- a whole book does come after this) a heartwarming tale of recovery. "I succeeded, I think, because so many other extreme or warped weight-management regimens -- including more Atkins and more fasting -- took the place of bulimia as I struggled for decades to figure out how to answer my appetite without being undone by it ..." That might be the saddest definition of "success" I've ever heard. One assumes that the eventual happy ending is there in the book; Bruni parlayed his love of food into a successful career, and the implication is that his decades-long struggle with overeating did come to some balanced conclusion. But still, his entire childhood and a good portion of his adulthood were ruled by body shame, "warped weight-management regimens," and disordered eating.

Kudos to Bruni for candidly shedding light on a disorder that's still so little understood, especially as it affects men -- over a third of those with binge eating disorder are male but the usual scientific interest in men's suffering hasn't made a dent in the lack of solid information on what causes BED and how to treat it. More than 30 years after Frank Bruni went on Atkins for the first time, children with this disorder -- not to mention far too many without -- are still routinely shamed for eating too much and put on potentially dangerous diets. As always, the relentless focus -- in the media, in schools, in pediatrician's offices, in public health initiatives -- is on how to make fat kids lose weight, not on how to help every child develop a healthy relationship with both food and his or her own body. Better to let children marinate in shame and self-loathing, and perhaps develop disordered eating habits to stave off fatness, than to let anyone think for one minute that husky jeans are no big deal.  

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Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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