'Obsessed': Mika Brzezinski takes on America's trouble with food
In 'Obsessed,' Mike Brzezinski addresses the obesity epidemic in America and speaks candidly about her own personal struggles in the hopes of fostering a healthy new attitude toward food. Here's an excerpt.
As I have moved through the process of writing this book—drafts, edits, revisions, etc.—I’ve sought the unvarnished opinions of friends, colleagues, and family members to answer a question that has troubled me from the beginning: How does a person who is not overweight write about her lifelong obsession with overeating without sounding like a narcissistic, woe-is-me skinny girl with an overinflated image of herself, particularly to those who share her obsession with food but happen to be overweight, or even obese?
I can report back to you that the answer to my question was almost unanimous: you can’t. No matter what you say or how you say it, you’re going to sound like a privileged skinny bitch with food issues. Oh yeah, and a TV show. And a woman who was born into a wonderful, prominent family and has a blessed life.
None of that suggests any kinship with the legion of suffering women whose debilitating relationship with food actually shows when they stand in front of the mirror in their closet. Yours doesn’t, so your opinion is not necessarily welcome here.
So here’s the deal. I get it. I am acutely aware of the eye-rolling derision with which many may view my role in this book. I stipulate up front that a good degree of my success in life was gained through my appearance. I did not earn my genetic makeup, any more than I chose the family I was born into.
I am a lucky woman, and I know it.
On the other hand, I have worked hard, taken risks, and experienced as many failures as I have successes. I’ve been hired and fired more times than I would like to recall, have struggled for two decades to bring balance to my professional and family life, have been paid less because I am a woman, and have struggled through one eating disorder after another. But each challenge taught me a lesson I would not have learned otherwise.
The experiences I relate in this book would be no different had I weighed 115 pounds or 215, and the fact that I am closer to the former does not negate the fact that, but for fortunate genetics and the will to change my life, I would be closer to the latter. But if that were the case, I would not be working in television, a visual industry that demands a certain look. It may seem harsh, but, as I wrote in my last book, in order to know your value you must have a clear-eyed understanding of what people are buying. To the extent that I may currently have that look, I am grateful.
So the question is how do I make my point—that absent a fundamental change in the way we consume, prepare, and market food to our children and all citizens, we will never be able to attack the myriad eating disorders that affect millions of Americans today—without coming out and addressing my own internal food issues, despite an external appearance to the contrary?
I’ll tell you how. It’s too important an issue to ignore. I’ll just do it.
This is the book I have been afraid to write . . . terrified actually. It deals with an issue that is radioactive for me. How I eat, diet, and look has tied me up in knots my entire life, and I know I am not alone. I have been held hostage by food since I was thirteen years old. My body started filling out more than the figures of other girls in my class, and that set off what has become a thirty-year battle with my body image. Food has been my enemy. My determination to be thin has led me to extremes, and I’ve done damage to my body and my mind in the process.
It has taken me a very long time to find a way back to health and balance, both physically and emotionally. I’m not there yet, but I’ve come a long way, and it’s time that I have the guts to talk about it. My battle is not over, but I think my story, and the stories of my friends and confidantes, many of them public figures who have had the courage to speak out about very private matters, might help you. I’m going to come clean, and you’ll see that you and I have a lot more in common than you might think.
This book is all about the need to nurture a conversation and start turning back the tide of the obesity epidemic. It’s time we have a real and public dialogue about food and weight, and the threat they pose to the nation’s security. We have to. Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that two in every three Americans is either overweight or obese. We also have 12.5 million children, ages two to nineteen, who are obese—that’s three times as many as we had in the 1980s.1
This book is all about the need to nurture a conversation and start turning back the tide of the obesity epidemic.—Mika
Between the increases in disordered eating and the rise in obesity, our kids, especially our girls, are in grave danger. As a mother I know that unless we intervene, my own two daughters will face challenges that might be even more frightening than those with which I have struggled. I cherish my girls, Emilie and Carlie, and I have to do everything I can to prevent them from becoming as obsessed with food as I have been. I owe it to them to work out my own issues and to start talking about what’s going on in our society, and how we can change.
I have never told my own story, not even to my closest friends, until now. But thanks to friends who have helped with this book, including the late Norah Ephron, Gayle King, Chris Christie, Jennifer Hudson, and countless others, my double life ends now. The truth is out. It’s not a pretty one, but I no longer care. Light really is the best disinfectant, and it is way past time to shine it on America’s screwed-up attitude toward food and what it is doing to us all.
One thing that has always driven me crazy about my internal body image wars is that friends and family members assume that being thin is my natural state. It most definitely is not. The truth is that I live under a daily tyranny of food cravings, and I fight against them constantly. I resent those around me who seem able to eat whatever they want, and I resent those who look at me, like my friend and co-author Diane Smith once did, and think, Seriously, Mika, what would you know about being fat?
The truth is that I live under a daily tyranny
of food cravings, and I fight against them constantly.—Mika
Believe me, I know a lot. For years, I suffered from an almost uncontrollable urge to eat certain foods. My disordered eating patterns extended from late nights in high school, when I would jam two or three Big Macs down my throat, to all-night eating sessions alone in my dorm room, to an Ambien-addled night when I walked downstairs as if in a trance, in front of my horrified husband, who watched me scarf down an entire jar of Nutella with my bare hands.
I am finally ready to lay out the truth about all that. But it is really important that we put my struggles with the power of food—and Diane’s, and possibly yours—into a larger context. This is not just a story about each of us as individuals. It is also the story of a nation that makes eating hard to control.
Of course we are each responsible for our own behavior, and in the end we make our own decisions about what we eat. But we don’t do it in a vacuum. With so many Americans either overweight or obese, something larger must be going on. It can’t be that all of us just lack moral fiber. Some of the problem has to be the kind of food available to us, and the environment in which we eat it.
It’s becoming more and more obvious that our national obesity crisis is not just a “discipline” issue. It is also an inevitable response to all sorts of forces around us, from the images we have about women’s bodies in society to the policies that make it harder for kids to get healthy food at school and easier for agricultural subsidies that put cheap food filled with sugar, fat, and salt within easy reach.
In this book I am going to be talking about all of this. Diane and I will be very honest about why we have sometimes eaten so badly, and we ask that you start being honest with your friends and family, too. Only by realizing that we are all in this together can we appreciate the need to think more about the forces that have put us here. And then we can get very specific about what you and I can do to turn things around—for ourselves, our children, and our communities.
I was in my early thirties when I realized that the way I ate was on a collision course with my dream of being a news reporter. I was a wife, a mother, and a journalist, and I just had to stay healthy if I was going to juggle all those responsibilities successfully. But staying healthy was hard when I was behaving like a junkie hungering for the next hit of crack. My mind wandered to food all the time. I can’t begin to tell you how much time I have wasted with those thoughts. I have literally spent years of my life obsessing over food, chasing after food, gobbling down food—and then punishing myself for eating too much and trying to erase the effects.
I’m not afraid to say I am addicted to certain foods. To me, addiction is the right word: the one that fits the pattern of my behavior and helps to explain some of the poor choices I have made. Not everyone agrees. Some of the scientists, doctors, and therapists who spoke with Diane and me as we were writing this book are still skeptical about the idea that food can be addictive, because obviously it satisfies one of our most fundamental biological needs. We have to eat in order to survive, just as we have to breathe. In fact, I’ve heard people laugh at that idea and say, “What’s next? Are you going to tell me we’re addicted to air, too?”
I was behaving like a junkie hungering for the next hit of crack. My mind wandered to food all the time. I can’t begin to tell you how much time I have wasted with those thoughts.—Mika
But while we do have to eat, we don’t have to eat cake and chips and over-the-top entrées loaded with high-calorie ingredients and chemical flavorings. And those are the kinds of foods that trigger an addiction-like response. In these pages, you’ll be hearing from people who are doing groundbreaking research on food addiction; research that is helping us understand what compulsive eating has in common with substance dependence.
Hear me out and then think about this during your next meal, or when you head to McDonald’s. Although you might go out absolutely determined to order a salad, you will in all likelihood be drawn instead to items on the menu that are “hyperpalatable” or “ultraprocessed.” These are foods that have been packed with sugar, fat, and salt; foods we have processed, produced, and ingested in massive amounts over the last thirty or forty years. They are the foods many researchers blame,
at least in part, for making our country one of the most obese on earth.
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that these are also the foods I’ve been addicted to for years. The ugly truth is that millions of Americans like me have become “hooked” on foods that stimulate the body’s internal pleasure system. They give us the feeling of reward that calls us back for more. It’s a biological response built into the pathways of our bodies.
There’s a reason you don’t see people stuffing themselves with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and nuts. Have I ever sat down and eaten a supersize bowl of broccoli? No way! But like millions of Americans, I have polished off a big bag of potato chips or a pint of ice cream at one sitting. I know I’m not alone when I admit that I have dived headfirst into burgers, fries, and other hyperprocessed foods.
I’m not obese or even overweight, and I am less obsessed with food than I once was, but I still struggle. I fantasize far too often about what I’m going to eat next, even as I maintain (most of the time) a diet that some people think is way too rigid. I know these kinds of struggles are taking place in families across the country, and I know a lot of people are losing them.
How sad for the next generation. Statistics show not only that more children are becoming obese, but that more children are also being treated for “disordered eating.” So we’ve not only got a lot of overweight kids, we’ve got a lot of kids at a healthy weight with unhealthy food habits. Every parent wants to raise healthy and happy kids, but instead we seem to be setting them up for a lifelong losing battle with food.
Whose fault is it that America is getting fatter by the year? Is it all about personal responsibility, as the food industry maintains? Or has processed food been deliberately engineered to make us crave it? Could food industry lobbyists in the circles of power in Washington be partly to blame for the obesity crisis that is costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year?
Experts tell me that a lot of other factors are also helping us become fat. We offer gym at far too few schools and allow soda and candy to be sold in the vending machines of far too many. We build communities without sidewalks or safe recreation. We have a culture in which every business meeting and every social gathering is considered an occasion for eating. With fast food outlets at every corner, we can satisfy our cravings at the drop of a hat, with budget-priced junk food that is within easy reach 24/7.
Let’s face it: the odds are stacked against us.
No wonder we have a crisis of many dimensions. It’s a health crisis. In her book A World Without Cancer, Margaret Cuomo tells us that 30 percent of cancers are associated with obesity, diet, and lack of exercise. It’s an economic crisis, because it can be harder for overweight people to find good jobs. It’s a personal crisis for all of us who don’t feel good about the way we look or how we eat, and are embarrassed to admit it. It’s even a national security crisis, burdening the military with overweight recruits and a shrinking pool of potential candidates; according to our military leaders, one out of four young people in America today is “too fat to fight.”2
Remember the days when people whispered about cancer and called it “the big C,” as if naming it bestowed power? Now we’re doing the same thing with weight problems. We need to stop the whispering, start talking louder, and use the F-word: fat. We’ll have conversations about that in this book, with scientists, researchers, politicians, and friends. You and I may not always agree about how we got here or where to go next, and we may not find the final answers. But we need to take this on. We need to talk freely and without judgment about these fierce and fearsome issues: food, fat, and body image.
We need to stop the whispering, start talking louder, and use the F-word: fat.—Mika
I’ve written on the subject of women, money, and getting what you’re worth in my earlier book Knowing Your Value. Like that one, Obsessed recognizes that as women, we need to take control of our lives. How we eat is a very important part of that, and to make the right choices we have to confront our body image head-on. We have to create a personal game plan that guides us on how to eat and how to live, and we have to understand how that will help us love ourselves first, so that we are really able to love others.
We also need to be honest about the advantages of being thin and healthy—an attractive body really does impact our value.Looks matter, and if we pretend they don’t, our careers are likely to suffer, which may drive some of us to overeat even more. And good looks can’t be faked. If there is a vacant hunger behind your eyes because you aren’t eating properly, there is no way to disguise it just by being thin. In this book I will be “put on the couch” by clinical psychologist and eating disorders specialist Dr. Margo Maine, who will help me get to the bottom of my own body image problems.
As I did in Knowing Your Value, I will also offer some advice, much of it the result of my own mistakes and the lessons I learned from them. And I’ll share insights from my circle of friends on Morning Joe, who stretch from Hollywood to Wall Street to Washington, DC. Some of America’s most famous actors, politicians, business executives, and writers have generously shared their thoughts with me, and I will pass on to you what works for them.
I want to go beyond the debate Joe Scarborough and I have on the Morning Joe set and open the floor to a bigger conversation, a dialogue on how America got fat, why the obesity epidemic keeps getting worse, and how we can turn the corner and step firmly onto the path of health. I want to talk about requiring better food labels and limiting portion sizes, restricting the sale of the huge containers of liquid sugar that we call soda pop, and so much more.
I also want to pass on all the good advice I have been given about how to talk to your children about food, especially girls. Getting that right—knowing what to say and what not to say—makes all the difference. You need to have these conversations with your kids early and often—the issue can’t be addressed in a single heart-to-heart talk—and you need to have them before it’s too late to have an impact.
Just as it is remains a continuing struggle for me to know my value, my friction with food will not end with the last word of this book. But I am putting this all down on paper—the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly—because I think that is part of the process of healing. If you follow the same path, take a hard and honest look at yourself, and consider some of the strategies for success described in these pages, I am confident you will get there, too.
I hope you will also take this book and use it as a sounding board to talk with your family and your friends. Make it a title for your book club, encourage discussions in libraries and community centers, and bring it to a school board meeting to get the conversation started. Let’s push this subject out of the closet.
Talking to women (big and small) about how we look at ourselves and how we eat and how we feed those we love is an important early step. But in the summer of 2011, I learned just how hard having a frank conversation on this subject can be.My tough talk with my dear friend Diane turned so ugly so fast that I thought I had lost her friendship forever. (Luckily I not only kept my friend, but I gained a co-author!)
Diane Smith had been like my sister for fifteen years. When I was scared and alone delivering my second baby, she filled the void and held my hand during the pain of childbirth. We had gossiped together and supported each other through the ups and downs of our media careers. We had shared all the things two friends could share, except one. Neither of us had ever broached the subject of how we battled food and how the very different outcomes had affected our career fortunes.
Diane’s weight had always felt taboo to me. Raising the issue seemed like a bridge too far. But now I was going to cross that bridge and burn it down. When our conversation started, I was shaking with fear, but I knew there would be no retreat back to the land of denial.
The “Talk” (as my horrified teenage girls still call it) started on a perfect Labor Day weekend on Long Island Sound, off the coast of Connecticut. We were on Diane’s small powerboat. As my girls were laughing and teasing their dad and Diane’s husband, Tom, I looked across at her and knew that years of denial had to come to an end. I finally told Diane what I had been thinking for a decade. What everyone who knew this bright, beautiful woman had been thinking but never ever would say . . . until now.
“Diane, you have a problem we need to talk about,” was the way I began the intervention that I feared would bring our precious friendship to an end. Diane had given me the opening when she started talking about dinner. “It’s so hard to know what to cook when you visit, Mika. On Morning Joe you’re always telling people what to eat and not to eat. You make me so self-conscious about my weight because it’s so easy for you. You’re turning into the Food Nazi.”
I felt a catch in my throat and knew this was the chance I had been waiting for. I jumped in. “Diane, you think it’s easy for me to stay thin like this? Because if you do, then you may be one of my closest friends but you know nothing about the hell I go through every day.” Her face turned red and Diane glared at me as if I was the most clueless woman on the face of the earth. As our husbands and kids scurried to the other side of the boat, she and I started to go after one another with the intensity of prizefighters.
“Oh please, Mika! You sit there in your Daisy Duke shorts looking incredible, and you tell me how hard your life is? Why don’t you try talking to me when you start wearing size XXL stretch pants—then you can complain. Any woman I know would kill to look like you. You really can’t look me in the face and say that you struggle.”
I started to sweat. I was losing ground with my old friend fast. Diane had always been on my side. Was I really going to risk this friendship to tell her what had been on my mind for years about her weight, her career, and especially her health? If I was, I would be forced to tell the truth about myself, too—about the double life I had been leading for so long. How I
had been tortured by my inability to escape what Kathleen Turner calls the “tyranny of thin” and my own obsessions and addictions.
“Seriously, Mika, what would you know about being fat?” she continued. “You won the freaking lottery: great job, perfect body, and an amazing life. You walk into the room and every overweight woman dismisses you as a skinny bitch. Do you have any idea how women who look like me feel about women who look like you?”
That was it. I broke down. With tears in my eyes, I began telling her the ugly truth about myself. “Diane, I fight with food every hour of every day of my life.” Diane leaned in close to hear me over the roar of the boat’s motor. “I am obsessed with food. I’m tortured by it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Give me a break!”
I was amazed Diane had never guessed it. I couldn’t believe that she had bought into the acting job Joe Scarborough and I performed on Morning Joe, where he played the undisciplined food slob and I filled the role of the hyperdisciplined health nut. Diane had never realized what was going on in my head when I chastised Joe and Willie Geist and Mike Barnicle for gobbling down Krystal Burgers. She never heard the silent voice roaring, I want that! She didn’t know I was terrified that if I took one bite, I would inhale every burger on the table.
“Food Nazi—are you kidding me?” I asked in disbelief. “Who the hell do you think I’m talking to from the desk of Morning Joe? I’m not just talking to you, Diane. I’m talking to myself, Joe, my kids, and everybody else in America who is tempted to shove food into their mouths without thinking about it. Food that is toxic and is going to turn us all into diabetics. Food that is causing everybody to get fatter and fatter.”
I tried to let Diane know I was worried about her physical condition. “You can’t climb onto your boat without help. Is that how you want to live? Your whole body hurts and your joints are killing you. Why do you think that is? I am just going to say it. It’s because you are fat.”
As she stared at me, stone-faced, I figured now was not the time to sugarcoat this health intervention. “Diane, I am terrified to tell you this but I love you too much not to. You’re not just overweight—you’re fat. You’re OBESE. Other people don’t see the beautiful person I see when I look at you. They see a woman who looks like her life is out of control, who can’t even manage her own body.”
I couldn’t believe I had called her obese, and neither could she. Diane looked like I had punched her in the face. I had dared to use the word that, as fellow newscasters, we had used to talk about “other” people. I had dared to go where no friend or family member had ever gone with Diane. I then told her in no uncertain terms that if she didn’t take dramatic steps soon, her bad habits would break her body down and eventually kill her. “You need to change your entire life,” I declared.
I also told Diane what she already knew: that her obesity had stopped her ascent to the top of the media world. I was so uncomfortable sharing these difficult truths that I couldn’t even look her in the eyes as it all poured out. I knew how much my words were ravaging my sweet friend. But I also knew that change was possible because I had made real, if incomplete, progress in staring down my own demons. I talked more about myself, finally telling her the truth about the glaring insecurity I’d had about my body for years—an insecurity that kept me in front of a mirror, and sometimes locked in my closet, while my tears flowed and flowed.
I told Diane about the pain and the torment I still put myself through to stay thin enough to go on the air. I reminded her of the time I’d been told to lose weight if I wanted a new job. Back then I hadn’t lost enough weight for my employer’s taste, so I lost a career opportunity. It had been an ugly episode that stayed with me for years.
That humiliating experience was one Diane could relate to all too well. After all, we are both tall blonde women on TV, with tons of experience and good broadcasting skills. In terms of pure TV talent, Diane trumps me in most areas, and yet one thing divides us. Diane is overweight and I am not. And every year since we met she seemed to get a little bit heavier.
Talking about that with Diane for the very first time was raw, dangerous, and difficult. But ultimately it turned out to be the most important conversation she and I would ever have. Our day took a fateful turn when I realized that Diane had not a clue about my secret self—the one filled with food and weight struggles that were so similar to hers. Diane had no idea of the damage I had inflicted on myself and my family as I struggled alone under this tyranny. She had no idea how much she and I had in common. Really, there was only one difference between us: her eating had caught up with her and punished her professionally. Mine had not. Two different outcomes to two stunningly similar tales.
The very real pain Diane heard in my voice softened her resentment toward me, and the tone of our conversation shifted.
Soon we began talking about how I had won success in part because I had caved in to the pressures society places on women and manipulated my looks for the TV camera. We talked about the mixed messages imposed on women about their bodies, and how those messages are inflated to a nauseating level in the world of TV news and pop culture.
That was the start of a very real conversation that continues to this day.
Eventually, I made Diane an offer: she would work at changing her approach to food and exercise and lose seventy-five pounds, and I would help her do it. I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and to pay for her to lose weight. She could do whatever it took—buy a gym membership, hire a personal trainer, seek guidance from a dietitian, even seek out bariatric surgery. Whatever! I would be paying my girlfriend to start taking care of herself and to change her life.
At the same time, I would work at overcoming my own obsession with food, gain 10 pounds, and accept the new me. My goal was a healthy 135-pound woman who ate a reasonable meal when she was hungry, instead of someone who freaked out when the scale tipped 120 pounds, fought against the urge to eat at every turn, and often felt drained by all that effort.
Both of us would have the courage to ask for help. I would talk to professionals who would help me understand what was happening in my head and guide me on how to clear it up. Diane would finally find the support she needed to get rid of the fat. We would both talk to people who had lost weight and kept it off, and to people who felt comfortable in their own bodies, whatever their weight, and find out what insights they had to share. Together, we would reach out to people who understood that this issue goes beyond the individual and that we have to start making some changes together, as members of one society.
We decided to make a project out of it, which is how the idea of this book developed. We researched and wrote it together.
Our conversation on the boat started us on a journey that we hope will make us both better. Diane will weigh less, I’ll weigh more, and both of us will be a lot happier. We’re both still working on those goals, but we’re ready to tell all—to finally “go there” without holding anything back. I hope this will inspire you to examine your own lifestyle, body image, and eating habits, whether you share Diane’s food issues or mine. Our friendship is stronger than ever, and we are inspired by the courage we have seen in each other. It is our deepest hope that these pages will inspire you as well.
Our conversation on the boat started us on a journey that we hope will make us both better. Diane will weigh less, I’ll weigh more, and both of us will be a lot happier.
Copyright © 2013 byMika Brzezinski. From the book Obsessed.byMika Brezinski, published byWeinstein Books. Reprinted with permission.