"I Was A Baby Bulimic," Now He's A Food Critic

New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni makes a living eating. So it's both disturbing and encouraging to learn, in this excerpt from his memoir Born Round that his early years were plagued with weight struggles, self-loathing and eating disorders.

From an early age, Frank Bruni says, he was an over-eater. Although he was naturally big-boned and had legendarily hearty appetite from early childhood, his relationship to food was always more about excess than satisfaction, and he routinely continued to eat after he was full. What is distressing about his account is that he was clearly someone who naturally loved and appreciated the tastes and experiences of food, but this natural love was tainted by his feelings about his weight and the connection that developed in his mind. The fact that he and his mom started going on diets as a child can't have helped. It's clear that Bruni and his family accepted being a "fat kid" as a bad thing, to be cured - and while clearly he was developing an unhealthy relationship to eating, the two things were conflated in a depressing and all-too-common way. (Indeed, this still seems to be the author's POV.)

The extra weight was the confirmation: once a fat kid, always a fat kid, never moving through the world in the carefree fashion of people unaccustomed to worrying about their weight, never as inconspicuous. It was the stubborn thing I seemed least able to control, and I often felt that all my shortcomings flowed from it - were somehow wrapped into and perpetuated by it. If only I could fit into pants with a waist size of 31 or 32 instead of my 33s and 34s, I could walk briskly and buoyantly into a crowded school party instead of hovering tentatively at the door, unable to decide whom to approach and questioning whether my approach would be welcome.

As a young man, Bruni becomes bulimic. While he thought of his habitual vomiting as mere weight management rather than an ED, his description tells a different story.

To be a successful bulimic, you need to have a firm handle on the bathrooms in your life: their proximity to where you're eating; the amount of privacy they offer; whether - if they're public bathrooms with more than one stall - you can hear the door swing open and the footfall of a visitor with enough advance notice to stop what you're doing and keep from being found out...You need to be conscious of time. There's no such thing as bulimia on the fly; a span of at least 10 minutes in the bathroom is optimal, because you may need 5 of them to linger at the sink, splash cold water on your face and let the redness in it die down. You should always carry a toothbrush and toothpaste, integral to eliminating telltale signs of your transgression and to rejoining polite society without any offense to it. Bulimia is a logistical and tactical challenge as much as anything else. It demands planning.

He stops, finally, when his friends hold an intervention of sorts. He says, "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 and as I traced an unlikely route to the most implausible of destinations: professional eating."

These are accounts we normally hear coming from women, and it's always good to be reminded that EDs target men and boys, too - and a part of me wonders if a man who wasn't openly gay would feel as comfortable, even today, talking frankly about a disease which is still perniciously linked in the public mind only with young women. I'm also glad to read about someone who not only managed to recover, but seemingly managed to recover a love of food - enough that he can take pleasure in it in his career. (So one hopes, anyway - and this is certainly the impression anyone reading his food writing has always received - and I look forward to reading this memoir in full.) What is distressing, though, is that at no point does the adult Bruni seem to find much acceptance for his heavier self - just relief that the pain and loss of control is over. On the one hand, in his case, there seems to have been a clear relationship between his chronic overeating and his weight - and his resultant self-loathing. But even so, and perhaps this is unfair to ask in a personal memoir, I wish he were able to distinguish between the two - if only for the sake of changing things a little for a new generation of young boys, and girls, who feel that same self-loathing.

I Was A Baby Bulimic [NY Times]