Bite Me

By Hallie Hart Hodenfield 12/16/13

TV host Mika Brzezinski wrote a book about food addiction. The Fix shows how the book has nothing to do with addiction, and everything to do with the economy. And vanity.

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nibble nibble, hop hop Photo: Weinstein Books

Mika Brzezinski is extremely hungry, and obsessed with food. Her deprivation is self-inflicted, and she happens to be well-off and well-known, so she has the power to impose her obsession on the rest of us in the form of a book that came out earlier this year. Obsessed was ostensibly written to help combat the obesity epidemic facing America, as well as remedy Brzezinski's own problems with food. The subtitle of Obsessed is “America’s Food Addiction—And My Own.” Within this premise lies the fallacy that undermines the book. America doesn’t have a food addiction, and neither does Mika.

Mika is correct that America is facing an obesity epidemic. Obesity is about to surpass cigarette smoking as the leading cause of death in the U.S. It is a serious national crisis. But this crisis is primarily an economic one, and not a result of hordes of Americans selling their souls and their children for just one more Soft Serve, or losing their livelihoods and the respect of their families because they just can’t put down the mayonnaise. The facts are that post-WWII governmental subsidies to farmers and corporations have created an overabundance of food for the first time in our nation’s history, and this food is not the food our forefathers ate, but rather products that are engineered to be higher in calories, less nutritious and cheaper than the potatoes, tomatoes, and corn--I mean real corn--that we were relying on before. This highly processed and massaged food is cheaper than the stuff you pull out of the ground and more efficient to purchase and ingest.  Americans are eating it, and are getting fat, deathly fat.

Mika is frightened of the fleshy the way homophobes fear homosexuals.

Brzezinski has called on fellow celebrities to help her talk about our nation’s problem and come up with ways to combat it. All of these people, from Jennifer Hudson to Padma Lakshmi and Kristen Gillibrand, have exactly what they need to be thin, which is a lot of money, and their Fitbits, Pilates routines, skiing habits, nutritionists and home-delivered meals are simply not accessible to the average American. So, again, the issue comes back to one of economics, not addiction. Brzezinski is well-intentioned, and she does sweep through the well-trodden ground of government and agribusiness involvement in the current obesity epidemic.  She even admits that “most overweight people are not addicts.”

On to Mika's "food addiction." Brzezinski has spent much of her life trying to achieve that magic state of being at least fifteen pounds underweight, which is also what most women in the media and on the covers of magazines struggle to maintain. She writes: “I never fully realized that every time I gained weight I topped out at 135 pounds. That is actually pretty reasonable for my height of five foot seven at the age of forty-five.” Brzezinski’s “bottom” seems to consist of huffing a jar of Nutella in the middle of the night and being caught in the act by her husband. Brzezinski is very, very hungry, and her body is doing anything it can to get her to eat more. When you are starving, you don’t want a bowl of broccoli, you want whatever you can get your hands on that has the largest number of calories, because calories keep you alive. Mika went to several experts for help: “Both nutritionists thought I should add more calories and variety to my diet. They felt I was eating inadequate amounts of all three major nutrients--protein, fat, and carbohydrates--and said I’d feel better if I increased my intake.” In this light, eating an entire jar of Nutella can be seen as a body’s gesture towards health, not an indicator of food “addiction.” Mika may have some kind of an eating disorder--different professionals suggest the diagnoses of Orthorexia Nervosa and Exercise Bulimia--but this is not the same as an addiction.

Mika admits that she did not thrive in school in part because she was consumed by thoughts of food, and believes she could be much more successful than she already is if so much of her time and brainpower had not been consumed by this obsession. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth (William and Morrow, 1991): “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” When Brzezinski admits that she has spent years on the achievement of a low body weight, she hits on one of the most powerful and damaging aspects of body obsession without knowing or caring or being brave enough to lay the blame where it belongs: at the feet of our deeply ingrained culture of misogyny. The most harrowing part of this book for me was the antifeminism coursing through it. In 2011, Brzezinski wrote a book for women called Knowing Your Value (2011, Highbridge), and she writes on “value” again in Obsessed: “we also need to be honest about the advantages of being thin and healthy- an attractive body really does impact our value.” Brzezinski is explicitly writing here of the value defined and imposed by others, specifically the dominant ideology in our culture which devalues women. Any claims to feminism at this point evaporate. Further, thin does not correlate to healthy. If you are starving yourself to be thin, you are not at the weight your body wants you to be to maintain its optimum vigor and longevity. If you are naturally thin and never exercise, your predicted lifespan is considerably shorter than your zaftig officemate who runs 30 miles a week (American Heart Association, December 5, 2011). The equation of thinness and attractiveness is culturally constructed: skinny equals pretty is not a “fact” by any stretch of the calorie-deprived imagination.

Mika really doesn’t like fat people, which is another factor that makes her book on obesity an extremely uncomfortable (and not in a good way) read. The idea for the book arose when Mika verbally attacked her overweight co-worker on a boating trip with their families. About Diane Smith, Mika writes: "Diane is smart, driven and competent. I mean, this is one talented woman: she’s earned several Emmy Awards, has been recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Lifetime Achievement, and has been honored by the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. A TV news anchor, reporter, radio talk show host, documentary producer, and author of six previous books, she has been on the air for more than twenty-five years. But I doubted other people were seeing all that when they looked at her. Given what I have learned about the value of being thin, I’d guess her weight was making them think instead 'This woman doesn’t have it together. She doesn’t even have the discipline to lose weight and get in shape.'"

The state of Connecticut, the publishing, TV and radio industries, as well as Smith's loyal viewing public all seem to see her for who she is and what she has accomplished and they appreciate her accordingly. It is possible that Mika Brzezinski is the only person harboring these thoughts about her friend’s worthlessness.

Mika is frightened of the fleshy the way homophobes fear homosexuals, and the attendant cliché is true—there is definitely a chubbier person living inside Mika, and if she were just let out Mika might be a whole lot happier, and we wouldn’t have been subjected to the contradicting shafts that render this book structurally unsound.  This is a self-help book in the sense that it mostly helped the self who wrote it, though Brzezinski also admits throughout the book that she is still not healthy or recovered, and the potential helpfulness of this book for other disordered eaters is dubious at best. If Lindsay Lohan wrote a book about alcoholism in America and included tips on overcoming it, I grant it would be highly entertaining, but I doubt it would ever end up on Hazelden’s required reading list.                        

The more Brzezinski investigates her own problem and America’s, the clearer it becomes that her book’s twin theses are erroneous, and instead of conceding this, she continues to trumpet her subtitle’s credo while simultaneously disproving it with her research. She does outline some reasons and solutions for America’s health crisis, and if this provides the ballast that helps keep the anti-obesity movement afloat, then her efforts will have been worth it. But this is not a book about addiction, as advertised on the cover, and the wanton classification of anyone with a problem as an addict does nothing for either type of sufferer.

Hallie Hart Hodenfield is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last interviewed Colin Broderick.

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Hallie Hart Hodenfield is a writer and freelance journalist, living in New York. She is also a clinical social work professional experienced in mental health counseling with children, adolescents, and families, particularly related to issues of trauma. Her experience extends to global social work and practice with immigrants and refugees.  writer and freelance journalist. You can find Hallie on Linkedin.