Eating Anxiety: Is Anyone To Blame?

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Would I have been spared my weight obsessions if I hadn't grown up in an extended Italian-American family that staged feasts to end all feasts, the sheer abundance of food connoting that massive consumption was possible--and that massive consumption was a joy in and of itself?

Would I have been spared if my mother hadn't coaxed me on to Atkins at the age of eight, planting in me the notion that a fad diet was a sensible eating plan and a possible antidote to my formidable appetites?

I don't know. But I've been asked those questions again and again as I've talked--on TV and on radio, to journalists and to bookstore audiences--about my newly published memoir, a chronicle of overeating and under-eating and trying all the while to strike the right balance, to integrate some much-needed discipline into my reckless love affair with food.

I've been asked those questions with particular frequency and urgency over the last week and a half, because there's been a fresh round of attention, as kids headed back to school, to the problem of childhood obesity, which has been deemed epidemic in this country.

Some interviewers and even some casual acquaintances want me to point fingers; such is the nature of confession culture today.

In fact I wrote a piece on the topic for the Week in Review section of the New York Times, and it yielded scores of lengthy, impassioned responses online. Parents want desperately to do right by their children, to help their children establish a healthy, tempered relationship with food that will keep them safe from unhealthy weight gains or losses and from acute food-related anxieties as time goes by.

But how to do that?

Although that wasn't the question in the front of my mind when I set out to write Born Round--I detailed what was in the front of my mind in a previous post on this blog--it was one of the many issues that I thought the book might be useful in addressing, at least implicitly and inadvertently.

I figured that in my story, people trying to work on their own eating problems and people trying to guide their children might find some warning signs, clues, and lessons. I didn't want to spell them out or name them, because I'm not certain there's a single correct moral to be drawn from my story. But there's fodder for discussion, tucked into what I hope is a moving, funny, larger narrative about all the ways food lifts us up and drags us down--an eternal blessing and intermittent curse.

I was fat by the age of 6, began fad diets by the age of 8, did a fast at the age of 17, and was throwing up meals at the age of 19. Some of this was probably visible to my parents, much of it probably not. My mother seldom told me I was overweight, but she did counsel vertical stripes over horizontal ones, and I knew what the message of that was. That made me anxious, but the foundation of anxiety came from the elementary school classmates who joked that my initials, F.B., stood for Fat Boy.

So do I blame my mother? Is she the villain of my story, or should I assign that role to Grandma Bruni, who expressed her love for us through food and more food? Or maybe Dad's the bad guy, because he'd treat the dinner he sat down to after a long day at the office as his reward and his drug, the rush of pleasure he was owed?

Some interviewers and even some casual acquaintances want me to point fingers; such is the nature of confession culture today, in which candor is usually accompanied by accusations and the apportionment of blame.

Here's my feeling about how I was raised: I was economically privileged, deeply loved, and given a first-rate education. If the architecture of that life and some of the specific details of it weren't conducive to curbing a big appetite and nipping body-image anxiety in the bud, well, I can--and did--live with that. In the scheme of the hardships people face, these were, and are, relatively minor ones.

But my weight and my physical insecurity and the food-related battles it plunged me into did cause me great sorrow at times. I'd like to see other people--other children--avoid that sorrow.

Having burrowed into my past for Born Round and having interviewed experts for the recent Week in Review piece, what advice can I give today's parents?

I'd urge them to instill good food sense in their children the same way they instill a good work ethic: by example.

If you don't want your kid to equate a pig-out with a good time, don't let your kid see you having a good time by pigging out. If you don't want your kid to be a couch potato, don't be a couch potato yourself. Children model behavior; that's Human Psychology 101. Eating and exercise aren't exempt from that principle.

While I'm not sure it's a good idea to make it too hard for kids to find their way to sweets and similar temptations--making it too hard could only arouse their curiosity--it's definitely a good idea to make more healthy foods more readily available, and to communicate to your kids that these foods are equal vessels of pleasure, not merely packages of vitamins to be approached with a medicinal mindset.

You can mold an eater, just as you can mold a thinker, a humanitarian, an athlete. It's past time that parents in this country gave more thought, and lavished more energy, on that.

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Frank Bruni was the restaurant critic for The New York Times from June 2004 to September 2009. He is the author of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite. Learn more at bornround.com. More

Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. Before that, he was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief, a White House reporter, the lead correspondent covering George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. His latest book, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, is now out in paperback. To learn more about Born Round and ask questions about the book, click here.

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