Mika Brzezinski is all sharp angles, sharp tongue. As co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, she holds her own with heads of state, celebrities and equally aggressive co-host Joe Scarborough—but backwards and in high heels. At her leanest, she was 118 chiseled pounds in a size-two dress.
Great job, great body, great life, right? “Honestly, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t look good. I looked really skinny, but if you took all the gunk off my face, all the makeup off, and the right clothes off, it actually didn’t work that well,” says Brzezinski. “I’m much more able, being skinny, to mask my unhealthiness.”
In Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction—and My Own, Brzezinski discloses a lifelong battle with many flavors of eating disorder: bulimia, briefly; exercise bulimia, binging on junk food and running off the calories; and orthorexia nervosa: extreme fixation with healthy eating. Now she has decided to break the silence, writing exactly as she speaks: bluntly. “Those of us who can reach an audience, whether on television, in the classroom, or simply at the dinner table, have an obligation to talk straight to people who will listen to us. We shouldn’t be hiding from our own struggles, or denying the struggles of people around us,” she writes.
Friend Diane Smith, a fellow TV journalist who wrote Obsessed with Brzezinski, was the original target for Brzezinski’s heat-seeking truth. After years of gaining weight, Smith topped out at over 250 pounds, and Brzezinski confronted her about it on an afternoon boat ride on Long Island Sound: “‘Diane, you’re not just overweight, you’re fat. You’re obese,’” Smith remembers in an early chapter—words she angrily dismissed coming from super-skinny Brzezinski. “[W]hen something is just a little off, like your imaginary double chin, you run to a plastic surgeon to fix it,” she thinks, before Brzezinski discloses compulsive binging on chips, ice cream, canned frosting—and once, memorably, an entire jar of Nutella scooped by hand and scarfed in an Ambien-fueled frenzy.
The double epiphany, that both were approaching food in an unhealthy manner, is the jump-off for a larger examination of America’s out-of-control eating habits. The proof is in our pants size: one out of three Americans is obese, and another one in three is overweight (according to BMI, Body Mass Index); if trends hold, 42 percent of us will be obese by 2030. The authors advocate a combination of speaking directly about obesity with friends and family; legislation to regulate and reform producers of sneakily addictive foods, and to make healthy ones more attractive and affordable; and an emphasis on healthy eating and exercise in children’s education.
While no figures are provided on the number of Americans suffering similarly to Brzezinski, her obsession with staying skinny at all costs is deemed equally problematic. It is that fellowship in struggling that should be the saving grace for overweight readers skeptical about taking advice from the rail-thin woman in black on the cover. “I do think the preconceived notions surrounding this book and me are going to be tough, and I just hope people go beyond the cover. This is my big secret and I am tired of being alone with it,” Brzezinski says.
Adding to that credibility is a cadre of those who have famously struggled with weight, including Chris Christie, Jennifer Hudson, Gayle King of CBS This Morning and comedian Susie Essman. The late, well-adjusted Nora Ephron tells Brzezinski she’s sad, and Smith that she’s making excuses. Dr. Margo Maine helps Brzezinski accept the concept of a set point, a weight that’s not necessarily your skinniest, but healthiest for your body.
Today Brzezinski wears a size six at 132 pounds. Smith has lost 75 pounds on the way to a 100-pound weight-loss goal. They’re both happier and healthier, but still struggling. As David Kirchoff of Weight Watchers says in the book, “I strongly believe if you struggle with weight, you will always struggle with weight.” Brzezinski agrees. “The addictive nature of what has been put in our diets for years doesn’t just go away, and I know that some schools of thought in my book [say you can change how you eat], and I think that I have as much as possible, but possible involves the backdrop of a destroyed metabolism and a system that has been pounded for years and years and years by binging,” she acknowledges. But in word and deed, every day, Brzezinski shows that it’s a war worth waging.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @mlabrise.