Mika Brzezinski vividly remembers the late nights in her Georgetown University dorm room when she would hide alone under the covers in her bottom bunk as she inhaled large Domino’s pizzas. In the days that followed, she would run for miles, take diet pills and refuse to eat, the MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-host told students, faculty and staff in the George Washington University’s Marvin Center on Tuesday.
It was a dangerous cycle that was “extreme and lonely, and so unhealthy,” she said. They were habits she developed as a 15-year-old that would seep into her adulthood, as she became a television journalist and tried to live up to the “beauty queen” ideal that her industry promoted.
“I would gorge, and then I would starve,” she said. “When you become anorexic you have this moment where you lose some weight, and you look really good, but then the rest is bad. Then you think you need to do more to get back to that really good—and it never happens, because you’re not healthy anymore.”
Ms. Brzezinski spoke candidly about her struggles with food and body image during a public forum hosted by GW’s School of Public Health and Health Services. The forum was a part of “More than a Body: Celebrate You," a week-long series of campus activities held in conjunction with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
In her book, “Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction—and My Own,” Ms. Brzezinski chronicles her nearly 30-year struggle with anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia. She co-wrote the book with fellow TV journalist and friend Diane Smith under one condition: Ms. Brzezinski promised to go to therapy and reach a healthy weight if Ms. Smith, who was overweight, agreed to lose weight and do the same.
When Ms. Smith opened up to her friend about her struggles with food, Ms. Brzezinski was stunned by how many similarities the women shared, even if their weights were at two different ends of the scale.
“I believed our journeys were different for one reason—I decided to hide the struggle, and she gave in,” she said on Tuesday.
While writing her book, Ms. Brzezinski did undergo therapy. She was skeptical of it at the beginning, but now it is something she advocates for. Ms. Brzezinski, once an unhealthy 118-pound adult, now weighs 140—a number, she admits, that she is still embarrassingly unhappy with. “So, I’m not well yet,” she said.
She stressed the importance of living “an honest life” and told the GW audience that in order to solve the obesity and eating disorder epidemics in the United States, the country needs to have better understandings of the complicated relationship between humans and food, and that requires deeper, more honest national conversations. Finally, Ms. Brzezinski urged any member of the audience who was struggling with an eating disorder to “not wait 30 years” before seeking help.
“Two-thirds of my brain was fixated on food for most of my life, during some of the most incredible moments of my life,” Ms. Brzezinski said. “So you can't let this be your journey. You should fix it now. Don’t throw away—or throw up—your health.”
She was not the only one on Tuesday who opened up about personal experiences with eating disorders.
Board of Trustees Chairman Emeritus W. Russell Ramsey, B.B.A. ’81, who introduced Ms. Brzezinski, admitted that it was eight years ago when he realized that who he thought was his “active, vibrant” 13-year-old daughter, was really struggling with an eating disorder. Her struggles with weight “turned into eight years of incredible turmoil and challenge” for his entire family, Mr. Ramsey said.
“So many of you have lived it yourself, many of you have lived it with others, and more than likely, you’ve tried to not live it, so that others wouldn’t be aware of it,” he said. “And so today, I really hope this is the beginning of a call to action.”
After Ms. Brzezinski’s keynote speech, students and faculty members approached the microphone to tell the MSNBC co-host about their own struggles with food—including a freshman who dropped from 325 pounds at his heaviest in high school to 170 pounds, and another who has been symptom free for two years, but has watched her sister also try to hide her eating disorder.
Following the Q&A, Associate Professor of Prevention and Community Health Melissa Napolitano moderated a panel discussion with Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine, student Laura Porter, the University Counseling Center’s new Eating Disorder Services Coordinator Nancy Cass, student Katie Duman and Student Health Service Medical Director Isabel Goldenberg.
The group discussed misconceptions people have about eating disorders—that it’s only about food or it only affects women, for example—and addressed questions from the audience, such as what resources GW offers to students with eating disorders and how to approach a friend who might be in trouble.
Ms. Porter, a junior in the School of Media and Public Affairs, and Ms. Duman, a junior in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, both recounted their own personal experiences with eating disorders.
For Ms. Porter, who is now president of SPEAK GW— Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge—the bad habits began in high school when she had trouble making friends. When she became a freshman at GW, things quickly went down hill. For a year, she would purge five times a day, and her weight quickly plummeted.
“I knew I was going to kill myself if I didn’t stop,” she said. “I knew that I probably wouldn’t make it to the end of college.”
So she took a leave of absence during her sophomore year and entered residential treatment. She admitted that recovery is not a “linear process”—there were ups and downs—but one year ago Ms. Porter returned to GW. Back in college, Ms. Porter said she missed the sense of community that she had developed with the other people in recovery in her treatment facility. She approached Mr. Levine in the summer, asking what she could do on campus to bring the topic of eating disorders “to the forefront.” He told her about the organization SPEAK, and Ms. Porter re-launched the group on campus this past fall.
“I got involved in that it really helped me use my voice. For so long, my disorder was a way to speak. I spoke through my physical body, trying to show people how horrible and how sad I felt,” Ms. Porter said. “And now I really hope that I can use my own voice to help others speak too and know that they’re not alone.”