Wait, Frank Bruni Wasn't Fat

Slate's Culture Blog
July 17 2009 1:12 PM

Wait, Frank Bruni Wasn't Fat

I'll say this for the excerpt from Frank Bruni's memoir that appears in this weekend's New York Times Magazine : Never before has a story of bulimia made me so desperately hungry. "Macaroni and cheese. There was macaroni and cheese. It looked sort of congealed and stiff at the edges. I love it when it's sort of congealed and stiff at the edges." Yes, yes—me, too!

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It's a wonderful piece, but I'm a little bothered by what it says, or implies, about our relationship with food. Bruni makes it sound as if he's been endlessly skirting between the Scylla of overeating and the Charybdis of bulimia. (According to Michael Pollan's blurb for the book, he's "plumbing the depths of our personal and collective eating disorders.") Yet there's no real evidence that the author was ever fat to begin with. Sure, he may have been chubby as a kid , but according to the memoir, he was 5-foot-10 in high school, and about 180 pounds. That translates to a body mass index of 25.8, or just barely "overweight," according to the standard cutoffs.

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If anything, Bruni seems to have been much healthier than most Americans. Studies have repeatedly found that those who register as slightly overweight (on body mass index) live longer than people in the "normal" range. Bruni's a clear example of why that might be the case: As the star of his high-school swim team, he spent hours in the pool every day—a practice that surely contributed more muscle mass, and an inflated BMI. (At the time, writes Bruni, his doctor recommended that he lose "5 to 10 pounds." That was bad advice.)

Another clue emerges when Bruni shows up for his freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill. He signs up for a fitness class, but at the first meeting "the teacher talked about something called a body-fat index, then produced a contraption with pinchers to grab and measure any folds of fat around our waists ... I registered a higher body fat index than half of the other students. And dropped the class later that same day." But if he was fatter that half of the other students, that means he was thinner than half of them, too. Young Bruni was exactly average.

It's fine with me if Frank Bruni wants to be skinny for aesthetic reasons. (In the Times piece, at least, he never claims another motivation for his diets and purges.) But let's be careful about what we call overeating . If he wasn't putting his body at risk, then why make it sound like a problem ?

Crusty Mac 'n Cheese photograph courtesy of Spike Mafford/Getty Images.

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.