When you stop struggling, stop suffering, stop pushing and pulling yourself around food and your body, when you stop manipulating and controlling, when you actually relax and listen to the truth of what is there, something bigger than your fear will catch you. With repeated experiences of opening and ease, you learn to trust something infinitely more powerful than a set of rules that someone else made up: your own being.
-Geneen Roth, from Women, Food and God
How I love Geneen Roth. Her perceptive and penetrating words, full of wisdom that can only derive from emotional bruising and subsequent healing, serve to remind me. Of what I have learned and (conveniently) forgotten. Of lessons about pain and contending with patches of darkness.
For all I know, she may be a close-talker with halitosis. Or have a laugh like a hyena. I have (sadly) never met the woman.
But none of this would matter. Because I know her words, and when I read them, I have the uncanny sense that they are written for me. (Based on her book sales, it’s probably safe to say that many of you feel this way, too.) She gets it.
She knows that, for me as well as millions around the globe, our relationship with food serves as a proxy for our relationship with life. That when we choose to restrict our calories, we are saying that we don’t trust in the world’s abundance, or that we just don’t trust. We are communicating that our emotional or interpersonal needs, like our food intake, should be limited and curtailed. We might be saying that, if we didn’t restrict, we’d occupy too much space, and generally be too much, either for ourselves or others to handle. (Probably both.)
When we overindulge or binge, we are saying that we don’t value and trust ourselves, that we have, in Roth’s words, “given up” on ourselves and on the world. We might be saying that our feelings—our grief, loneliness, or anger—are more than we can bear, or that stillness is untenable. So we eat with reckless abandon and bury ourselves in food. We dwell in shame, which begets more shame.
How we deal with the food on our plate, and our internal appetites and cravings, tells us much about who we are, what we fear, and what we believe. If we choose to look at what we are saying when we mindlessly shovel pasta into our mouths, or when we try to sustain ourselves on that which is unsustainable—diet soda, crunchy leaves of lettuce—we might learn something about how we operate.
In slowing down and paying attention, we will almost certainly uncover pain. (Because if we are using food as a tool to deal with emotions, then we are using it as armor to defend against something that lurks below.) But we might also learn to investigate and—the ultimate goal—tolerate the internal voices we’d prefer to silence. We might learn to make friends with the parts of ourselves that don’t go away—the fat parts, the emotionally messy or embarrassing parts—despite our efforts to obliterate or nullify them.
While reading Roth’s new-ish book, Women, Food and God, it dawned on me that our problem with food is largely related to outsourcing. We outsource our responsibility for caring for and understanding our bodies, because the task is too daunting. Going on a diet is a prime example. When we don’t trust ourselves around food, we rely upon others to dictate the terms, to decide upon what is healthy, appropriate or reasonable. We follow a system of points, an externally imposed structure, because it allows us temporary freedom from thinking and feeling and making mistakes. Diets trick us into believing that this time, we won’t let ourselves down.
But ultimately, we do let ourselves down; diets only work for so long. In order to find peace with food, we need to hone our internal compass, our ability to listen to our hungers—physical, emotional, spiritual—to determine what our longing really means. In the short term, we may need to outsource our food plan to someone who is “expert.” But true freedom from the obsession with food, with all its distracting properties and emotional meanings, requires the opposite tact: that we face and lean into ourselves, with acceptance and even embrace.
Does your relationship with food mirror your relationship with the world or with other people? Is listening to your body threatening or healing?
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and this year’s brilliant tag line is, “How did it go from losing weight to losing hope?” Learn more here.