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“Women, Food, and God” and Start of Real Transformation

Photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash

Months and months ago I placed a compelling little book in my Amazon shopping cart. It caught my eye after purchasing Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I was on an empowerment book-buying kick. Yet, this other text sat on my shelf for a very long time before I had a window of opportunity to pry it open to see why I felt so drawn to it. Titled, Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything (Scribner, 2011), I found myself trying to conceptually connect the three subjects as I leafed through its pages. I thought to myself, “I am a woman. I like food. I am interested in God…” I simultaneously felt pulled into this text and repelled. “Repelled” because of an aversion to diets and anything that resembles a diet. (I hoped so much that it was not a “diet book.”) I thought, the way I think about (obsess over, mourn over, stress over) food dictates my life and I want real change.
I also believe strongly that I am not the only one who feels this way.

The author of the book, Geneen Roth, uses remarkably personal stories to guide the reader through a process of realization and on to a path to healing. It is similar to the process she facilitates at her regular weekend retreats on the topic. Roth is a writer and speaker on the subject of compulsive eating, dieting, self realization, and wholeness. At the start, she declares that this book is for anyone who eats food – and I chuckled a bit. What author doesn’t want every person to read her book? After finishing it, I, too, can assert: everyone who eats food should read this book.

Here’s why:
The way you think about food is guided by your perceptions of self – not just self worth, but where you are in the great chain of being. How you treat food, and how you approach it, is guided by the values you hold of yourself. Your relationship with God/Divine Love, or simply just your spiritual centeredness, stems from the health of your relationship with food.

The stereotype is that American women are perpetually obsessed with food. One could argue that men are as well, but it takes a different form. The diet industry is strong, to say the least, and it offers many solutions. Lately, the trend is non-diet dieting, clean eating, and vitamin-packing meal plans, but all this is still a regulation of what goes in your body. Roth’s criticism is not with the methods, it is toward the mindset with which we approach these methods. “If you think that your job is to fix what is broken, you keep finding more broken places to mend,” she writes (73).

Roth is full of transformative statements that have the power to shock us awake from our stupor. She gently tells us to become aware of the dynamic power of our bodies. “When you ignore your belly,” she writes, “you become homeless. You spend your life trying to erase your own existence.” (113) The desire to whittle ourselves down to a body that takes up the least amount of space is not only strange (if you really think about it) but remarkably uncanny. In many traditions, the belly is the source of power (often, female specific.) It is where energy churns inside of us. To wish this area greater and great smallness is to subconsciously wish for erasure of power. Leading to this statement is a passage about meditation and breathing techniques used to calm the mind. She asks her students to “belly breathe” and pay attention to the up and down movement of the area. For most women – and maybe a lot of men – the act of extending one’s stomach is sacrilegious! At least for me, a lot of thought goes into the amount of space my torso consumes. It must be small here, but larger there… even the act of breathing can spur the mind to regret the previous day’s meal choices.

Roth helps us realize that the desire to change our bodies (whatever that means) often masks underlying issues and pain we wish to ignore. Summarizing many of her students she writes, “If I fix myself so that I am no longer myself, then everything will be fine. My feelings will be manageable.” (31) She points out that many of us are in a constant state of desiring change – as if that change will actually bring happiness.
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My internal compass led me to Roth’s guidance and I finally recognized that I needed to release myself from a thought process that became too burdensome.

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Of course, she speaks most directly to those who having issues relating to obesity or eating disorders. Many of her students come from extreme health circumstances. To this, she tells them that it is absolutely important to make sure your the supports the life and happiness one strives for. In that case, a health plan that takes one to that goal is important. She also speaks to a different group, as well: those who carry the constant dialogue of negativity around the food they eat – how much, what kind, how often – settle into a half-formed life under a proverbial haze that clouds awareness.

My internal compass led me to Roth’s guidance and I finally recognized that I needed to release myself from a thought process that became too burdensome.

In order to tell you about this book, I must tell you why it impacted me in such a remarkable way. What I write is not a criticism of my parents. To hold on to blame is to hold on to burdensome negativity. It is worthless, just like that empty-calorie donut (keeping with the food theme.) It is simply what happened. It is what it is.

The revelation I had when reading Women, Food, and God is that I obsess over everything I eat (hours and hours afterward – lamenting the chips and salsa, the cheese stick, the five pieces of candy pumpkins) and rarely enjoy the process of eating food. I worry that I made the wrong decision. I hate the feeling of being full. I get discouraged if I have a “bad eating day,” to the point that it changes my mood and I become frustrated, lash out, and eventually get incredibly miserable. To tell you this takes a great amount of strength, because it is something I hid for years. Since it is not a direct eating disorder, or because I do not actually “struggle” with my weight, I never thought to question the constant inner chatter. Yet, it is exhausting. Here is the catch: I eat a very, very healthy diet. No matter how “healthy” it is, though, I find myself bemoaning nearly every bite after the meal.

Through Roth’s gentle guidance, I realized that I drew myself into a habit of criticism that permeates my current thought process. I taught myself to severely self-criticize as a child within the circumstances of a complicated family life. I thought: If I could only be “better,” maybe things will actually be better? Perhaps my real self is not good enough? Perhaps I should change…

This dialogue ran through my head so many times that it became habitual, fully and finally entering in to the way I approach food. It thus became a manner of self-regulation, self-criticism, and self-hate, when eating food should be an act of self-love. It should nourish the body, soul, and mind. I never gave myself permission to calm down and enjoy the process of being alive.
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I needed to give myself permission to expand,
fill my space, and be, without apologies.

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Eating is arguably the most intimate act that you do for yourself and the wellbeing of your body. What you put into it directly affects your livelihood. Additionally, the narrative you tell yourself as you eat impacts your wellbeing. Roth explains this ever-present narration of life as The Voice – who is notoriously vicious and unstable – yet we listen as if it is a source of reason! Sometimes The Voice is helpful, but for those who struggle in their relationship to food, The Voice says things that we would never hear from any other human being. Roth explains that it “supposedly offers: clarity and intelligence and true discernment. Strength and value and joy. Compassion. Curiosity. Love. Nothing is wrong because there is no right with which to compare it. When you stop responding to the continual comments on your thighs, your value, your very existence, when you no longer believe that anyone, especially The Voice, knows what’s supposed to be happening, simple facts remain.” (136) And later in the chapter, “When you decide that you need to lose twenty pounds because you are disgusting at this weight or that you need to meditate every day or go to church on Sundays because you will go to hell if you don’t, you are making life decisions while you are being whipped with chains…[these decisions] do not last because they are based on fear of consequences instead of longing for truth.” (141)

The realization for my own life is this: it is O.K. to be who I am and it is O.K. to eat how I eat. There is no need to constantly question and assess in order to guarantee that all is well and good. I am not in need of repairs. I am complete, as is.

It feels empowering to simply write these statements in a concrete form.

I needed to give myself permission to expand, fill my space, and be, without apologies.

One last word:
Through the book I wondered when she would start talking more about God, proper. She does not speak heavily on spirituality. Yet, I felt more and more drawn to the place of my spirit as I found space to move, getting rid of what is unnecessary. I remembered at the very beginning she writes:
And in the space of not-knowing that remains, perhaps you will discover what I have experienced directly: that understanding the relationship with food is a direct path to coming home after a lifetime of being exiled. Perhaps that home is what God is always meant to be. (26)
I also feel this is the place of God. It goes beyond religion and sacred acts. It is beyond language. The place where you can live as a free being is the place that God – in whatever form you believe it to be – intended you to rest.

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