Women, Food and God, by Geneen Roth
Six weeks ago, I walked into my local Weight Watchers center for what felt like the eight hundredth time. Months had passed since my last visit, and I needed to re-register so I grabbed a form and clipboard and got on line.
When it was my turn to weigh in, I dropped my purse, kicked off my flip-flops, and handed my completed form to the receptionist. Here I am, again, I thought. I sighed and stepped on the digital scale.
I didn’t want to be there. Even as I drove across town I wasn’t sure I’d follow through, but I felt compelled to go. I knew my weight was high — higher probably than at any other time in my life except pregnancy. At my last physical, my doctor had used a selection of kind words to tell me to get my shit together in the weight department. I hadn’t.
The lady behind the counter clicked her mouse to record my weight, a number associated with normal-sized men, and explained the payment options.
“The best deal,” she said, “is to pay for the next three months in advance.”
“I guess that’s fine,” I said, ignoring my gut, which was telling me not to waste my money or my time. I handed over my credit card, anyway, affixed my sticky-backed name tag to my shirt and grabbed a seat.
As I waited for the meeting to start, I glanced around. Wednesday morning is not my usual meeting time, and I realized I didn’t recognize a single face. Weird. On Saturdays, my normal day, I see faces I recognize from as long ago as eighteen years, which is sometimes a comfort. Other times, it’s an annoyance, like seeing my still overweight reflection in the mirror year after year.
I sorted through my welcome packet. Included was a little pamphlet with colorful balloons and the words, “Get happy!” on the cover. Uh oh, I thought. I’m dubious of anything that implies we can or should feel happiness longer or more often than other emotions. I flipped the cover to see where this was going and was met with a quiz. “I need to. . .”
#1 Lose Weight to be happy or #2 Be happy to lose weight?
Bob Barker, I’ll take what’s behind door number 2!
I’ve gained and lost weight enough times to know that losing it doesn’t make me happier, at least not for any length of time. Still, I was confused. Yes, I knew I needed to lose weight, and I knew I should be happy about it, but I didn’t feel motivated to count points and weigh and measure my food. Why was I sitting there?
It wasn’t until I saw the following week’s topic—mindfulness—that I smiled and understood that serendipity had been my chauffeur that morning. That’s also when I felt the shift. I knew—right then—that I would never be back at another Weight Watchers meeting, not even the three months worth I’d just paid for. I didn’t need it anymore, and that one word proved it to me.
Thirty four years of riding the billion dollar diet industry roller coaster on an endless and unsatisfying loop was officially over. Not because I’ve reached a healthy weight — oh no — but because I finally understood something critical about myself. I had recently finished reading Janeen Roth’s book, Women, Food and God, and I believe wholeheartedly in her basic hypothesis: Change happens by love, not by trying to “fix” oneself, and the key to ending an obsession with food is about the capacity to stay in the present moment. In other words, the capacity to be mindful. Being at Weight Watchers could not give me that. Only I could give me that, and I knew exactly how to do it.
Had I read Roth’s book when it first came out, I would have considered the woman a lunatic. But that would have been before 2012 and the suffering I experienced over the combination of my mother’s death and my daughter’s illness. That would have been before I gained forty pounds as a direct result of trying to numb that despair. That would have been before I discovered mindfulness and began to study it. And it would have been before I experienced some small but profound emotional relief as a direct result of that study, which also awakened me from my food-induced coma. It would have been before experiencing myself the truth of Roth’s words. “. . .our relationship to food,” she says, “is an exact microcosm of our relationship to life itself.” Yes, it certainly is.
Reading Women, Food and God helped me make sense of how the concepts of presence and consciousness and practices like meditation fit the larger picture related to food and weight. Weight is a by-product. “Women turn to food when they are not hungry because they are hungry for something they can’t name: a connection to what is beyond the concerns of daily life.” Speaking of the beyond. . .
I never could reconcile myself with the God of my Catholic childhood. “He” was not a loving or forgiving God. He was a God of guilt and judgment, a God of thorns and blood and tears. I had an epiphany when my daughter was in treatment that the spiritual void in my life was bigger and deeper than I’d realized. When I read WFG, I realized the animal style double doubles I chowed down were an attempt to fill a void shaped like God, but a God that made sense to me. I promise you: No amount of burgers can fill a hole that size. Roth’s definition of God is one I can wrap my brain around: “I don’t believe in the God that most people call God, but I do know that the only definition of God that makes any sense is one that uses this human life and its suffering—the very things we believe we need to hide or fix—as a path to the heart of love itself.” Studying mindfulness, raising consciousness, working toward the end of suffering — for some people, including me, this is spirituality. And this is the place where I finally understood spirituality’s relationship to weight.
I wish I could say that directly upon finishing WFG, I instituted a daily practice using Inquiry, the meditative process Roth outlines at the back of her book, and that since then, I’ve become so self-aware and present that food is now just food—no more, no less—and that I’ve lost several pounds. Not so. I still love food. Food still comforts me, but that’s okay and here’s why.
There is no answer, no magic bullet, no potion “out there.” For a long time I believed I took up all the wrong kind of space in this world. I judged myself, harshly, based on the double digit size of my pants, and I felt “less than” because I didn’t live up to society’s expectations of how I should appear, or my own. Reading this one book didn’t eradicate this belief, and I still have plenty of tough days, but this one book did remind me there is something better than “endlessly pushing the boulder of obsession up the mountain.” And that is to put it down. Mindfulness is the path to “putting it down,” I just hadn’t made the connection with food.
After a lifetime of judging myself, I sometimes still do, but in this present moment, I know that I am okay. In fact, I’m better than okay and it has nothing to do with the shape of my body. Eating too much or too little doesn’t determine my worth. I am falling in love with myself, one lesson at a time. WFG was one stop on my long journey to accepting that there’s nothing I need to fix because there’s nothing wrong with me. I put the boulder down, and in so doing, I realized that I am enough and I always have been. That’s why I walked out of Weight Watchers that day, resolved never to come back.
I am not anti-Weight Watchers. Of all the weight loss programs I’ve tried, which is most of them, WW has the most integrated approach. Connection, participating in a group, and receiving support from like-minded people, will always be preferable to going at life alone. But I have a new program now, a support group of one. I will love myself, and that’s how I will make peace with food.
Food for thought: Have you ever considered religion’s connection to your weight, no matter the number? What did you think about it?
The S Word, by Paolina Milana
I learned about The S Word from my teacher and editor, Jennie Nash. Jennie worked with Paolina on this book and wrote on her blog about the book’s path to publication. If you’re interested in that aspect of publishing click here to read Jennie's post. I’m reading The S Word for a couple of reasons.
One is that I love a good memoir. What better way to feel connected and to understand our experiences than by reading a personal and moving story by an author willing to dig deep. I’m particularly interested in the subject matter. Schizophrenia is a severe and debilitating mental illness, and many of the students who sign up for the NAMI Family To Family class I co-teach have loved ones that struggle with this brain disorder. As a teacher, I am always on the hunt for meaningful resources that can help people clarify their situation, give them guidance and inspire hope.
Every person willing to share a story of mental illness chips away at the monolith that is stigma.