Eating My Way Home
When I was eight (one year and who knows how many pounds after the birth of my sister), my fashionably slender, exasperated mother yanked me around the Chubbette Collection at Lane Bryant (known then as "the fat lady store") looking for skirts with expandable side zippers. She pushed me into the dressing room in the "Boys, Huskies" section of Friedman's Department Store with pairs of outsized fly-fronted slacks (long before it was even remotely thinkable for a girl to wear such things).
That same year, my favorite (and somewhat roly-poly himself) Uncle Charlie began greeting me daily with "Hey, Belly, where you going with that girl?" (Because, he told me, my belly came into the room before I did.) Uncle Charlie also began pointing out every large woman on the street, whispering that I would grow up to "look like that!" if I didn't start watching what I ate. I began noticing that my very beautiful mother and equally beautiful Aunt Toby rarely ate anything other than hard-boiled eggs and Melba toast. Not surprisingly, that year marked the beginning of my personal version of the American Everywoman's struggle of fear and self-loathing around food and body size.
By 1971, I was 23 years into the battle between the Food Fascist and the Ravenous Rebel inside of me. I was taking 75mg of Preludin (a then popular appetite suppressant and upper), two strong diuretics and four herbal laxatives daily. All were easily obtained with automatically renewing prescriptions from my unquestioning gynecologist. He, of course, completely understood my need to control my weight. Most days, a small glass of grapefruit juice, a poached egg and dry toasted English muffin with jam started a day in which I then subsisted on innumerable cups of strong black coffee and equally numerous cigarettes. These effectively erased whatever might have been left of my suppressed appetite.
On the rare days I ate more than that, I kept accurate and restrictive track of the caloric value of every morsel that passed between my lips. On the terrifying days when the Ravenous Rebel wrested control, I ate as much as I could stuff into my self of everything I wanted. As I ate, the Food Fascist verbally harangued and abused me even as the Ravenous Rebel made sure I got to eat what I longed for. I was, the Fascist told me, fat, out-of-control, disgusting, contemptible, hideous and (worst of all in those days) un-sexy. All this existed as the hidden underbelly of my life as a feminist psychologist in a successful private practice and a feminist marriage.
In May of 1971, while helping to birth the Peer-Counseling Training Program of the New York Feminist Psychology Coalition, I met an amazing woman. Carol Munter had spent the preceding year with a group of radical feminists she had gathered at the Alternative University. In a class she instigated and incited, they explored theoretically and practically the food/body-size oppression that was, even then, of unquestioned and epidemic proportions. It was for all involved an inspired experience of searching for sanity in their relation to food and to their bodies.
In those days, Carol was never without a large, fashionable shopping bag filled with food. She ate, un-embarrassedly, wherever and whenever she felt the need to. I was stunned: awed and excited by what I saw, felt and heard as she and I immediately connected around this very heretical, radicalizing behavior. An enduring and nourishing friendship began as I shared what I had learned about doing therapy and she shared what she had learned about feeding oneself sanely in a crazy world. I at once began the simple yet difficult practice she had developed for ending the crazy-making, constrictive compulsions of eating and starving that had so run my secret life for over 20 years.
In the early months of my practice, I spent many weeks lovingly feeding my self limitless amounts of all the forms of chocolate (cakes, cookies, candy bars, ice creams, sauces, thick shakes) that I craved. I ate chocolate before, during, after and mostly instead of breakfast, lunch and dinner. I gave up meals and mealtimes as external impositions. I discovered that it pleased me to eat little bits of things I wanted as I wanted them throughout the day. Food became a voluptuous way of pleasuring my whole being many times a day, always giving my self exactly what I wanted. As I moved through the various forms of chocolate (and successively all the other proscribed foods), my consistent behavior gradually assured the Ravenous Rebel that my commitment to no longer depriving my self was dependable.
The next layer of my practice involved discerning the difference between the hungers that were truly physical and those that were emotional hungers seeking comfort from food and self-feeding. As an anthropologist might, I watched whenever I felt moved toward food. I looked in and around my self to see if it was physical hunger or hunger of a different sort that led me toward a meeting with food.
Without judgment, I noticed. With attention, I sought the foods I wanted. With love, I fed my self. With focus, I noticed when I felt enough-ness or an end to the hunger. Without pressure, I considered whether something other than the food would have satisfied me more directly. Without judgment, I explored whether I had the same loving permission to go toward that something as I now had to go toward food.
As I moved into these new dimensions of the practice, I discovered that I had hungers for many experiences other than food. I was hungry to speak more of my truths, hungry to say, "This isn't okay with me," or, "No, you may not speak to me in those ways." I was hungry for more rest, for more bubble baths with candles and soft music. I was famished for more quiet, empty space with just my self. I was yearning for less steel and concrete, more green, growing, unimproved-upon Nature. I was starved for a sense of timelessness. I was ravenous with the need to say, "No!"
The empowering process of learning both to feed my body lovingly and to find my natural rhythm in relation to food served to open a whole universe of possibility for me. I began to apply the practice to every other area of my life in which I was depriving my self or abusing my self with self-castigation, self-devaluing and self-loathing. In each such place, I noticed how I had been trained and acculturated to always look outside (and often upward) of my own being for information on how it was appropriate for me to be, think or feel. In each such place, I gave my self permission to listen inward to how I needed to be, think or feel, to what my needs and yearnings actually were. I gave my self permission to act from and on these knowings and yearnings, to act on them with the same dedication to careful, loving self-nourishment that I had developed around feeding my self with food.
I gave my self permission to set aside the diets of constraint, restriction and judgment by which I had been taught to keep my self tidily in-line and out-of-trouble. I practiced healthy responses to the voices outside of me that said: "You can't," "you mustn't," "don't you dare," or "It's not good for you to," or "it's controlling of you to..." I responded sometimes internally, sometimes vocally with some emotional version of, "Who says so, why are they saying that?" And, "What is it that they really want of me that leads them to try to stop me from being, doing, feeling what is, by my own reckoning, right for me now?"
The more I silenced the external voices, the more clearly I came face to face with the judgmental, stopping voice inside of me that I called the Hatchet Lady or Nazi Mother. She reacted loudly and nastily toward me every time I took significant steps in the new direction. She called me names, warned of dire consequences and made sarcastic remarks ridiculing my new ways. I struggled with the agonizing push-pull between this internalized critical voice and the inner knowing place that was now guiding my choices.
Gradually, I came to see this frightening harridan in me as a Wizard of Oz kind of image cranked up by a frightened little child. This mean, inner policewoman acted on behalf of that child. She did what she did to keep me from doing things that might bring unexpected and much more dangerous attacks from those outside of me. Slowly but surely, when this abusive voice rose up, I would stop and take time to search for the hidden frightened little part. I'd ask that Little One what she needed in order to feel safe enough to let me go forward. Her answers helped me to move more slowly and in ways that felt less dangerous to her. She was willing to venture forth in baby steps as long as she could trust me to stop and take a break the instant she felt fearful or overwhelmed. When I moved only as fast as the slowest part of me felt safe to go and she no longer had to get the Hatchet Lady to beat up on me in order to get my attention, the push-pull resolved into a gentler pace and the Hatchet Lady all but disappeared.
From the practice of feeding my body, I've learned that it's not okay to trust anyone else's ideas about what I need or don't need to do. I've learned that when I can make the space to listen inward to my knowing self, I will hear what I need to know in order to best nurture my being, my body, my heart and my soul. And, I've learned that if I do only what feels safe for the slowest part of me to do at this moment (even if or when it looks wrong or crazy from the outside), it will each time lead me to where I need next to go. It will do this even and particularly when I seem to have no conscious idea of where that next place is.
I have learned from the practice of lovingly feeding my body-being that it's important to always be as gentle and forgiving with my self as I can possibly be (especially forgiving my self for not being able yet to be even more gentle than I am being). I have learned not to force, push or rush my tender self to be anywhere I think I might like to be when I'm not yet ready to be there. I've learned most of all that my body and my being can truly be trusted. They have a natural rhythm and flow that is healing and healthy and safe for me. I've learned that whatever I do to control, discipline or externally impose pace or order on my process inevitably interferes with, distorts or subverts that magical flow. There is an organic, organismic order that always will emerge if given time and space enough.
Through this practice I have learned to faithfully trust in my body knowing and in my emotional responses. I have learned that when I give my self safe space in which to be raging, howling, crying, grieving, screaming, vegetating or sleeping when I need that, it never goes on forever. Only when I keep trying to control and transcend these emotions do they seem to become overwhelming and bottomless. I have learned that peace, serenity and true generosity of spirit are born out of a compassionate commitment to take loving good care of one's own being, first. I have learned not to trust any tradition, spiritual path or teaching that asks me to discipline, disconnect from, or get beyond my emotional and body feelings.
I celebrate this womanly, emotion-filled physical temple that is my body. I celebrate its often messy, complicated, juicy feelings and all its intense hungers. I celebrate the joyous process of learning how to nourish, nurture and care for it in an ever more sacred and honoring way, as a part of all creation. How I feed and care for my body and my emotional being is how I feed and care for my soul and how I feed and care for the circle of all beings and souls of which I am a part. I am always doing the best I can; if I could do better, I surely would. And when I can, I surely will.