This past weekend, I attended Geneen Roth’s “Take Back Your Life” workshop, which I highly anticipated after reading most of her work. The title was intriguing enough—I wondered who had taken my life and if I really wanted it back, for that matter.
About 200 (mostly) women piled into a large banquet hall, whose walls were covered with Pictionary-style paper, offering sentence completion exercises. Throughout the conference, women were able to add their associations to such leads as:
If I ate whatever I wanted. . .
Thin people. . .
Fat people. . .
I am keeping myself deprived by. . .
In the cafeteria of life, I. . .
Geneen began with (and came back to several times) the premise that “You eat the way you live.” In this way, food and your intake (or lack thereof) is a clear metaphor for the way you live your life. What do you deserve? What are your thoughts about abundance and pleasure and entitlement? With the help of some colleagues, she’s categorized all “emotional eaters” into two groups: restrictors and permitters.
According to Geneen, restrictors are those who like rules/structure, and fare pretty well on diets (at least for a while). They are typically able to recite the calorie/carbohydrate/etc. count of most foods they ingest, and their deprivation-driven motto is, “Less is more.” Permitters, on the other hand, detest/rebel against rules (including diets) and often “go past their hunger as a way of merging with chaos.” They allow, but they allow too much.
Which type resonates with you?
As Geneen correctly indicated, both are defense mechanisms, which we use to protect us from difficult feelings. And both are demonstrative of how you are in other parts of your life. As she describes it, “Your relationship with food is a doorway,” and examining this relationship can give insight into other struggles you have.
Most of Geneen’s work has focused on overeating, which she encourages us to meet with a kind and curious inquiry. Hmm. . . I wonder why I just ate beyond the point of fullness. I guess something must be bothering me—what could it be? Often, this is not our default reaction following a binge—instead, we judge, criticize, shame, reject, and promise (or threaten) to be “better” tomorrow. In this way, “We treat ourselves exactly the way we’ve been treated” in the past.
Early on in the conference, we divided into groups of four (all strangers) and were asked to tell our individual stories about food and our weight. I went last. It’s a powerful thing, having to summarize your entire history regarding eating and your body in just a few moments. . . and with people you’ve never met. Geneen’s personal history includes over 1000 pounds gained and lost (via dieting and bingeing) over the years and a bout of anorexia, in which her weight plummeted to 82 pounds, followed by a rebound weight-gain of 80 pounds in just two months.
Geneen’s eating philosophy is her personal variant of intuitive eating. Her seven eating guidelines include:
1) Eat when you are hungry.
2) Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car.
3) Eat without distractions. Distractions include: radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations, and music.
4) Eat only what your body wants.
5) Eat until you are satisfied.
6) Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.
7) Eat with enjoyment, gusto, and pleasure.
At one point, we divided into groups of six and discussed the guidelines and why each might be difficult to employ. I’m comfortable with numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7, though find myself arguing 2 and 3. Sometimes you get hungry. . . and you’re in the car (or another not-so-calm environment), and it’s my belief that to deprive yourself of food just because of the environment you’re in, conflicts with #1.
I also get stuck on #3. I’m not sure why it’s kosher to dine with family/friends, but not to sit down to eat with the radio or television on. I think, if you have to eat alone, doing so without any kind of background noise feels like punishment. It feels like a diet. Perhaps mindful eating can be approached less rigidly, by coming in and out of mindfulness, checking in with yourself periodically as you eat (“How is this tasting?” “Am I satisfied, yet?”) the same way you’d do when eating with company. I understand that eating should ideally be a calm, focused experience, but this isn’t life (or, at least, my life), and so for me, these guidelines feel a bit too rigid, at least in the way I conceptualize “making peace with food.”
Speaking of mindful eating, we did an eating exercise together. All 200 guests received a small paper cup containing a raisin, a tortilla chip, and a Hershey’s Kiss. Beginning with the raisin (and ending with the Kiss), we took the item out of the cup, held it up to the light, rolled it between our thumb and index finger, smelled it, rubbed it against our lips, sucked on it, chewed it, and eventually swallowed it. I mentioned to a friend that the workshop should be subtitled, “How to Make Love to a Raisin.” It was an interesting, and somewhat frustrating, exercise that came with an interesting moral. Geneen noted that so often (especially when we’re snacking or bingeing), each bite (or chip or piece of chocolate) only serves as a prelude to the next. Increasing awareness will likely return the focus to the present and break the spell, but it does so, I think, at the expense of interrupting the calming disassociation of overeating, thereby returning you to the very feelings you’re trying to avoid. If this were easy, you probably wouldn’t be turning to food in the first place.
Geneen spent a lot of time talking about feelings, attempting to locate feelings in the body, and recognizing, that while notable, feelings are not more powerful than we are. “When you inhabit a feeling, the paradox is that it opens and changes,” she says. It reminds me of behavioral psychology—so often, we avoid difficult feelings, and in this way, they actually gain momentum and power over us. To embrace the feeling, to expose ourselves to it, is actually what allows the feeling to defuse.
“When we began eating emotionally, it was for exquisitely good reasons.”
“Diets, when they’re based on force, or the conviction that you have to change/restrict yourself do not work.”
“No change ever happens by force, guilt, shame, or punishment.”
“We live our lives following instructions from people in our history that we wouldn’t ask for street directions today.”
“If the goal of human life really is just to lose weight (or be thinner) and this is why we live our lives, we would not get to the end of our lives and leave our bodies behind.”
Overall, I enjoyed the conference, but think I would have been more moved had I not already read her books—I can see how coming across her principles for the first time in person could be an immensely powerful experience. Many of the women communicated that this was their last hope, that they were desperate, frightened, and sad. There were lots of therapists there, some food people (nutritionist/dietician types), thin people, fat people, and many who publicly admitted personal struggles with self-esteem, love, depression, parents, and life. I love Geneen’s focus on feelings (instead of weight). As she said, “It’s really easy to lose weight,” and if this were all you wanted to do, you could go on a diet and lose the weight. But, it doesn’t address the reasons that you’re overeating, and you’re likely to end up in the exact same place again. About her own process, she stated, “I wasn’t suffering because I was fat; I was fat because I was suffering.” Ultimately, I think the road to “making peace with food” is a uniquely individual one, and Geneen’s work, while not entirely palatable to me, has certainly contributed to the way I approach eating/body image issues both personally and professionally, and I enjoyed the opportunity to see her and to surround myself with women on the verge of discovery.