Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Anything by Geneen Roth

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover, 224 pages
Simon and Schuster
Price: $24.00
ISBN13: 9781416543077

The United States has become the poster nation for overweight people, and, quite possibly going hand in hand, we have also increasingly become a nation of obsessions and addictions. The reasons, I suspect, are varied and many, arguably from living in a society that has lost sense of its values, to living in a society bombarded with convenience everything, including poor quality foods with a long list of chemical additives and preservatives, many of which studies have shown can lead to increased appetite, to possibly so many pollutants in our air and earth and water that our bodies are becoming chemically out-of-whack in efficiency of using food, to a simple lack of physical activity or even sleep deprivation.

Geneen Roth lists an impressive publishing history on her book jacket, but no credentials in the fields of science or psychology. Indeed, this is the one notable lacking in this popular book, and one which is a major one. As much as I enjoyed reading this Oprah-blessed book, I kept wishing for something more solid, cited cases and studies, observed and noted results, tie-ins to scientific expertise, but found none.

There, we’ll get that out of the way—my one gripe. The author is otherwise an accomplished one, with eight prior books on similar topics, on which she has based many workshops and retreats. She has written for The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, and O, The Oprah Magazine. And she has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The View, NPR, and other much-watched shows. Roth knows how to market herself, and that's not a bad thing. Certainly the idea of this and her other books are very marketable. One might say, we are hungry for solutions to our national weight crisis.

Clearly there is an emotional factor (among other factors) to overeating among American women. Most anyone has experienced eating out of stress, nervous tension, anxiety, depression, or some other emotional upheaval. This is the area into which Roth delves, exploring how our eating habits correlate with our emotions. Of the connection to God (note the title of the book) or “everything,” I am not sure, but Roth makes the general point that how we eat is how we do everything. If we respect our bodies, perhaps therein lies our connection to God—disrespect for our bodies, or the objectification of women in general, as Roth points out, translates into disrespect toward God and the divine temple (our physical bodies) He created for us to inhabit. If we are unhappy or out of balance emotionally, she says, our bodies show it.

Roth’s book opens on a scene of one of her workshops, where women gather to understand how their emotional selves connect to their physical selves, food being the connecting thread between the two. Food, Roth writes, can become our tool of obsession, our means of self-denial, our manner of evading the emotions we cannot bear to face. Food is a way to deaden the pain.

“I’ve been abandoned and betrayed by who and what really matters and what I’ve got left is food.” (Page 6)

It’s an interesting theory. Food as drug, as crutch, as mask, as buffer against emotional pain. For women, food is often a means of coping with relationships gone bad. Reading the book, I recalled a wise woman in my own life telling me that I was “carrying the weight of my emotions” during a time when I was deeply unhappy in a dysfunctional relationship. For the first time in my life, I was struggling with weight, and I knew the truth in her words—I was using food to fill the void inside, to deaden pain, to build a buffer between myself and my partner, a man who had turned out to be a serial cheater with an addiction to pornography. I found myself in an emotionally battering nightmare. The hit to my self-respect, especially on such a physical and intimate level, was overwhelming. The more betrayed and rejected I felt, the more my appetite increased. While I had been the same weight for my entire adulthood since high school, for the first time, I saw the scale climb. I was indeed carrying the weight of my battered emotions. I was a walking, eating illustration of Roth's theory. It wasn't until after I left that sad scenario that I began to tip back into balance, with contentment returning also a normal appetite, even as my appetite for a good life returned.

It could be that women are especially prone to this. Roth, unless I missed it, does not explain why her book addresses only women, but the genders do seem to develop different types of bad habits when it comes to attempts to escape our emotions. Since American men are also often obese, however, one wishes Roth might have addressed this further. When Roth tells her readers to face the pain rather than eat through it, she cheerily writes that there are worse things than facing a broken heart. Hmm, I had to think about that. Is there? Hearts break over betrayal, abandonment, death or loss of a loved one (spouse, mate, child), loss of a cherished dream, or any number of reasons. I would say there really is nothing worse, but hey, that's me. Whatever Roth considers worse, I would be curious to hear it, but her point is taken. We must at some point enter the pain, the rage, the storm of emotion, if we are ever to get through to the other side to a healthier self.

Compartmentalizing pain, Roth says, leads to obsession—in this case, an obsession with food. We may think we are dealing with our emotions when we reach for the bag of chips or bar of chocolate, but we are not. One way or another, our emotions will be heard. Compartmentalization may work in the short run as a survival mechanism, but in the long run it inevitably backfires; it simply pushes our denied emotions into other unhealthy behaviors. “Obsessions are ways we leave before we are left because we believe that the pain of staying would kill us.” (Page 42)

Roth addresses the women in her workshops, and her readers, by encouraging them to look more closely at whatever it is they are not facing. Hunger comes in different forms. Hunger for acceptance, hunger for love, all too often become confused with hunger for food. Through various steps, she helps women separate different kinds of hunger. Most of us, she rightly states, don't even recognize physical hunger. She also encourages women to stop fighting their hunger for food. This may initially sound controversial—to be told in a diet-crazed society that we should never diet again. But if diets worked, we would be the thinnest nation in the world rather than the most overweight.

Roth invites us to eat. Eat when we are hungry. Not when we are hungry for love, or acceptance, or whatever else … but to eat when our bodies are truly in need of physical sustenance. Then, eat to our fill. No more, no less. Once that taboo is removed, she argues, our obsession ends. Desire is often fed by the elicit, by the wish to do what we are not supposed to do, the forbidden apple becoming too much of a temptation … and so, Roth invites us to take a bite. She teaches us, in fact, to bite with utmost respect. Bite the apple, and yes, the cookie, too. Move aside all distraction, set aside the time, create a kind of divine moment of eating. Food is good. Food is not the enemy. Once we stop treating it like one, we may well find that our bodies, our appetites, begin to regulate themselves.

Feel the feeling, Roth says. Deal with the emotions. Compartmentalized pain will not go away until we fully open that door. If initially we may tear through our pantry, our no longer forbidden fruit will eventually become less enticing once it is readily available. We may, in fact, find ourselves reaching for the apple rather than the cookie.

In a society in which women are so often judged by our bodies, valued or not valued in direct correlation with our physical appearance, Roth writes of the need for treating our physical, and so also our emotional, selves with reverence. Objectification, after all, is just another word for hatred, and Roth speaks of the magazine photos of emaciated and anorexic women, the airbrushed images in all forms of media, women transformed by plastic surgery and treated as objects in pornography so that men come to expect an ever more unrealistic and unattainable perfection, and children, especially girls, being taught from an early age that appearance is everything.

“…our objectification of matter—including women’s bodies—is a partial cause of the apocalyptic disaster in which we now find ourselves. Rather than treating our bodies (and the body of the earth) with reverence, we trash them, try to bend them to our wills.” (Page 123)

Connect mind, body, spirit with reverence, open one to the other, deny none, and obsessions and addictions will lose their power.

Roth’s statement that food can be our doorway to the divine may be a bit of a stretch, but I do think she is on the right path with this. Including some closely monitored case studies (rather than anecdotal stories) with women dealing with emotional and/or spiritual pain in connection with their weight would have added much to this book. Adding expertise from persons in hard sciences would also have elevated it from an interesting and thought-provoking read to a powerful theory to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, it is worth considering and testing in one’s own life, with our emotional state being at least one part of our consideration of returning to a wholistically healthy state in body, mind and spirit.

If Roth’s guidelines are sometimes not realistic in our hurried and harried lives (e.g., never have a meal while simultaneously doing something else), the general idea is good common sense. Raising our awareness about the food we are stuffing into our faces is always a good idea. Slowing us down to consider that the hunger we are feeding, the void we are trying to fill, the pain we are avoiding, should be fed in healthier ways, is sound wisdom. Our national problem with food goes beyond these behaviors, but this is as excellent a beginning as any for a nation that is dealing with an epidemic of obesity.

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