Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Women, Food and God, by Geneen Roth

It's never about the food. It's not about the diet or weight. This is not a popular take on our culture's obsession with food, but since I've read Geneen Roth's books, I've believed this.

Even as most of us go through our days dieting, planning meals, and otherwise restricting our intakes, then frantically exercising, trying to corral our impossible cravings and impulses, deep inside I think this is a truth we all know -- it's not about the food itself. Even as our resolve fades, and it always does, and the inevitable overeating and couch potato-ing that serve as our rebounds from the restrictions we've imposed on ourselves, we know there must be something that lies beneath this exasperating cycle.

In Geneen Roth's newest book, "Women, Food and God," she tells us what this something is and how to get there. There's no mystery. It's not magic. What's underneath our struggles with food are our feelings of "less-than-ness," feelings most of us learned by the grace of parents who were simply not up to the task, most likely feeling pretty less-than themselves. We learn to cover up our less-than-ness, to pretend that we are as good as everyone else, (even though pretty much everyone else has their own less-than feelings and covers them up as well). We pretend we do, but we don't truly love ourselves, and we reenact, over and over, classic scenarios that serve to help us cope. As Roth describes it, when we are caught in this way of being, we either impose the control over our eating that we need to feel in our lives, or we distract from and numb our feelings by taking away all controls and stuffing ourselves with a constant flood of food. Or, maybe both.

Geneen Roth is a little "out there." She has come through her own messy life, although she is nothing but honest about it -- her own belief that she was less-than, her anorexia, bingeing, weight problems, her deep loneliness and tendency towards melodrama. She shares what she has learned, that it's not about the food, but about what we are faced with when we push away the plate, and look at what is behind any of the compulsions or addictions that serve to help us escape. This is a book about food, but then again, it's not. Turns out WF&G is self-help-ish, and very new-agey. Honestly, it kind of surprises me that I like Geneen Roth and her message. If there is anybody likely to run away from a message framed this way, it would be me.

I like to call my dad a serial self-helpist. I lived through the 1970s in San Francisco with him, and, believe me (my dad's trademark exclamation) he was busy. If the gurus dreamed it, he came. Here is just a sampling: Subud, EST, The Star Process, Primal Scream (don't even ask me about that last one). Still, now that I have some time and distance on my side, I have to admit that I see something of value in all these programs, something I think all of us secretly search for, and I think what that thing is is a way to get back to our true selves. The selves we were, before we were brainwashed with that less-than voice, the one that for so any of us, continues to sabotage us and keep us from having the lives we want. Now, remembering my dad, not all of us are always up to the task of looking deep inside, (and I don't say this as someone who has achieved this, but as someone who struggles to do the everyday work of living, of someone curious). Sometimes, you just can't always get there from here. My dad always approached each of these programs as if they presented an answer, a set of rules to rigidly follow -- which, if you think about it, was just a new way to layer on control and restrictions and distance him from himself. Because I saw my dad fly from one self-help program to the next, seemingly no better off after completing any one of them, I had no tolerance for hearing about any self-help program and in my younger days I would have dismissed Geneen Roth's message as just a bunch of hoo-ha. But since, at the age of 49, I do have some perspective, I have to admit I've come to the conclusion there is a potential for insight and truth to be found in any of these programs -- but if, like my dad, we're not able to stay open and curious, able to accept others and ourselves, we may not be able to hear it.

My dad's approach to self-help was to sign up, diligently follow instructions, and wait for transformation. I think Geneen Roth's take is more realistic -- to look inside is the work of a lifetime. And, if you're able to hear her message without passing judgment on her Opra-esque self-helpishness, it has the possibility to transform. Taking the time and effort to look at the ways we have been hurt is a lot harder than polishing off that last piece of cherry pie (which I did before I sat down to write this) but, ultimately, promises so much more.

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