Women Food & God: A Book Review of Sorts, But Not Really

Warning:  The mask is off, and the language is occasionally raw, as is fitting the emotions.

I’m an emotional eater. I’ve struggled with my weight for almost my entire life, and, I generally hate self-help books. Regarding the second, I’ve plowed through enough self-help books over the last two decades to know most of them are little more than dandelion fluff and unicorn farts. Paint me very, very skeptical of the latest secret, or seven secrets, or way of the magician, or 12 steps or 20 steps or one step- or Oprah, or Goop or whatever kool-ade is being sold. I’ve been around long enough to know that real change in a life course is very, very hard, and that it often only happens with deep personal pain and hard work. There is no formula or secret. Period.

As a woman in the western world, I’ve been fighting with my weight and body images since I was barely more than a girl. My weight has fluctuated, excluding pregnancies, through more than a 100 pound range during my adult life. I have been on every diet known, in every program imagined, and hated myself for what the distorted fun-house mirrors tried to sell me as my worth. No book, diet, self-help guru or aerobics class could kills the demons pulling my puppet strings.

Since last October, I’ve lost 55 pounds. It’s scary for me to even type that- it used to be when I would lose weight, I’d tell everyone, and feel like I had figured out some magic formula, and I wanted to share it- which is exactly what the people who write self-help books do. Which is exactly why I don’t trust those people- because I understand their fervor and zeal. Now, when I have again headed towards a much healthier weight, I want to keep a low profile. I wish I had told the YMCA people no when they asked to put us in a commercial- like I said, people recognize me at the gym now, and I hate it. I hate it because I don’t trust it.

I hate it. As you lose weight, people notice you, they start to see you, instead of see through you. But the compliments of weight-loss have a dark, scary flip-side: it is the silence and eyes that slide away when you put it back on, rendering you once-again invisible. As a woman losing weight, the more I lose, the more solid, legitimate, praiseworthy and real I seem to become- to friends, family, strangers, clerks, law enforcement- the less there is of me, the more worthy I am of being noticed. It is like a transporter beam on Start Trek: As I lose weight, a body begins to appear, forming gradually until people can see me. Gaining weight is exactly the same, in reverse. The larger I am, the less people see me, the less people are kind, helpful or ask my opinion, or seem to value my input- or even offer to help me in public. No wonder; the fun-house mirror is all f****d up.

This is not a woman with a little extra tummy bulge from having a baby saying this- this is coming from a woman who has lost and put-on the weight of a fifth-grader five times over in the last two decades. I know that of which I speak.

I also know my current  weight loss is different than any  before, for many reasons. I haven’t been trying to lose weight. Yes, you read that right. Back in October, when my entire life exploded in an Oppenheimer cloud, I made a decision to take care of myself. That meant being honest with myself in all things. It’s not as easy as it sounds. One thing I decided was to never, ever diet again. I never wanted to swing wildly or have my self-esteem connected to a number on the tag of my pants. EVER AGAIN. I do not diet, and I will never diet ever again. I started doing things to make myself feel good- things I would council a friend or someone I loved to do to take care of themselves… and lo, my body started to achieve its own balance. I was surprised at first when I noticed my clothes fitting better, and I didn’t entirely trust it was real. Tentatively, I began to make small steps towards valuing myself instead of warring with body.


So when I walked by this book at Costco a few weeks back, I glanced, scoffed, and carried on.

But the next time I was in Costco, there it was again, and I stopped to read the jacket. I again tossed it back on the pile went to get milk and eggs. But on the way back, kept thinking of it. I walked by, and to my own surprise, found myself setting it in my cart. What the heck? My internal dialog was crooked and stilted, but for some reason I couldn’t put it back. Here I was, buying into the kool-ade that there was something wrong with me- and I was ticked at myself. Again.

For weeks, I resented that stupid book. It sat on my night stand. I moved it to the bookshelf. I piled laundry on it. Eventually I read the first few chapters, then again discarded it and forgot about it again. Only I didn’t.

Finally, two school papers ahead of schedule, I decided I was just going to read the damn thing and get it over with.

The first few chapters are interesting, but not groundbreaking. Geneen Roth lives in my old California stomping grounds, this book is not absent some formulaic self-help book millstones. It’s not a book about weight. It’s not about weight-loss, though most women who pick it up will have struggled with their weight in their lives- that is certainly its target market. What Geneen Roth is trying to do with this book is hold up a mirror. A mirror that is not all f****d up and distorted from too long in the fun house. She is trying to hold up a clear, clean, straight, and focused mirror- to show us who we are in God’s eyes (and she’s not a deist)- in God’s eyes, we are perfect.

Intellectually, I appreciated what Roth was trying to do, and I understood her concepts. I even liked some of her ideas and imagery, and was appreciating the general lack of standard trope. Deep through the book, at chapter 11, the ground shifted under me. Around page 148, suddenly the mirror I had been contemplating from afar was in my face. Hard. No one works exactly the same way, and words that were burning coals to my carefully constructed paper-defenses may not even register to someone else- but my hands started to shake as I placed the book down on my bed and got up for some tissues. Hot tears were choking my throat and causing me to gasp for breath. I wept until I was exhausted. What the hell…?

It’s not that the ideas of love and value being tied to food are particularly new. It’s the spectacular clarity of the mirror Roth holds up, and the clean, simple lines she draws between pain and protection, faith and fear. I saw myself in her words with a clarity I had never beheld before. There I was, with layers of protections, isolations, defenses and folly from functioning in the false, distorted world of the fun-house mirrors. Like all carnivals and fun houses with their wicked dirty mirrors and tricks, once you know the way out, you can chose to leave. Geneen Roth is holding up a big sign in the fun-house, pointing the way to the EXIT.

14 thoughts on “Women Food & God: A Book Review of Sorts, But Not Really

  1. I’ve looked in that fun house mirror myself. It takes all that I’ve got and a fair deal of grace for me to remember that God’s mirror is the only true mirror.

    Melissa, I vote that it would be sabbath day observant to order it from Amazon. They won’t even touch the order until tomorrow.

  2. So I’m wondering of you think it would be appropriate reading for those with eating disorders. I have a relative or two worrying me; one a diagnosed bulemic.

    • Actually Em, yes. It’s not about losing weight. It’s about how people with eating disorders -either compulsive overeaters, compulsive dieters- are trying to exert control in their lives through food. She tries (and rather successfully) draws parallels between faith, disconnects from our lives, and how many women, for a variety of reasons, turn on their bodies and disconnect from God through food. That’s overly simplistic, but it might be worth a read for you to see if it might help your relative.

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  4. If I knew where you lived, we would definitely do lunch. You are strong and direct….I am direct….not everyone can handle that. Direct doesn’t mean rude or mean….just tellin’ it like it really is….unvarnished – no fluff – no pussy footin’…..just direct.

    I think I would bring you a casserole now and again and definitely take your kids. Especially Bean. From your posts, I like him already and my past experience tells me he and I would work it out.

    You Rock, Dandelion Mama!

  5. You are such a gift. I love the concept of this book. And I am so proud of you. this book needs to go on my list. :-).

  6. Good call on ending diets. I hope you are able to enjoy your body and health now, instead of “not trusting” it because it may change again.
    Our family was in a YMCA flier once. Everyone in our ward got a copy in the mail. So we got asked about it at church, not the gym. 🙂

  7. You know my thoughts on diets and weight and body image, won’t bore you by repeating them here. I also know at least the tip of the iceberg of your struggles, emotional and physical.
    Someone else who is following the same path you have been searching for validates your belief that it IS there and it CAN be done and you’re NOT nuts for wanting these better things for yourself, not for your appearance. A honest self reflection is a good thing, even if you knew it all before.

  8. Tracy-

    Your entry about the first time you came to the YMCA actually moved me to tears. I felt it was so valuable for staff to know how scary, intimidating and embarrassing it can be to come to the Y. I couldn’t get through the entire blog standing in front of my staff, so another staff member had to take the printed copy from my hands and finish it.

    I was the one who thought this story was so powerful that it needed to be told so people could understand the importance of not letting one person go unwelcomed when they are coming to us to seek health and well-being.

    I convinced you that you should come and tell your story in film. And twice I have read here that you regret doing that. You will never know how sorry I am for that.

    I sent the link to the staff at our Y because I wanted them to know how important their job is. A lifeguard can save you from drowning, and a front desk staff person can sell you a membership, but I don’t think they realize what their job really is. To understand what challenges and struggles people have and how scary it is to ask for help on how to lead a healthier life is what their job really is.

    My hope was that using by your words and capturing you experience in video I would be able to help impart that empathic behavior in the staff. I believe it has, but I am devastated that it has caused you the loss of your anonymity and made you feel uncomfortable at the YMCA.

    If there is any way I can make this situation better for you, or any learning I can take away from how this was handled, please let me know.

    Dan White
    Central YMCA Center Director

  9. Pingback: The Exponent » Blog Archive » Virtual Oasis

  10. I had an eating disorder when I was a teen and young adult, so I can relate to some of what you say here. There are some gems in your post that really say it all. This sounds like a book worth reading.

    (And Dan White, there should be more sincere business people like you.)

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