By Geneen Roth
When I first stopped dieting, my friends thought I’d gone mad. I was 50 pounds over my natural weight and could fit into only one flouncy summer dress – which I wore daily, even in winter. One night my friend Susan and I were out to dinner and I ordered a brownie with ice cream for dessert. Glowering at me, Susan said. “Really, Geneen, you can’t possibly think that eating a brownie with ice cream is good for you. Look at you! You need to lose weight! It’s disgusting. You should find a diet and stick to it.”
Even 30 years later I remember exactly where we were – at a restaurant in San Jose, CA; what Susan was wearing – an orange sweater with Turquoise flecks; and what I was feeling – ashamed and fat. (We all know what I was wearing.) My face turned a thousand shades of red, and I imagined taking up long-term residence under the table…and taking a nip or two out of Susan’s ankle while I was there. But instead, I took a deep breath, straightened my back, and said (in a louder voice than was probably necessary) that I was doing something new with food and that, while I appreciated her concern, her comments were not helpful.
A slightly stunned Susan muttered, “Well, I hope you know what you are doing.” I said I did. And that was that. (Sort of. A year later, after I’d reached my natural weight, Susan called and asked me if she could join my Breaking Free online support group for emotional eaters. Divine justice comes in many forms.)
I often get desperate letters from people who want to know what to do and what to say to spouses and friends who comment on their weight and food intake. Recently a woman named Lizzie wrote, “Please tell me what I can say to my best friend, who is convinced that I am killing myself by allowing myself to eat what I want.”
My response is always the same: Once we are adults, it is not anyone’s job but our own to monitor what goes into our mouths. It’s not that nutritional and medical information is not necessary or helpful; it is. It’s not that loving friends and family are not necessary and helpful; they are. But when it gets down to the particular foods you choose to eat on a given day, you are the boss.
Why? Two reasons. The first is that unless you begin claiming that right for yourself, you will spend your life eating cottage cheese in front of people who think you should be eating cottage cheese, and brownies and ice cream when you are alone. You will spend your life as a child who is either obeying authority or rebelling against it, never taking the power that is yours.
The second reason is that as loving as any intention from a caring friend or family member may be, it is misguided. When someone else comments on what you eat or how much you weigh, it evokes shame, and after working with tens of thousands of people over the years, I can say with absolute certainty that shame does not ever, under any circumstance, lead to long-lasting change. Shame only leads to more shame, more hiding, more sneaking, more bingeing.
So what does work? Two things: Being clear and direct about your own needs, and reminding yourself again and again that you are the boss of your own body. Years ago I worked with a woman named Marian who was 30 pounds overweight. During the eight-week class I taught, Marian began to understand that the diet-binge cycle she’d been on for 20 years was a main contributor to her weight gain, and so she decided that she was going to stop dieting and begin eating what she wanted. Instead of allowing her husband to make comments about her weight and what she ate, she took the metaphorical bull by the horns.
One evening she left our group and told her husband that she needed him as a friend and lover, not as an inquisitor and judge. She told him that although she knew he loved her, it was hurting, not helping, her when he commented on the size of her body or a particular food she was eating. And she asked for his support. When he asked how he could support her, she said, “Trust that I know what I am doing. Trust that I know what’s best for my body. Trust that listening to myself is really the right thing to do. And when you can, express your love, not your judgment.”
“OK,” he said, “it’s a deal.” He admitted that it would be hard, but said he was willing to support Marian in exactly the way she asked.
“I know this is new,” she replied. “And I know I’ve often asked you for advice, or to tell me if I look fat in a dress or pair of pants. But I’m going to stop all that now. Give me three months. Let’s see what happens.”
During an evening in the first few weeks of her experiment, Marian decided she wanted a chocolate truffle from a restaurant 15 miles away. It was raining in torrents and she didn’t like driving in bad weather, so she asked her husband to drive her. Talk about asking for support.
He gulped. “You want a truffle? In this downpour?”
“Yes,” she said. Will you drive?”
And off they went. When she had taken two bites of the truffle (which was the size of a lemon – no kidding), she put it down and said, “OK, I’ve had enough.”
Her husband was stunned when she said this. “Enough? We just drove 15 miles in a monsoon to get it!”
He wasn’t used to seeing his wife take just two bites of anything. Or to the freedom she was beginning to feel as a result of knowing what she wanted, asking for it, and receiving it without shame.
Amazing things happen when you reclaim your body for your own. You stop apologizing for your weight; you stop eating when no one is looking. You start owning the immense power that has always been yours; what you eat and how it makes you feel. When you are not eating to please someone else or sneaking around the house/your car/the office and eating everything in sight, you become the proud owner of your own body.
When you really know that, you’ll know exactly what to do when the self-appointed food critics in your life start acting up. Be polite; explain that you know they have your best interests at heart, but that someone else with more at stake has that covered: you, the boss of you. And if your friends and family aren’t as supportive as Marian’s husband (hey, it happens), remember that, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel shame without your consent. You’re free to decide what you think, feel, and put in your body.
So do what you know is right (even if, as for me, it involves brownies and ice cream), and if you ever hanker for a truffle on a rainy night and no one will drive you, drive yourself. When you want something sweet, freedom is always a good choice.
This brings me to inviting you to our fall retreat! When you come to a retreat, you immerse yourself in an environment where everything you always wanted is provided. You are seen for who you are and — there is no other way to describe it — cherished into being yourself. Consider joining us. We would love to share six amazing days in November with you in Asilomar, CA.
Some of the themes explored during the retreat include:
• Directly working with eating itself, learning to listen to your body and feed it what it truly wants
• Turning off the inner critic and treating yourself with exquisite kindness
• Identifying your patterns of eating/working/spending and how change happens for you
• Learning and directly experiencing what enough is
• Building on all that is already good and already working in your life
• Removing the obstacles that keep you from reaching your natural weight
Because we believe in ongoing support, and because we see that it makes such a difference in forever changing your relationship with food, we have set up an extensive ongoing support system only available to retreat students:
• Two small weekend intensives with Geneen
• Monthly support calls and morning meditations
• Small group sessions with retreat teachers
• Buddy support with other retreat students
• Private online forum to stay in connection with retreat students
For more information, go to: http://retreats.geneenroth.com/fall
Or, if you have any questions, call us at: 703-401-0871.