By Geneen Roth
I used to be a world-class liar about food. When my boyfriend and I would walk together, I'd carry cashews in my left pocket, slide my hand in, grab a few, turn my head to the left, and pop them in my mouth, where I would suck them--on the left side of my mouth, of course--so that he wouldn't know I was eating.
Reading this, you might think I was a bit mad. You might think I went to an extraordinary amount of trouble to hide the truth from someone I supposedly loved. You might think I didn't have a lot of self-esteem. And you would be right on all counts.
I hear many stories about the lengths to which people go to hide what they eat. Some people suck on potato chips in bed, under the covers, so that no one can hear them crunching. Other people only eat at drive-thru restaurants, where they don't have to face anyone when they order three hamburgers, two milkshakes, and fries. Still others only eat after everybody else in the family goes to sleep.
In a recent workshop, one woman explained that she hadn't told her family she was coming to see me because she was afraid they would think she was crazy; that it was another one of her harebrained weight loss schemes. She told me that she eats dinner with them every night and then has a second meal after they go to bed--eating food she wants (chips, ice cream, chocolate) instead of food she thinks they believe she should eat (anything low-cal and healthy). When she goes out to lunch with friends, she eats salads, and then drives to a grocery store to buy everything she wouldn't let herself eat in front of them: cheeses, crackers, cakes...
I asked her what would happen if she let herself eat what she really wanted in front of her family and friends. She said she was sure that they would think she was out of control and certain that they would eventually stop loving her. "Is it true," I asked, "that the people who love you would stop loving you if they knew what you really ate?" She paused for a moment, looked down at her body, and said, "Well, geez, I am 75 pounds overweight. I suppose they must realize that I am eating more than salad without dressing three times a day." We both laughed.
I asked her if that harsh, judgmental voice belonged to other people or to herself. She said that she had been doing this for so many years, ever since she was a little girl and sneaked Fig Newtons into her bed, that she no longer knew. But one thing she did know is that sneaking feels awful.
Yup, it sure does.
It's important, if you're a sneaker, to understand that you're doing it for good reasons. If you start beating yourself up because you're sneaking food, you discount the vulnerable, tender parts of yourself that are convinced they can't let themselves be seen. For some reason, you believe that you're not allowed to be yourself, and that being loved depends on hiding and sneaking what you really want. Sneaking food perpetuates the belief that who you really are is unlovable, too intense, and must be hidden. Being sneaky about your feelings means not telling the truth.
If you sneak food, chances are you tell other lies. Test my theory: Count the lies you tell about yourself in one day. You will likely be shocked at just how much you omit, distort, exaggerate, or otherwise change the truth to fit what you perceive to be the needs of the moment, from "No, there's nothing bothering me," when a great deal is bothering you, to "Gee, I really didn't eat that much for lunch," when you know that you ate nonstop from lunchtime through dinnertime and are too ashamed to admit the truth.
Lying about your actions or feelings has the same effect as sneaking food. Ultimately, the result of all these lies is that you forget what's really true about yourself. And you begin to feel fake because you know that what other people are seeing and loving is not you.
Many years ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would not be sneaky about food or my feelings ever again. Now, if I feel like bingeing (i.e., eating more than my body wants at any moment) and my husband, Matt, walks into the room, I say, "Oh, hi. I felt like eating a lot, so here I am. Want a bite?"
You can't imagine how liberating it feels to be yourself, eating out in the open, knowing you never have to sneak anything else, ever. You can put a halt to all your sneaking around, but you have to begin slowly: Every time you lie, even if it's a little white lie, notice the effect it has on your psyche. Make a promise to yourself that once a day, you will tell the truth when you ordinarily would have lied. Be truthful by eating what you really want, no matter who happens to be there, or by speaking the truth when you would have otherwise adorned it to avoid shame or embarrassment.
Do not begin this practice with lies you have told for 30 years or with statements you know will be harmful to other people. And do this with people who already love you. Absolutely do not eat in front of people who criticize the size of your body at every opportunity. You are telling the truth to be kind to yourself. Part of being kind to yourself is discriminating between the people who truly love you and those who don't. The ones who don't love you don't deserve the truth.