We have quite a bit to consider when piecing apart our individual relationship with food and our bodies. But before we get to working with the individual pieces, we need to re-align our ultimate destination. This is a version of re-calibrating our internal GPS around our body image and eating. Where are we headed?
The first stop will be intentionally replacing the 30 year old picture of Twiggy or Farrah or whoever you have gnawing in the back of your mind as your model of what you think you should look like. For our generation that came of age in the early days of the feminist movement, the image/role model could likely be you, yourself at a younger time and weight. Or for those of us stuck in food prison, it is most likely a relentless adherence to Twiggy-like a number on the scale. Or it could be her clothing size, that keeps you captive, forbidding you from ever enjoying a piece of bread or dessert.
I’d like to set our ultimate destination to a different time when women didn’t have eating and body image problems like today. I want to take you back 100 years to our grandmother’s younger days. Let’s consider your young grandmother’s relationship to food and her body and what it could teach us. Let’s make eating just eating again. I’d like to ratchet down the emotional investment and the stakes for each piece of food we put in our mouths. No obsession. No emotional attachment to a number on the scale. Let’s think about eating for nourishment and for pleasure like people did forever before our day and age.
Meet Twiggy's replacement in the role model department, my grandmother: Nana.
What would Nana do?
Her name was Rose. Why would she be she such a great role model for us today? She would be a great role model for all the ways she differed from how women of today relate to their bodies and eating. She is not just a destination for how she looked, but a destination for her intention in thinking about her body and how she ate. Think of what you could learn about how to be from her and the women who came before her.
Nana cared very much how she looked, but wasn’t obsessed with the number on the scale. She was a great cook and ate dessert every day, but didn’t know a calorie from a carb and certainly didn’t own a bathroom scale. She cared if her pants were getting too tight (she made them herself, and it took quite a bit of work to make another, larger pair!), and if that happened she wouldn’t eat dessert for a few days because she understood how food worked from years of eating everyday. And, she kept this understanding of how food worked front and center in her mind when there was extra dessert in the house. She didn’t fear keeping food in the house because she wasn’t afraid of food. It was just food. She was free to eat it any time she wanted. Food was not imbued with any special powers, other than to be delicious.
She didn’t suffer a lack of self-esteem when she her pants got too tight. She wouldn’t have thought of punishing herself or talking in a mean voice to herself because of what she ate. She cut back on dessert when her pants were too tight, because she wanted her pants to fit more than she needed that dessert at that moment. For Nana, having dessert was a conscious and logical choice, right then and there.
Since she was allowed dessert any time she wanted, there was no deprivation or necessity to eat it at a certain time before it would be forbidden to her. Her idea of herself didn’t depend on the number on the scale (she didn't own one for most of her life), and she wasn’t afraid of gaining weight. She didn’t like it, but she knew how to handle it because, again, she understood how food worked. Because there was no fear or deprivation, this process remained logical, there was no panic involved in the form of the emotional storm, tornado or tsunami that our generation is familiar with. She was just living her life. Food and eating were not ruining it.
She expected to age like all the other women she had met, and didn’t think it was her job to be sexy for men or stay frozen in time. She had a casual, relaxed relationship with food and her body. And that entire description of Nana's relationship with her body and eating is what we are going for. Her whole mindset is our destination for a mentally healthy relationship with body and food. So read these last 4 paragraphs again, and set your internal GPS.
The casual, relaxed relationship with food is why our grandmothers would be good role models for us. However, it’s been pointed out to me that not all grandmothers fit this bill. At one of my talks a woman mentioned to me that her grandmother was a 'mean old butterball.' If your grandmother isn’t the model I’m suggesting, please borrow my Nana metaphorically for your role model. She’d be happy to be of use to you.
What is the difference between Nana and our attitudes around our bodies and food today? Two really important things.
Your intention for why you eat directly determines your experience when eating. Where you reap you will sow. Your understanding of what you are actually doing with your eating behavior is the key to managing the experience you want to have. Often you are unaware of your intention. And, like most things we are discussing in MyBodyMySelf, it would serve you well to notice your intention so you can choose your experience that serves you best. Nana's intention when she ate was whole-body self-care, not a pervasive sense of managing the size of her body.
This is an abstract concept, so it could be helpful to show how this works. Think of the different intentions three people could have in going out to Les Nomades for dinner, each intention generating its own unique experience for that person. Someone who is (1) anti-social could go out to dinner with the intention of eating, just eating. If you are not a people person, you might see dinner as just an opportunity to re-fuel your body. A (2) social person might not care about the food, but go with the intention of good conversation, drink, and fun. A (3) food critic could go to dinner with the intention to collect information for an article, and she might focus primarily on the taste, presentation, and sensory aspects of the food itself. All these people could be at the same table for dinner, eating the same food, but their intention -- of which they may or may not be aware -- in eating dinner is very different.
Each of their experiences will be different directly related to that intention they have walking into the restaurant. The (1) anti-social eater will eat and be ready to leave in 45 minutes. He has done what he came for, fueled his body. The (2) social eater will be laughing and ordering wine, he might be at Les Nomades all night and need an Uber to get himself home. The (3) food critic will be completely focused on the food, its taste, texture and presentation. She will leave headed for her computer to write. All three people were next to each other at dinner at the same restaurant, but had three very different experiences because of their underlying, unconscious intention.
If your intention in your eating is to mold or sculpt your body to weigh a certain number on the scale as soon as possible, that will happen as long as you follow the diet. However, by treating your body as a object-to-be-shaped with the intention of simply getting the scale to read a lower number, you will also “reap” a whole bunch of physically and emotionally harmful secondary consequences of dieting. These secondary consequences actually sabotage the diet long term, in part, accounting for the 95% diet failure statistic:
- Physically: When you restrict your food intake to semi-starvation mode, your metabolism slows making it harder to lose weight. We've had this science for decades when Ancel Keys did a famous study with consciencious objectors during WWII. When people drastically reduce their food intake -- such as when they are trying to get weight off their body as quickly as possible -- people suffer: anemia, fatigue, apathy, extreme weakness, irritability, and brain fog. The men in Keys' study became obsessed with eating and food as they were starved, making it almost impossible to maintain this way of eating for any length of time.
- Emotionally: Ninety-five percent dieters will engage in the panic-filled, emotional tornado we discussed inDiets and Emotional Tornados, and will experience some winding up of: deprivation, guilt, shame, fear (of weight gain or of food itself), and self-judgment. These emotions also make it almost impossible to stick to any restrictive eating plan for long.
In order to avoid these secondary consequences of dieting, that actually sabotage the eating plan, you need to widen your intention in eating to include taking care of yourself physically and emotionally. Nana wanted to lose weight when her pants became tight, but her intention was not a maniacal focus on the scale, her intention was self-care. She wanted her pants to fit so she could look and feel like her best self. Being her best self intentionally included being physically and emotionally healthy. Keeping this whole-person, self-care intent in mind, she wouldn’t want to starve or punish herself or become obsessed with food or the scale. Her intent to care for her whole self actually allowed her to have success in her efforts to eat less.
She didn’t put a timeclock on her effort, but was relaxed and casual in eating less until her pants fit better, whenever that was. She TRUSTED that if she ate right and moved, her body would follow suit. It would serve all of us well to TRUST that we know how to take care of ourselves if we just listened to ourselves intuitively. Her intent take care of herself leads into the other reason Nana is a good role model . . .
Nana is a grandmother. Unlike Twiggy, she is a symbol to us of caretaking, compassion, and of love. I offer you the suggestion to grandmother yourself because, without your own grandmother in the room, it would be great if you could care for yourself and unconditionally love yourself as she would have done for you.
Much of women's neuroticism around food stems from the fear that another person will judge them by their appearance. There is a fear of not being accepted in our diet culture if you don't fit a standard, or if you flip that, only being accepted CONDITIONALLY, if your appearance fits within a certain range. The fear is a conditional acceptance. Maybe that is a reflection of how you felt in childhood with your behavior or appearance, that you were only loved if you were within an acceptable range of behavior or looks. But, where ever this idea comes from, you might be only loving yourself conditionally right now. This is what happens for 'restrictors' when they believe they are not lovable if they gain a few pounds and for 'soothers' they may believe that they will be lovable only when that diet finally works.
Nana embodies the idea you see in all the current literature on body image today to accept yourself and love yourself unconditionally whether or not your weight fits in a certain number or size. This is the critical first step in addressing any negative body image problem. You take care of people and things that you love. You don't take care of people and things that you hate. Your feelings about yourself should not require your body to look a certain way or be a certain number on the scale. Your shape is determined mostly by genetics and will change all through your lifecycle. Your weight can and will change along with the hormones of adolescence, pregnancies, and menopause -- that have nothing to do with your free will. But at any size or shape, you are you, a person worthy of respect, compassion and whole-body, self-care at every point in your life’s journey.
I think the idea to grandmother yourself carries with it an unconditional love, a non-judgmental acceptance, and a compassionate, kind voice for YOU to use on YOU, as Nana would have done for you.
- Leah Kelm,"They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment," The Nutrition Journal, 2005.
- Hans W. Loewald, The Essential Loewald: Collected Papers and Monographs, 2000,
- Jonathan Lear, Wisdom won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, 2017.
- Isabel Foxen-Duke, Stop Feeling Crazy Around Food? Blog, The Evolution of “Eating Whatever I Want” in a Post-Diet World
". . .when I stopped looking at my body like a home improvement project—like an ornament to be molded to my liking (or the liking of others), and started looking at my body like the human person that she is—the child of someone, the sister of someone—a living, breathing animal that feels things, this shift in perspective, from self-loathing to self-care, slowly but surely, began to influence my 'wants.'" --Isabel Foxen-Duke, Stop Feeling Crazy Around Food