Editor’s note: this is a longer than usual newsletter. But if you take the time to digest it, I believe that it warrants the extra length.
April has been quite the month for me and not just because of the crazy winter weather. Like April showers laying a foundation for May flowers and summer greenery, April has been a month of taking care of small details for bigger changes. With my wedding two months away, I have been taking care of dress preparations and Carlos and I tackled the details of our local and organic menu. We spent an entire 30 minutes talking table cloths. I now feel knowledgeable in the intricacies of fabric texture. And, my mother has given me a sneak peak at the farm fresh menu for my shower this month. I look forward to sharing these recipes with you next month.
I also recently finished the final paper for my graduate course, “Self, Role and Expectation.” The course focused on understanding how our upbringing, including race, gender and the socio-political climate, influenced our values, view of the world and the work we’ve chosen.
How does this relate to food and weight? While the careers that we choose significantly shape our lifestyle, the gender we are born with largely impacts our body image. This is particularly true for women. This body image that is significantly absorbed from our environment impacts how we treat ourselves and thus our overall wellness just as much as our active choices, such as eliminating sugar or eating greens.
The course asserted that through a combination of nurture and nature, women place a higher priority on connecting with the people in their life through talking, sharing and being sensitive to other’s needs. As a result, women grow up with a more intense desire to be liked. A Harvard study found women in the workplace valued being liked more than being respected and rewarded.
As someone who works with a primarily female clientele on their weight and wellness issues I was particularly interested in how this desire for acceptance and to be liked can affect their health and weight. For women, complaining about weight, bodies and food choices can be a form of bonding –a way to be related to and “liked” by other women. Commercial culture is eager and willing to encourage this dynamic for their own gain. Being pretty, desirable is just one more purchase away and can help you belong. When a woman meets the standard beauty ideal (think Kate Middleton), her body receives the most intense scrutiny, mainly by other women. Look at the masthead of all those fashion magazines. Yep, mostly female editors.
In the book, “She’s Not There”, a transgender professor who always felt that he was a she, is going through the hormonal changes to make his body female. This transition is fascinating on many levels, he notices that he’s more sensitive to the cold, to touch. And despite always feeling like a woman, now viewed more as a woman by society, he becomes preoccupied with food and his body. He states that:
No issue was as hard to resolve as the issues around food. I was healthy, tall and slender. Yet whenever I went out for lunch, I would hear myself ordering diet soda or asking for the spinach salad. I’d say if only I could lose five pounds…It was madness and it was exactly the kind of madness that I found least appealing in the lives of the women I knew. Yet the culture had its hooks in me, like it or not. In no time at all, I’d internalized many of the things I’d spent years imploring my students to fight against. I worried that I was too fat.
(S)he realizes that this was at least partially, a desire to belong: “if being female had to include self-doubt, insecurity and anorexia, then some part of me felt, Okay, well, let’s do all that, then.”
What do these observations illuminate to those of us who have always lived with the identity of a woman? If a friend complains about her body, to connect with her it’s easy to say, “I totally understand. I hate my thighs too. And my stomach, I can’t even go there.” The friend then complains about her stomach too and the bond continues. Or, you are out to eat and everyone else is eating mozzarella sticks. Even though you don’t really want or like mozzarella sticks, you eat them because you don’t want to be “that girl.” That girl gets judged. And worse than being heavy is being unloved.
Your words become your actions. Enough of these conversations and you start to believe your thighs are too big and you love fried cheese. Your lack of self-esteem makes you relateable and therefore likeable. Reflecting on one of my closest friendships in college, our only bond was obsessing about our weight struggles. Not surprisingly, we have lost touch because these conversations no longer interest me.
So how do you get out of this conundrum? Here’s are some preliminary suggestions:
1. Start to listen to other women’s conversations, everywhere. In person, online. Just notice.
2. Notice your natural inclination to chime in with a dig to yourself or making a food/lifestyle choice that will sabotage your health goals.
3. Set a goal such as, “for one week, I won’t connect with others by tearing both of us down” (when you rip yourself apart, you make it easier for your friend). This includes ditching the generic media that thrives on your insecurities.
4. For that time period, find a way to redirect the conversation so you can still connect with the person. Talk weather, vacation spots, a great book you just read. If it’s food choices, explain why you are making the healthier food choice (i.e. I’m not drinking tonight. I have a busy or important day tomorrow and I need the energy to get everything done). In the beginning, it can feel awkward but eventually, you won’t feel the need to justify yourself. After all, it’s your life.
5. Notice the difference in how you feel about yourself, your body and the quality of the time you spent with your relationships during that week, month, etc.
It’s easy to complain about society. And indeed, since and long before the Torah/Old Testament pinned the responsibility of original sin on women (somehow, it’s Eve’s fault that Adam couldn’t say no to a piece fruit? If she hadn’t offered surely she would have been blamed for Adam’s starvation) there have been societal structures that have suppressed and demoralized women. However, women are more than half of society. In the Western world, we’ve never had more opportunities to be equal. And there are plenty of amazing modern men supporting the efforts of genuinely strong, savvy women. I’m marrying one. He has male friends who have these same qualities, and they have friends…
The friendships that I have now versus in my body hating days are fewer. They still involve food and health, but on a much richer level and are of such high quality that I feel more strongly connected than I ever could if I had the type of approval that was so important to me years ago. Being strong and confident yourself helps you connect more authentically and deeply with the people in your life. If you want others to like you more than you like yourself, you’ll never be satisfied. And we have a responsibility to ourselves, our sister, future generations of women to change certain details of our lives to facilitate larger structural changes. We must not be victims of society, but “become the change we wish to see in the world.”