Disclosure: This is going to be an EXTREMELY personal and subjective (and loooong!) response to two recently-published books in the “spirituality/food genre.” Bear in mine that this is just my own opinion, which is, as I said, highly personal. Your mileage and experience may (and probably most certainly will!) vary.
I read Geneen Roth’s first book, When Food Is Love, when it was first published in the early 80s. I was pretty much blown away by it. But I have to say that every single book of hers that I’ve read since then has been a reiteration of that first book. And Women, Food and God is no exception. But I was excited to read it because people, including Oprah, seemed to think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Many people said it made them cry. They felt that the book was written FOR them and about them. I think this is great (for them). However, this was not my experience at all.
I read through it quickly on my first read, and found myself feeling pretty underwhelmed as well as fairly irritated. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
Then I read Savor, the latest book by Thich Nhat Hanh. And I felt the same way that others did when they described WFG. Now, I have been an admirer but not an active practitioner of Buddhism for many years. So the principles are extremely familiar to me. They are thousands of years old. And to have them applied to food and eating just felt very familiar and comforting to me. Many of the same ideas are also mentioned in Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings by Zen priest Edward Espe Brown, and in the Zen of Eating by Ronna Kabatznik.
This weekend I took a long slow look at both books again. And I came to understand why I was so irritated by Women, Food and God.
1. It’s like a party that I didn’t go to. Eighty percent of this book is an extended description of Geneen Roth’s retreats. She describes the women who attend them and how they are dramatically transformed, some within the space of minutes. It felt like, “Look at me! I am such a guru! All these people love and follow me! And by the way, sign up for my next retreat!!” It was also like watching someone else’s interminable vacation slideshow. You had to be there.
I found myself being strangely unmoved by stories of women weeping and having tantrums and growling over their food bowls and such. It just didn’t do anything for me.
2. Her message has basically unchanged since her first book in the 1980s. And neither has her approach. Why write a new book NOW then?
I had read earlier this year that Geneen Roth had been tragically fleeced by Bernie Madoff. This is really sad and unfortunate, but it also tinges the book with desperation. She NEEDS PEOPLE to sign up for these retreats, and to buy this book as if it is a brand new thing. Which it is not. So the book is basically a 200 page ad for her retreats.
3. She takes several unnecessary and incredibly inaccurate swipes at Weight Watchers. Now it’s no secret that I work for WW. But these little vignettes just PISSED ME OFF.
I received a letter from someone who enclosed a WW ribbon that was embossed: I LOST TEN POUNDS. Underneath the gold writing, the writer added, “And I Still Feel Like Crap.”
Now, everyone knows that it is certainly possible to lose 10 or 100 pounds and still feel like crap inside (or outside). But to LINK this in such a blatant way with Weight Watchers implies, even subliminally, that if you lose weight with Weight Watchers, you will feel like crap. To which I say, bullshit.
When I was on WW in the early 70s, I made dinner out of the remaining allowable foods for the day: two servings of cold tomato sauce (REALLY? They had to be COLD?) and a serving of ricotta cheese. I was scooping my dinner into a bowl when my friend said, “Is that really what you want to eat?” “Yes,” I said. But the truth was that “No” was not an option. Eating what I wanted was not allowed. Wanting what I wanted was not allowed. I needed to sacrifice, atone, make up for being myself. For being fat.
Now this made me want to SCREAM out loud. Again, she is linking ridiculous degrees of deprivation and “not eating what I wanted” with Weight Watchers. She does say this was in the “early 70s.” Does she take the responsible route and say, “Weight Watchers has changed and evolved radically since then.” No. She doesn’t. So again she is linking this conspicuous brand name with sacrifice, atonement, punishment. SO IRRESPONSIBLE.
She receives a letter from a reader who says, “Each time I start trying to follow what you say, I get afraid and then go running back to the security of the Weight Watchers points system. And every time I try points, I inevitably fail a week later and spiral into a new rash of binges and beating myself up.”
Message here? Of course! Weight Watchers causes bingeing and beating oneself up! GREEEEEEATTTTTT!
But the biggest bullshit moment came when I came to the golden Secret, the grand finale, Geneen’s sacred Eating Guidelines, the reason people pay hundreds of dollars to attend her talks and retreats:
1. Eat when you are hungry. (Weight Watchers Book #1)
2. Eating sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car.
3. Eat without distractions.
4. Eat what your body wants.
5. Eat until you are satisfied. (WW Book #1)
6. Eat in full view of others. (foodblogging! ☺)
7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.
When I read this I was incredulous. Like, THIS is the big secret? Who hasn’t been saying all of these things, like forever??
The thing that alarms me, too, is that #3 and #4 are where a lot of people, depending on where they are in their process, are going to take that as a major green flag for EAT WHATEVER YOU WANT! NO MATTER WHAT IT IS!
Geneen Roth herself talks about people reading her books and then getting pissed off because they then eat with abandon (“whatever they want”) and gain weight, some as much as 100 lbs. (Yikes)
SO the other problem with this book is that it is extremely new-Agey and Vague and abstract. There is nothing specific in it.
Okay, enough about that one. Now, on to Savor.
I loved this book. I loved loved loved it. Perhaps because it echoes everything that I myself believe and strive to do, and when I do these things, I am more the better for it. Geneen Roth also talks about meditation and how good it is, but Savor is very very specific about HOW to meditate, what to meditate over, what one might say or think while washing dishes or picking a piece of fruit from the market or… eating.
I loved it because it is not afraid to “go there” and say, yeah, part of being mindful is knowing EXACTLY what you are eating, which is why food journaling (tracking or blogging) is an important and useful part of mindfulness. Yay. Which is exactly the feeling I have had since I began foodblogging. It IS a form of meditation for me. It’s that pause before the eating, that momentary mindfulness that can make all the difference in the world.
It is not afraid to say that weighing yourself, too, is a part of being mindful: of knowing what you weigh. It’s just a number. If the number freaks you out, then it’s a thing to meditate on and understand why.
It’s not afraid to say that moving/exercise is important and a VERY important part of taking care of one’s body and being mindful. It describes the many barriers and obstacles to mindfulness in our culture and why this is so very challenging (quotes from The End to Overeating, which I also really liked).
Mostly what I love about this book is the tone of it. It’s gentle, compassionate, yet firm and honest. It’s real. It’s not mushy or New Agey. Often as I was reading I would find my eyes filling up with tears.
The Buddha teaches that … insight cannot begin until we stop and focus our attention on what is happening right in front of us. This stopping, or shamatha, allows us to rest the body and the mind. When we have calmed ourselves, we can then go on to look deeply into our current situation. We need to step off our frantic life treadmills, to stop unconsciously doing the same things over and over again that have allowed our weight to creep up. We need to stop, rest, and reflect on a constructive way forward… We need to be fully aware of what is going on in our daily living. Only then can we begin to change.
Every time I read the word “rest” I would stop and sigh. Because that is so much what I have been needing. To rest. So I feel a deep comfort and a soothing tone to this book that just makes me feel… grateful, and rested. I think that this feeling is what helped me off my comfort-food train the other day.
This book is very, very specific about what to do regarding emotions, food, exercise, meditation. There are lists and there are recommendations. They are nonjudgmental and gentle. And honest. I appreciated that.
The grounding in Buddhism that shapes this book was very familiar, comforting and relaxing to me. It made me feel very receptive. Others may not feel this way and that’s cool.
The bottom line is, that I think BOTH of these books actually have the same exact approach to food and eating. It’s about mindfulness and looking inward. It’s all good.
If people out there really resonate with WFG and feel as if Geneen Roth is the answer, then I say that is wonderful and go for it. Especially if you’ve never read any of her work before, I think it could resonate very powerfully. If you’re a hater of Weight Watchers, it will certainly validate those feelings.
If people like Savor, and it helps you slow down and find some rest among the mindfulness, then hooray.
That was just my two cents. I’m glad that I read both of these and I am glad that people in general are going in this direction. I think it’s good for all of us.