I’m going to begin to discuss Geneen Roth’s views on compulsive bingeing and dieting now from her 2010 Women, Food, and God. First, I really appreciate the feedback I received on my first post on this topic; apparently this issue is striking some kind of chord! Second, to be honest, I probably won’t finish explicating some of the main points of her argument, particularly the ones with the most theological resonance, so there will probably be a Part Three. But just know at the outset that she’s pushing a particular kind of theology, and I both agree and disagree with it, and I’ll get to that later. But for now, here’s what I deeply value about Roth: she thinks dieting, and any kind of dieting mentality, and any kind of monolithic insistence on being thin, is complete and utter bollocks, and yet, she’s not a hedonist simply swinging to the other side, shouting, “Indulge! Indulge! Do whatever you want! EAT THE WHOLE PIE! TO HELL WITH SOCIETY!” In fact, she has a keen analysis of what’s underlying our motivations to eat and overeat in the first place, and she manages to break through the dichotomy of ‘be controlled and thin vs. be happy and care-free and fat,’ or, the much more common dichotomy of ‘be happy and thin vs. be miserable and fat.’

At the outset, I will clarify that many people, especially people who are defined as being overweight, may have health issues that directly lead them to be that way. There are thyroid conditions, and, even more commonly, there are genetic factors creating predispositions to heaviness. Formally speaking, the same may be said about very underweight people; some people are underweight, medically and genetically, no matter what their behavior. I make these points upfront so that I am not read later as saying: if you’re fat and don’t like it, it’s your fault. Or: if you’re very thin and don’t like it, it’s your fault. To some extent, whether you are heavy, light, or somewhere in the middle, our bodies are what they are (pace Judith Butler, whom I adore but who would probably not like me phrasing things quite this way). And you know what? Framing things in terms of fault regarding our health and our bodies is a stupid way to go anyway, for reasons that will become clear as I explore the nature of compulsion and self-flagellation in the Epic Struggle For The Right Body.

So, suffice it to say that, this stuff will resonate with you to the extent that you experience yourself as having some agency regarding your own body and your own health. To the extent that you know you make choices about how to carry, and to care for, your body in this world. To the extent that you know somewhere deep down that you could make choices that are more respectful of your body, including desisting from hating your body and from waging a belittling battle with your body, however it looks. To these extents.

In introducing Roth in my first post on this topic, I said: “Most importantly, she draws from her own life experiences; after having gained and lost over 1,000 pounds throughout her life, she decided in a moment of desperation to stop dieting rather than kill herself, and since then she has been at her natural weight for over 30 years.” I’ll explain what happened to her a little more. In short, Roth had starting dieting, and subsequently bingeing, when she was an adolescent striving actively for the first time to be “beautiful” (read: to get male attention). From then on, up through sometime in her 30s, she vacillated between dieting with white-knuckled rigor and bingeing with utter abandon. She tried every kind of diet, including the ridiculous (smoke cigarettes and drink coffee to your heart’s desire! the all-brown diet!), and she would eat everything in sight when she would inevitably lose self-control and go on months-long binges. She had at times been dangerously underweight at 80 pounds, and she had been extremely overweight.

In this way, then, I think Roth embodied the dieting/bingeing culture of disrespect for the body that is plaguing American, and perhaps more broadly Western, society today. She admits about her younger self, “Crazed with self-loathing and shame, I vacillated between wanting to destroy myself and wanting to fix myself with the next best promise of losing thirty pounds in thirty days.” (All Roth quotations are from her 2010 text Women, Food, and God.) And when she stopped this craze, she ended up being her “natural weight,” which was somewhere in the middle of all the different weights she had been up to that time, I think. Intentionally, she never says what this weight is. The number on the scale isn’t the point. But she feels peace with it, and she has remained at it for decades. To me, her story is, in some way, a story of radical conversion. To clarify, Roth says the real turning point was not that she stopped dieting and still lost weight. That is an extremely important point. How does somebody so neurotic about one area of her life stop being that way permanently? And what does this have to do with God? And what do Christians have to say? What was the real turning point?

The short answer to the first question is that she stopped trying to fix herself. This answer will probably take some unpacking, so here goes. In fact, I’ll probably only be able to set up the parameters of the problem more clearly right now.

Roth offers traces of a fundamental anthropology for elucidation: with what I consider to be an Augustinian intonation, she avers that in every single thing we do in our lives, from worshipping to sitting in traffic to watching TV to telling a joke, we are playing out our fundamental beliefs about God (even if we don’t believe in God, interestingly), the world, and our place in all of it. We are either living out of the belief that we are loved or living out of the despair that we are not because we fear we are damaged beyond repair. Our eating habits are no different; Roth writes that if you pay attention to how you eat, “You will quickly discover if you believe the world is a hostile place and that you need to be in control of the immediate universe for things to go smoothly. You will discover if you believe there is not enough to go around and that taking more than you need is necessary for survival.” I would say that the first sentence corresponds to a dieting mentality and that the second sentence corresponds to a bingeing mentality. Some people embody one or the other; most of us embody a bit of both throughout our lives. Some people don’t have this kind of particularly fraught relationship with food, but even those people could probably stand to become more intentional about how they treat their bodies and their attitude toward food, and plenty of people from this latter group have other kinds of compulsive behaviors to negotiate (since there’s a panoply of addictive and unthinking behaviors of which to partake at any given time).

Roth began having such a compulsive relationship with food because, as a child trying to cope with her parents’ unhappy marriage and eventual divorce, she would binge in her room by herself. So what is happening when somebody binges? Basically, bingeing is way of giving yourself the love that you are not receiving from others or from yourself. It is a way of feeling full; you make your body feel full because your spirit is deprived. Roth writes, “Women turn to food when they are not hungry because they are hungry for something they can’t name: a connection to what is beyond the concerns of daily life. Something deathless, something sacred. But replacing the hunger for divine connection with Double Stuf Oreos is like giving a glass of sand to a person dying of thirst. It creates more thirst, more panic.” People who binge as children for whatever unfortunate reason are especially prone to retain this behavior as a coping mechanism throughout adulthood. Bingeing, in a sense, is an effective survival behavior because it precludes a direct confrontation with the sense of loss or despair that is overpowering one. This is pivotal for surviving childhood; children, especially young children, do not have the emotional, psychological, and spiritual resources to confront the abuse and abandonment that others may heap upon them. This is why children find ways to check out emotionally and psychologically from troubling situations. But bingeing is only temporary and ultimately deleterious insulation because a fundamental orientation toward despair does not just go away, especially as one ages, and one creates health problems for oneself in the process. And, as Roth argues, part of being an adult is learning to slough off these cheap forms of coping. Because as adults we have to learn how to handle the pain that permeates our fragile lives.

So, for many, especially those struggling with bingeing impulses, here comes the dieting. What happens when somebody decides to diet, that is, stick to some kind of food plan that functions heteronomously with respect to her body? At its root, Roth argues that dieting is a flagrant attempt to fix yourself, particularly whatever you think is inherently broken about yourself (perhaps your impulses? your traumatic personal history? your body that you think is disgusting?). Roth writes that people believe unquestioningly in dieting, “[a]s if punishing themselves with dietary rigors will make up for something inherently damaged, fundamentally wrong with their very existence. Being thin becomes The Test. Losing weight becomes their religion. They must suffer humiliation and torment, they must enroll in an endless succession of dietary privations, and then and only then will they be pure, be holy, be saved.” In short, dieting is an attempt, a possibly unhealthy one at that, to make yourself worthy of love. Because you believe that if you are thin, you will be deemed worthy of love, and you will be able to handle anything, including suffering the pain of loss in your present and/or past. If you are thin, you’ll be redeemed. You will become wonderful. And Roth argues that, more than actually being thin, women desire to become thin. They want the promise of bodily redemption just around the corner because it provides hope. Because when they actually get thin, if they’ve done it punitively, they realize that they’re still the same old unhappy person, with the same problems, who has to get up in the morning and to the same damned boring and uninteresting things they’ve always had to do. Now they’re just thin. Maybe even underweight. Setting aside the health risks, so what? And what could be so great about that?

Somehow Roth got beyond this Scylla and Charybdis in her own life.

But folks, I’m tired, so I’ve only gotten to the set-up of the problem. But what do people think of Roth’s pairing of mundane eating practices and deeply held spiritual beliefs? Can Christians get traction on this argument?

8 thoughts

  1. Thanks Elizabeth – this is both interesting and important. I love that you are addressing this in a Christian/faith context. It is really refreshing to see this addressed on this level and not simply in a layout of People or something. Hunger, fasting, communion etc are all prominent images and concepts of faith that it is so important to also explore their ‘other side’ and it makes sense that any struggle with these things on daily, basic level can also be a manifestation of the universal struggle with God, ourselves and others (a’la Augustine) and not simply reduced to vanity.
    Looking forward to more.

  2. Very interesting. Roth’s discussion makes me think of a Brennan Manning quote my wife is fond of repeating: “We fluctuate between castigating ourselves and congratulating ourselves because we are deluded into thinking we save ourselves.””

  3. It seems that Roth is getting at some core issues; I’d defnitely like to see a Part 3 of this post (my current book queue prohibits me from tackling this book anytime soon.) One thing I think we should nail down, though, is a more precise definition for dieting. I assume you aren’t suggesting that any dietary restrictions are necessarily bad–i.e. vegetarianism wouldn’t qualify as dieting, nor would refusing to eat candy or other unhealthy foods–or would you also consider these dieting, depending on the motivations?

    This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I think trying to navigate between disordered eating and healthy eating (whatever exactly that is) is extraordinarily difficult. Ultimately, though, I think we have to transcend talking about these issues at the individual level. We live in a highly sedentary society with easy access to unnaturally calorie-dense food. I don’t think any attempt to understand the obesity epidemic or other manifestations of disordered eating without allowing for the impact of that social and economic context.

    1. Staplovich,

      Dieting the way I’m discussing it means applying a heteronomous set of eating rules to your body in order to lose weight precisely because you believe you cannot control yourself around food. I think you can fill in the rest regarding your more specific questions about vegetarianism and the like.

      I would also like to discuss these food issues in relation to capitalism, unhealthy and cheap food available in increasingly large amounts for poor persons, and shifting conceptions of labor such that the US is becoming sedentary in its labor, and I’m working on a couple articles to that end right now. However, I’m not going to “transcend” talking about food issues the way that I already have been, as if what’s happening in the nitty gritty details of women’s lives is some banal problem we need to get beyond to get at the “real” issues. No. The reality of individual, specific women hating their own bodies and undergoing cycles of dieting and bingeing in order to mediate that self-hatred is a crisis meriting its own attention and cannot be reduced to the caloric content of food available in the US. Specifically, at least 10 million women (and one million men) have eating disorders in the US. What is happening to these people when we look up close at their pain? Macro-analysis cannot happen at the expense of micro-analysis.

      Anyway, feel free to keep commenting, and I am glad you’re reading. Personally, however, I would find our exchanges more fruitful if you actually engaged with what I AM saying in my posts rather than “alerting” me to all the things I didn’t say, as if I’m at fault. You may not intend to come off this way, but that’s how it’s striking me.

  4. Elizabeth,

    I would ask you to do the same–please respond to what I’m actually saying instead of making assumptions. I never claimed that discussing the “nitty gritty details” of individuals’ lives was somehow “banal”. I said that those details occurred in a larger social context, which, to be honest, is just sociology 101. It wasn’t a critique of your position at all. I also didn’t blame you or accuse you of anything. My point was that to understand those details, to really get at their root causes, you have to look at the social and economic context in which we all make decisions. Why are women so concerned about their appearance?

    Clearly, advertising, for example, plays a HUGE role. I’m sure you’d agree. But advertising exists outside of the individual, it’s a social phenomenon with huge underlying economic causes and effects. You aren’t going to understand–and therefore, effectively treat/combat–eating disorders without talking about that context. In other words, there is no separate, utterly private, nitty gritty part of our lives. We are social animals and we make all of our decisions within a social context.

    I think that this means, in part, that while individually-focused recovery programs can and will really help individuals, and we should do them (please don’t ignore that I said this!), I think if we are going to really eliminate eating disorders, we will have to change how our society functions as a whole. Capitalism is not a healthy or safe environment for humans to live in.

    I certainly didn’t mean for you to take my comments as some sort of attack, and I apologize for not being clearer. But please note that I said “we” must transcend certain language and narrow focuses. I didn’t say that YOU in particular did. I know all about the prevalence of eating disorders. One of my best friends is a man recovering from anorexia.

    And as for my “alerting” you to things you didn’t say–I’m not sure what exactly you mean. Either you agree that I made a good point, or you don’t. If you do think that, for example, the social context is worth considering, then I don’t understand why you are frustrated at my comment. If you don’t agree, then why not just point out why I am wrong? It seems you chose to focus on me personally, or my use of the word “transcend”, rather than what I actually said. But perhaps my comments came off differently than I intended, and if so, again, I apologize. I was just interested in talking about the social context of eating disorders.

    1. Staplovich,

      If my read of what you said wasn’t what you actually meant, then good. Now I know. But I did re-read your comment about 5 times, and all the other women on this blog read it as well as confirmed my read of it. But now I know what you meant, because you told me. I have no idea what you’re personally like and don’t claim to know; your comment just struck me as meaning a certain thing. I think if you can be clearer in the future, that would help.

      I think what’s happening is that I’m presupposing the larger frame of analysis that you’re raising, and I have it in the back of my head all the time. But I’ve noticed so far that when I discuss this topic professionally at the level that Roth is, people can be resistant to that approach and DO talk about it as though it’s less important than the macrocosmic/economic/sociological approach. It’s not that your comments are off-base, but it’s a matter of where we’re putting our emphasis for the moment, and your comments seem to suggest that we need ANOTHER way of talking that is very different from what I’ve put forward, and that we have to get to that level of analysis immediately, or very soon. I wasn’t greatly offended or anything, but that kind of “yes yes…but here is the real way ‘we’ should do things” line just made me tired. (Also, since *I* was the only person writing blog posts about this, your line that ‘we’ need a different way to talk about things just seemed condescending. I KNOW THAT IS NOT WHAT YOU MEANT, but that is how it came off.)

      Anyway, I already know that we’ve got to have economic and sociological analysis. But I don’t think we can effect change apart from the approach I am using at the moment, and I think I disagree that the macro is simply the “root cause” of the micro. My main point is that I don’t want to constantly be drawing attention away from the way that I am trying to approach this topic. Let’s just slow down and think about what I’m saying in the posts. We’ve got plenty of time to analyze this complex situation, and we can afford to think about this from a psychological and spiritual perspective. We need to.

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