A while back, I sat down to read a book called “Women Food And God.” Written by Geneen Roth, a pioneer in the field of eating disorders, Roth was one of the first people to “link compulsive eating and perpetual dieting with deeply personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight and body image.” Ms. Roth is also designated mentor and friend… Whether she will ever know me, or not.
As a health coach, many of my clients are seeking to lose weight for the umpteenth time. They come to me wanting to know how I could possibly help them when none of the popular weight loss programs could. And most of them look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them, “Because we aren’t going to count calories, or points, and I don’t care how much you weigh. You see, it’s not about the food, and it never has been.”
Before puberty, I was a scrawny kid. I had thin, wispy hair, huge eyes, and lots of freckles. My poor, single mother constantly moved my brother and I from town to town. Even when she remarried, we still moved. A lot. I counted once, and realized I had lived in 18 different homes from birth until college. I remember in 5th grade attending two different schools in the same week. I was often teased for being the new kid, for being gangly and awkward, for being poor, for being me. And my inner voice, HER voice, was always there to assure me that somehow they were right, and that I deserved their ridicule.
But by the time I was 14, my freckles had faded, my hair was thicker, and my mom said my head had finally grown enough to catch up with my eyes. At 15, a modeling scout noticed me while at the mall with my Grandmother, and signed me. Suddenly life was exciting. People were telling me that I was pretty, that I was fashionably thin, and that my eyes were not only huge, they were beautiful. For me, this translated into being valued. I spent the next two years modeling clothes for major retailers, going on cattle calls for commercials, and was selected from dozens of other girls to represent my agency in a nationwide “Look of the Year,” contest. Suddenly, the popular girls at school were noticing me, wanting to be my friend, me, the girl who had managed to mostly fade into the background. Though I was still quite insecure, HER voice had been just a whisper.
Print ads required a lot of “prep time,” sometimes as much as two hours before the shoot. I was taped up, taped down, lifted, tucked, and padded. In one particular store ad, I had underwear physically taped onto my back. I got highlights, lowlights, and my front teeth were filed down. I was told I’d never do runway because I was only 5’6 but not to worry because the camera loved my face. By the age of 17, I was dizzy, exhausted, and confused. I was tired of living in a world of false impressions, flawed concepts of beauty, and a world full of judgment. I was terrified of being accepted one day, and rejected the next. I had witnessed girls pass out from hunger. One girl was hospitalized for bulimia (and almost died), and countless other girls internalized that they were not pretty enough, tall enough, or thin enough. And for many of those impressionable young women, myself included, those things ultimately translated into not being good enough. HER voice was getting louder.
In college, I cut off my long blonde hair, traded in my penny loafers for Birkenstocks, and established friendships with a group of women who raged against our culture’s personification of beauty and body image. I was in awe of their strength and courage. From them, I began to see glimpses of myself as a whole being, though it would be years before I came to accept all of me, I rejoiced at the possibility that there more to me than what people saw on the outside. Soon after I graduated, a 5-year emotionally (and one night physically) abusive relationship came to an abrupt end. He gave no reason, no warning (although it turned out he had been “dating” another woman for almost a year.) He just stopped calling and refused to take my calls. It simply ended. Forever. At which time, I stopped eating and went from 118 pounds down to 97 pounds. Smoking a pack or two of Marlborough Lights a day, I hardly slept, nearly passed out on more than one occasion, and was plagued by chronic panic attacks. For 5 long years, for better or worse, my life revolved around the need to be accepted by this man. By now, HER voice was screaming. YOU ARE NOT WORTHY. YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. YOU WILL NEVER BE HAPPY. IN FACT, WHY ARE YOU EVEN HERE?
Roth calls HER, “The Voice.” The Voice “usurps your strength, passion and energy–and turns them against you. The Voice is merciless, ravaging, life destroying. The Voice makes you feel so weak, so paralyzed, so incompetent you wouldn’t dare question (its) authority.” Roth goes on to explain “According to developmental psychologists, The Voice is fully operative in most of us by the time we are four years old.” And, “Everyone has The Voice. It’s a developmental necessity. When external authority figures, parents, teachers, family members, (even peers), communicate verbal and nonverbal instructions about physical and emotional survival, we coalesce those voices into one voice–THE VOICE. You need to learn not to put your hands into fire, walk into oncoming traffic, stick electrical wires in water.” In my version of THE VOICE it was, you’re ugly and poor, and you don’t matter because you don’t wear the same clothes as the rest of us. Or, “Sorry Stephanie, but you just aren’t the marrying kind.” The VOICE lies to you. It makes you believe that you are all of the things it’s telling you. In fact THE VOICE “feels and sounds so much like you, that you believe it is you.”
Eventually, I moved away, married a sweet, loving man, and life was good. My husband and I had our first baby a few years later, and life was even better. In fact, HER voice remained silent until the birth of our third baby just four days after I turned 41. Aside from the stress of having three kids, and a husband who traveled, I began to get sick, really sick. I suffered from chronic joint pain, recurrent sinus infections, and reflux so bad I slept sitting upright in my husband’s recliner. My nails and hair had stopped growing and I could scarcely walk up the stairs without gasping for air. Exhausted and depressed I began to hear HER voice again. YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN HAPPY FOR A WHILE, BUT I’M BACK, AND I’M GOING TO MAKE SURE YOU KNOW THE OTHER SHOE…ALWAYS DROPS.
In her book, Roth described it this way, “You can be showered with money or love or thin thighs and still feel as if you are separate from all that is good about being alive. Despite present-day circumstances, your deepest beliefs will always–100 percent of the time–reconfigure you into the familiar patters you associate with being yourself. Being at your natural weight will be impossible to maintain. Having what you want will not seem real. When someone truly loves you, you will dismiss her or him as unattractive or shallow or dumb. You will feel like an imposter living someone else’s life and you will once again inhabit the skin and the life of “un-love” in whatever forms you find the most familiar.” Her words rang almost prophetic.
With the help of an amazing nutritionist, I got better. And for the last four years I have dedicated myself to learning as much as I possibly could about the connection between food and health. But until I read Roth’s book, I never knew other people were plagued with the same kinds of thoughts. I never realized that those voices in my head were not my true voice. But that they were the internalization of the many negative voices I associated with in my early years. And that the awful things I believed to be true about myself, the ones that I let define me for most of my life, were nothing more than a bunch of lies. When I began to, as Roth put it, “disengage from THE VOICE,” I began to see myself differently. The more I stopped listening to HER, the more I began to feel free.
In the beginning I told HER to shut up. I told HER that she was a hateful liar who couldn’t be trusted. I told HER that I resented HER and blamed HER for all of the years I spent feeling sad, insecure, and lonely in a room full of people. Looking at my life through the lens of compassion and gratitude I was able to see my accomplishments and my failures, with objectivity and discernment. I began to see the possibilities that life had for me, and that the proverbial glass was actually half-full. Whether we use food, or men, or clothes to comfort us, it doesn’t matter. We can only find true peace, when we begin to look deeper into ourselves and separate the truth from the many lies we tell ourselves. Sometimes, I still hear HER. But now, instead of begrudging HER, I want HER to be at peace. And I want HER to know that forgive HER for being wrong about me.