|My home altar, Prajnaparamita, Peace, and me|
I have said before that I had a consciousness of diet by the age of six. I would not be surprised if this is the norm, that a child is likely to be aware of good and bad foods, calories, the need not to be fat, and the word 'diet'. The child unhindered by this consciousness is most likely the exception. The histrionics of this eating disordered society has become even worse in the decades since my own childhood.
I grew to be a teen who could not believe she was beautiful, sexy, pretty, because she'd always received the message that she weighed too much to be any of these things. This affected my sex life in college. Even if given messages that I was sexy, I couldn't quite believe it. Even though I'd never thought I'd be the marrying type, I settled with one guy and did marry him, because though I wasn't quite conscious of the reason, deep down I was afraid no one else would have me, so I loved the one I was with.
I didn't know it at the time, but the day I started practicing meditation was the day I would begin to love my body. It would take a few years before I could get a glimpse of this, and several more years before I could believe, and even more before I could consistently act from a place of loving myself, my whole self, including my body, and my big belly.
A defining moment: post-college, in my twenties, with my first husband here in Portland. I sat down with a plate-full of rice and beans (I'd been a vegetarian since twenty-one). My husband worried that I would keep getting fatter. I don't remember precisely what he said, what he started yelling, but I remember the certainty in my response. I told him that what I was doing, my Buddhist practice, was the right thing for me, and would help me with this issue. That being fat or overeating was not the problem, it was the symptom. I knew that meditation gave me access to myself, and that my friends at the Zen Center, who were my mirrors, and my teacher, would continue to help me access myself, and get to the root of the problem.
I still spoke with the language of the diet paradigm, but this was a first step to recovery. I knew something had happened with meditation: I could no longer diet. I trusted this practice, though, as from the very beginning it gave me access to something I hadn't had before...my own inner voice.
Now I realize I could no longer diet because what you must do in order to diet is ignore the signals coming from your body. You mustn't eat when you're hungry, but you must eat only certain things, certain amounts, and at certain times. You mustn't eat for pleasure, for good taste, but for minimum sustenance and lowest calories, no matter what your insides, your mouth, your eyes, your nose tells you. To do this, you must separate from the pain, from the hunger, from the body. Meditation put me back in my body; ignoring my body's voice was no longer an option. I now know this is a central message of Health at Every Size, that if we listen to our body's signals, eat what satisfies our true hunger, we will be unlikely to be subject to the cycle of deprivation and binging that results from dieting and food restriction. No food is good or bad. No food is forbidden (unless you're allergic). Food that is appreciated is food that satisfies. In my experience, I then need less of it.
Included with my meditation practice during these years was a recurring vow to Pay Attention. As part of this, I noticed that even though I worked on my feet eight hours a day, walked to and from work for a total of more than an hour, was a vegetarian, I did not lose weight. I noticed during meditation retreats when we shared meals, it did not matter the size of people, but some people ate more than me, and some people ate less than me. While we are to set aside comparing mind during a retreat, in this mode of paying attention I began to get the message that I actually ate normally.
Also during this time I took a temporary vow not to eat chips or chocolate. This three month period taught me the ways I could squirm around a limit (I ate non-chocolate candy), but the larger lesson was learned after the vow was over. I am so grateful for this tradition at my temple, the temporary vow to intensify one's practice. I might have benefited from a Catholic upbringing. When it was over, I made the return to chocolate and chips a special occasion. While I'd mindfully abstained, after, I mindfully ate, and I found an incredible gift. I truly enjoyed that chocolate, those chips, and I realized before this vow, I'd never truly eaten them. Previously, while I ate, I also ate the guilt, and the shame, and the belief that I shouldn't really be eating them. I realized this not-eating happened with all food I ate. I would never not-eat when I ate again.
When I could be grateful, and love the food I put in my body, I could truly begin to make choices that nourished my whole self. I could truly begin to choose foods out of love for my body, including my body's health and my body's pleasure.
A very similar thing went on with my view of my body. I couldn't just look at my body. I could only see parts of it at a time. I couldn't like certain parts of my body. I couldn't include these as parts of me. Again, with this recurring vow of Pay Attention, I heard it when my inner voice said, "I could be bisexual." I began to notice, and cultivate an awareness of those aspects of a woman I found attractive. I noticed that I could like a generously curved woman, appreciate the parts much like the parts of myself I couldn't look at, and I would realize, if she shared parts just like mine, and I liked how she looked, why couldn't I like how I looked? I learned to lose the warped vision that comes from an eating-disordered society.
Through this process, I finally reached a point where I could believe it when a man, or a woman, told me I looked sexy. When I am truly in my body, enjoying the ways it can feel, it can move, I am loving my body, and that is sexy.
Once I gave up this language about myself, this hateful self-talk that is the diet paradigm, and I made every effort to notice it, root it out, and change the habit of self-degradation, I noticed how many people disparage themselves with it, no matter what size they are. It's insidious, how much it is part of our culture.