Former Cruzan and best-selling author Geneen Roth opens up about food, life, God and the legion of emotions that can illuminate our deepest held beliefs
When you take your pulse, you know you’re alive. But are you really “living?” If Geneen Roth were asking that question, she’d no doubt add: How are you really living?
It’s a good inquiry. After all, here in Northern California, surfing emotional Mavericks and scuba diving into the subconscious have become a more frequent activity for some, so it would seem that, in 2010, the spiritually curious here are willing to wade through deeper waters. (Besides, awareness is a real turn on.)
But Roth, a former Cruzan, is in the business of self-discovery and transformation, so when the bestselling author, Good Housekeeping columnist and Huffington Post blogger dives into the how and why of things—as it relates to food and life—it’s tempting to chew on what she’s serving. She recently wrote that she can typically tell a great deal about how a person lives—and their beliefs, their spirituality and their relationship to themselves and the world—by what they put on their dinner plate.
The plate? Really?
“It’s not even just what people put on their plates … it’s how much is on their plate,” Roth points out. “When I start talking to people about what’s on their plate and why they put particular foods there, they might say, ‘Well, I put mashed potatoes on my plate because they’re fluffy and they’re soft and I feel that I don’t have a lot of softness in my life.’ Or, ‘I put this much food on my plate because food is the only place where I feel I can get enough of what I really want,’ which then tells me that they don’t feel that what they really want is possible in any other area of their lives. And that opens up a question of, ‘Well, what’s that really about?’”
Finding out what that’s all about is delicious work for Roth, who has authored eight books—from the best-seller “Why Weight” to “When Food is Love”—that touch on the subject of food, eating, emotional eating, the motivations surrounded it all, and the psychological meals that we’ve been fed—or noshed on ourselves—over time.
Enter Roth’s latest opus, “Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything.” (Don’t let the title fool you, it’s a universal tome for more than just the estrogen set.) The book is a New York Times bestseller and Roth, who studied at Cabrillo College in the ’70s—she lived in the area from 1976 to 1990—is suddenly the year’s literary darling. An Oprah appearance didn’t hurt, but the truth is, there’s something on Roth’s pages that has captivated millions of readers.
What is it?
Good writing? Sure. But it’s honest, revealing writing. Quite simply, it’s easy to relate to Roth—she’s more than a muse and somewhat of a spiritual cousin to Winfrey. In “Women Food and God,” she writes, in part: “Our relationship to food is an exact microcosm of our relationship to life itself. I believe we are walking, talking expressions of our deepest convictions; everything we believe about love, fear, transformation and God is revealed in how, when and what we eat.”
People are gobbling it up. Roth has clanged a metaphoric dinner bell and summoned the masses to a new kind of spiritual feast.
Out: navel-gazing with a side of Kumbaya. In: doing inner work, being willing to uncover the real motivations behind what you do—or eat—and allowing yourself to notice, later understand, the feelings that you’re trying to express and how, perhaps, you might use food to express some of the deeper emotions.
Which brings us back to the plate—those mashed potatoes and all—and why a great many people feel that the plate is the only place in their life where they can actually have what they want.
“It opens up questions like, ‘Where did you give up on yourself? Do you think mashed potatoes is the best life has to offer?’” Roth explains with feverish enthusiasm.
“And it’s not just talking about ‘having the life you want,’” she adds, “because that is actually too simple. But really, to feel like you’re in the middle of your own life; as if there is space in your own life, as if you feel like you can be authentic … that there is something of your life—a lot of your life—that feels as if it matches you. If people have given up on that, then, they are prone to using food to fill in those empty spaces.”
The First Course
Back in the late ’70s, Roth did some pre-med work at Cabrillo after nabbing a bachelor’s degree in psychology and English at Newcomb College in New Orleans, but that wasn’t enough to get into med school so she studied organic chemistry, chemistry, physics and math.
“I really wanted to be a writer,” Roth confesses. “I couldn’t quite admit that to myself, but I met fabulous people [at Cabrillo], fabulous professors.”
One of them was Harry Ungar, who was her organic chemistry professor. “I actually ended up living as a nanny for him when I went completely broke. I started my first group for people with food challenges in their living room.”
Yes. Even back then she was intrigued with food issues. In fact, she had struggled with her weight most of her life, gaining and losing more than a thousand pounds since adolescence, fluctuating between dangerously overweight and severely underweight. Yet she remained committed to fully understanding herself and her motivations. And so, as is often the case with such passionate internal quests—be careful what you ask for—around 1979, she took action and did the one thing she may not have thought she ever would: Stop dieting.
“I felt like I [was] in a living hell for so many years because I thought my pain was about my relationship to food,” Roth says. “I suffered hugely, having been on dozens of diets and gaining and losing every week, and feeling that what was wrong with me was the size of my body; feeling that the size of my life and the size of my body were exactly, perfectly synonymous.”
But putting a halt to dieting wasn’t so much about being overweight.
She writes on her website: “When I stopped dieting, it was because I glimpsed the possibility that my crazy eating was the sanest thing I’d ever done. If I didn’t reject it, try to be good or measure up to an external standard of right eating or right body size, if I was curious and open about each part of it—what I was eating, how I felt while I was eating, what happened in the moments before I suddenly found myself hacking away at frozen cake in an attempt to get the whole thing into my mouth ten minutes ago—the eating itself would lead me back to the feelings, beliefs, fears that created the addiction. Once I understood what I was using food to do, I could ask myself if there was a more direct way to have what I wanted without hurting myself in the process.”
Her inner motivations, ironically, became her muse. And so, she wrote—a lot. (She credits poet Ellen Bass.)
In 1982, she released her first book,“Feeding the Hungry Heart,” which chronicled her experience as an emotional overeater and self-starver. It struck a chord. She continued overseeing group meetings for women—at one point, several were hosted at Avanti Delicatessen—and plunged, spiritual head first, into relatively new territory. Two years later came another book, “Breaking Free From Emotional Eating.” In it, Roth explained how to end the anguish of emotional eating. Shortly afterward, the weekly meetings merged into weekend workshops. By the time the ’80s rolled out, she had developed a following and was praised for her candidness.
Then “Why Weight: A Guide to Ending Compulsive Eating” was released in 1990, followed by “When Food Is Love: Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy.” Roth really hit a nerve with the latter. The book became a smash and a series of other popular reads followed—“Appetites,” “When You Eat At The Refrigerator, Pull Up A Chair” and “The Craggy Hole in My Heart and the Cat Who Fixed It.” “Craggy” generated new buzz because it was a memoir and centered around loss.
Still, Roth managed to unite a growing number of her soul-searchers who were hungry to look at food and the emotions attached to food—and themselves, really—in a brand new way.
“The amount of anguish that I felt over what I had eaten, what I should have eaten, what I wanted to eat, what I was one day going to eat when my life and body were in a better place than it was—all of that was concentrated around my relationship to food,” Roth tells me. “And it was such a source of pain and conflict for me for so many years that when I began to see that it was possible to live another way, I felt passionate about not only bringing myself through that but also addressing the fact that women, in particular—and I know men suffer from this, too—but that women suffer from this, and there is an effective way to work with it.”
Roth talks about all this with pure candor and ease, something that has attracted quite a bit of praise. Of her latest book, bestselling author Anne Lamott noted that it was a “highly important work, a life-changer, one that will free untold women from the tyranny of fear and hopelessness around their bodies.”
“When I first read Geneen Roth’s ‘Women Food and God’—in one big gulp—I knew I’d found something profound,” Oprah Winfrey wrote on Oprah.com. “Geneen … seems to understand better than anybody else how we torture ourselves … when we’d be better off putting our energy into loving and understanding our real selves.”
Oprah or Ellen?
“Oh! (Laughs) You’re asking me … about Oprah or Ellen? Oprah, whom I’ve just been with for a couple of times the last couple of months and I think is fabulous? So, that’s a no-brainer for me.”
Oprah then … well, coffee or tea?
Chocolate or vanilla?
Cake or pie?
“Oh … wheat-less chocolate decadence cake!”
I think I just had something like that the other day … at Gabriella Café.
“Oh, was it good?”
Really, really good.
The Second Course
For somebody who secretly wanted to become a writer, and perhaps didn’t feel that she could, or would admit to it, Roth has certainly come a long way. Back in the ’80s, when her words first began permeating psyches, she didn’t really know it at the time, but she was laying the groundwork for a new kind of thinking; a new way of being. She was among the first to connect some powerful emotional dots—that compulsive eating and chronic dieting were significant personal and spiritual issues that ventured far beyond food, weight and body image. In suggesting that what we eat and how we live—and, of course, our relationship to food, money and love—was all a mirror for, as she puts it, “our deepest held beliefs about ourselves,” she opened doors for the soulful.
But none of it would have come to be if Roth had not done the work herself. What’s the old saying? “You teach what you need to learn most?”
“The catalyst [for me] was that I was at the nadir of my own suffering,” Roth admits. “I had gained and lost so much weight, and then I was anorexic for a while and then at some point, I doubled my weight within a couple of months. That was at the time I was going to Cabrillo College, thinking that I needed to be somebody different than I was in order to live a life that I could endure.”
After all the weight gains and losses, Roth realized that she had been dieting or binging for more than half her life and that she had somehow wound up in the same place, or worse, than when she began.
“What helped me start coming out of [the suffering] was understanding that what I was doing with food was an expression of something that I couldn’t give expression to any other way,” she says with assurance. “And it was worth noting that there was something I was trying to say or do through the food that I ate and the size of my body that I wasn’t paying attention to.”
But it wasn’t as if she woke up thin or without the pain or suffering about food, then she’d be fine, or happy for that matter. For Roth, what began changing was how she perceived things.
It was … “finally understanding that the way I was eating; what I was eating—the thoughts and beliefs and the conflicts I had around food—were expressions of something much deeper and that I needed to pay attention to. And if I had lost weight and suddenly woke up at my natural weight, or even in a completely different body— like 5-foot-10 with 5-foot-8 legs and big hair—I would still have these same feelings and beliefs about myself, and about being alive; about life itself.
“I realized that until I at least became aware that my relationship with food was an expression of something that I didn’t quite understand, but became curious about and was willing to understand, that it didn’t matter what I looked like, what size I was, what I ate—none of that mattered because I was constantly acting out my feelings and beliefs and it was those that I needed to pay attention to … and attend to.”
What inspires you most?
“What inspires me most? (Sighs) I’d say … beauty.”
What makes you laugh most?
“My husband … and Larry David.”
What are you most confident about?
“I’m most confident about my own willingness to keep bringing myself back to what’s true in this moment.”
What are you least confident about?
“You know, probably … Wow—nobody’s ever asked me these types of questions before.”
This is good, yes?
“Yeah. You know people when they interview me, they’re talking to me about food and the relationship with food, and, you know, God, and things like that, but nobody’s asking me these kinds of questions. What am I least confident about? Geez—can we come back to that? I can think of a lot of things but I’m going to have to think about what I’m least confident about.”
The Third Course
Well-being lecturer and otherwise Midwest matriarch of spiritual yumminess, Caroline Myss, once quipped: “The Gods don’t have to show off … they’re always hiding in the bushes.”
Roth isn’t a “god” or a “goddess” for that matter, but she does appear to possess enough of what Myss once noted—basically, the balls not to have to prove anything. By sharing her own journey with some humility—much like Oprah—she’s managed to shed light on a number of issues surrounding emotional eating—or not eating.
Imagine then, what kind of impact those ideas could have on the more than 10 million women and one million men who, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), suffer from some form of an eating disorder or body image disorder in America. Still, even though what Roth is serving is illuminating, it isn’t always that easy to swallow.
Ask yourself, a neighbor, your friend who has yo-yo’d up and down with weight issues their entire life, if they’d “like” to examine how they eat, how much they eat, what they eat, when they eat. Ask them if they’d like to do that for a week—you know, to learn a little something about themselves, their lives, their view of the world. No doubt it might take a little more than a nudge.
“I don’t know if there’s a secret to ‘changing’ except to understand that sometimes it will be easy and sometimes it won’t, and that it’s not instant,” Roth says. “And I think that being willing to tolerate discomfort of some kind is the prerequisite to change and most people don’t want to hear that.”
In other words: It’s not a Twitter orgy. These issues aren’t something you can type away in 140 characters or less. On a neuro-science/brain anatomy level, change, as most researchers note, all comes down to particular neural pathways that have been laid down over a period of years.
“The brain likes to go in very well-greased neural pathways,” Roth adds, “so in order to establish new ones, it takes some discomfort.
“What I have found is that there is a level of curiosity, openness and willingness that needs cultivation, because it goes against the grain of how we think we need to be and certainly we don’t have a lot of good models for that.”
These days, Roth lives in Northern California with her husband. And while “Women Food and God” continues to capture the hearts and minds of readers, her next book will tackle similar issues about value—it’s about money. “The truth is that my relationship to money was no different than my relationship to food, to love, to fabulous sweaters,” Roth reports in her blog on geneenroth.com. (Roth reportedly lost 30 years of retirement investments in the Bernie Madoff scams.)
If Roth’s mission is to point people toward the rainbow shining over their inherent self worth—it’s a noble feat—it’s fitting to ask if she feels “called” to do this work? “You know … when I was in my early twenties I realized that I really needed to find work that I loved,” she says. “I didn’t care at that point if I ever got married, if I ever lived in a foreign country. There were a lot of things I didn’t care about, but finding the work I was supposed to do in this life was definitely high on the list. But was I called to this? Hmm—I was definitely pulled.”
Who has been the biggest influence in your life and why?
“My teacher has influenced me tremendously because of how loving she is. I think what she’s allowed me to see is that there is a level of equanimity in love that actually is possible for a human life consistently on an ongoing basis in any situation, and that is utterly inspiring and a wonderful model for me.”
What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given about life?
“To not take myself seriously and to learn that everything passes. Nothing’s permanent.”
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve been learning about yourself lately?
“That I’m willing to give up a lot to have what I really want. And what I mean by that is, quiet and silence are really important to me, and nature is really important to me, so a lot of the karfuffle that has been going on recently, in my books, I keep on asking myself, ‘What really is the most important thing to me?’ So, I’m more interested in the things that help me remember what I love, than in all the passing ‘show.’”
What do you feel has been one of your most profound achievements?
“Being willing to be interested in and open to my own reactivity, and being curious about it rather than going along with it. Being willing to be endlessly curious … and to realize that I don’t know all the answers.”
Read the GT book review of “Women Food and God”. Learn more about Geneen Roth, her workshops, her books and more at geneenroth.com.