[I wrote this post in April 2021]
When I decided to go on a three-week health retreat to a place called “House of Healing” up in Israel’s lush and mountainous Upper Galilee, I told myself that the decision was not about losing weight. The truth is that, like many other people, I gained ten kilos during Corona – kilos that had taken me a year to lose not that long ago – but I was trying not to be so singularly focused on how I looked but rather on how I was doing overall, which was not so great. For one thing, I had other physical issues to deal with – sugar, blood pressure, and other stuff – even though it’s impossible for a woman to address any of these topics without being told first and foremost to lose weight. The well-documented fatophobia of the medical industry, especially vis a vis women, makes it hard to even contemplate the topic of health without putting weight at the forefront. But I knew I had to do this. Plus, I felt I was grappling a litany of emotional-spiritual-social strains. A year of Corona left me a bit aimless and ungrounded professionally, and I was also deeply craving nature, movement, travel, new faces, and some time away from the kitchen. I was feeling like I could not spend one more day in my house without risking a mental breakdown or divorce. My husband, in his affectionate wisdom and never-ending generosity, sent me on my way with a loving embrace and joyful hope for our future. Saving my soul seemed more important than making me svelte overnight.
When I got there, I found a scale in my room. I mean, it was a lovely room, and the scale wasn’t the only thing in it. There was also a blood pressure monitor and some other medical items, as well as, you know, a nice big bed and a refreshing breeze. But it was the scale that caught my attention. I had resolved not to weigh myself every day, or even once a week. I wanted this time to be about how I am doing really, not just how I look. Geneen Roth, one of my favorite authors about body acceptance, does this exercise with women all the time: Imagine what you would do if you were as thin as you’d like to be. Go and do it. I have followed that advice for most of my life. Well, more or less. But it doesn’t change the fact that the world is nicer to you and easier to navigate when you’re thin.
I knew all this going in. The negotiation between trying to lose weight and not trying to lose weight has been a never-ending struggle for me for over 30 years. I love Geneen Roth, intuitive eating and body acceptance. But I love being thin more.
Still, when I saw the scale, I deliberated for a while before deciding to remove it. It’s not about the weight, I kept telling myself. I was proud of myself for doing that, although I kept looking at it sitting there in the hallway, wondering if I had made a mistake. “The scale is not your friend,” Oprah has said many times, although she then went and bought Weight Watchers or whatever it’s called now, so it’s hard to take her seriously on this topic. The scale is definitely not my friend, but it calls me, often, on my private line.
A few days into the retreat, I was having a great time. The program was filled with many of my favorite activities – early morning walks in nature, yoga, Chi Kong, dancing, meditation, breath work, sunset walks, and free time for journaling. There was even a piano there and I would sit and play whenever I had the chance. Plus, I was being fed – someone else was doing the shopping, chopping, serving, and cleaning. Can you imagine just walking into a dining room, eating and leaving? That experience alone, three times a day, was heavenly. Most importantly, I think, my body was getting into a steady routine, which had been missing during the year of Corona and 24/7 Zoom and Netflix. I was listening to my body, I could hear myself think, and I could breathe again.
And then, it happened. I had my weekly meeting with Eliran, the head of the program, to check on my progress.
“So how’s it going?”
“Great,” I said, “although I am surprised at how much I’m eating. So many carbs!” Breakfast was fruit salad and oatmeal. Lunch was salad with a grain and lentil combination, and dinner was vegetable soup with a buckwheat dosa. Not the usual stuff of a this kind of boot camp.
“As I said, I believe that you can achieve your results while eating the food we make here,” he said.
It was absolutely shocking to me. “I’m not even hungry!” I said. “I’ve never experienced that before.” I was so used to the idea that in order for me to get healthy – aka, to lose weight – I needed to be hungry.
“Hmmm,” he said. “Maybe you want to try eating less if you think it will help you achieve your results faster. We can see how the menu is working and then decide whether to make adjustments.”
Well, how would I know if it’s working?
“Have you lost weight since you’re here?” he asked.
There it was. All else shunned aside to reveal the golden calf of weight loss.
“I don’t know. I’m not weighing myself,” I said.
And then it came.
“How will you know if the program is working if you don’t weigh yourself?”
He didn’t have to ask twice. The next morning, I brought the scale back into my room.
I was excited! I was eager for a win! I wanted to track my wonderful progress! I was also an idiot.
For a few days, I started losing weight. I had also stopped eating dinner, on Eliran’s suggestion, to activate the whole intermittent fasting thing. I was hungry at first, but then got used to it. In a week, I lost roughly two kilos.
And then, one day, the scale stopped moving.
I know how this goes. I’ve been here before. I knew the script, but I kept going anyway.
The scale is not your friend.
The first day that I didn’t lose any weight, I was a little anxious, but still hopeful and excited about being in this great place and getting my life back. I told myself that I was doing so much more than losing weight, that other things were more important. My blood sugar was going down, I was dancing, I was sleeping better. I was looking for other signposts to distract me.
The second day that the scale didn’t move, I was in a bad mood all day. I started seeing the flaws in the program and in my life. I was irritated at teachers who were not professional enough. I started noticing that the meals were flavorless, mushy, and repetitive. I stopped eating the oatmeal at breakfast. I was getting snappy. I did 5,000 extra steps.
The third day, the number on the scale went up. That’s when the meltdown happened. I cried to my yoga teacher. I froze up in dance, even though I love dancing. I couldn’t move. I was angry. At whom? At the world, at Eliran, at my body.
There is a particular kind of crushing feeling that comes from spending all your energies on one goal – energies which require hours of sweating followed by hunger – only to completely fail at it and not know why. Plus, there is so much riding on losing weight. You want nicer clothes, you want people to smile when they see you, you want the world to think of you as smart and worthy and of course youthful and enticing. It’s hard to do all those things when your body doesn’t conform to expectations. It’s harder to dress well, which means it’s harder to look the part at a job interview, and it’s hard to get people to perceive your facial posture as intelligent and thoughtful instead of as a scowl. One woman on the retreat actually said to me, “When women gain weight, they get grumpier.” I said, “Maybe they are just perceived as grumpier.” But I thought, “Maybe we get grumpier because the bigger your girth, the more rejection and shame you experience.”
The creeping obsession with my weight, the very obsession I was trying to avoid, had fully arrived and was spiraling out of controls. It was ridiculous. I mean, this House of Healing is a refuge for people dealing with a lot of serious health issues. People in the room are grappling with cancer, auto-immune diseases, depression, blindness, ALS, stroke, and more.
For me to be crying in that room because the scale didn’t move was positively embarrassing.
Yet, I couldn’t help it.
I went into my next meeting with Eliran and spent 20 minutes telling him everything that is wrong in this program. I said that I put all my trust in him when he said that I would lose weight on his watch and he was wrong. I was doing everything, even eating the tasteless food, even skipping dinner, doing 15-20,000 steps a day, going to all the classes, and it wasn’t working. It was all a lie. I could not look at him.
All I could see was the many teachers and parents whom I had trusted to look after me who did not. People who were supposed to love me who instead judged me and hurt me in so many ways. So much violated trust. I trusted the world to work. I trusted my body to work. I trusted food to work. I trusted people to tell me the truth, and it just wasn’t that way.
And then there was all that disappointment. All the disappointments. People not being what they said they were. Institutions not being what their polished leaders say they were. Places that lie to you and violate you. Disappointment in the world. The whole experience of life was feeling like one big disappointment. A big lie. You think you count as a person but really they all just care how you look. You study, you work, you write, you produce, but nobody cares about anything other than whether you can be a correct, perky female. All the scenes from living my life as the woman who does not look, act, or speak the way she is supposed to. All that punishment I’ve experienced. The big, fat, disappointing world.
That was what was going through my brain for nearly three days. I could not think straight.
The number on the scale determined my entire frame of mind, how I saw the world and how
I saw myself and my life. The stupid scale had that much power. It was absurd – and yet I couldn’t control it.
Plus, I had to face another crushing reality in myself: I really want to be taken care of. As much as I came here to be on my own and feel my own freedom and independence, deep down I was looking for someone to take care of me, nurture me, and make me feel worthy of love. Which, in my mind, is still associated with being thin. Still. After all these years and all the work and the therapy and the struggles. I still wanted desperately to be taken care of. And made thin. My brain was all this noise, like a heavy metal rock concert.
I realized at a certain point, having been dealing with many forms of Complex PSTD for years now, that I was in a triggered traumatic episode. I was frozen in my traumas.
The situations that it brought up were real. My life experiences were real. The hurts, pains, disappointments, abandonments, silencing, institutionalized sexism, and abuse – everything was flooding my brain and stopping me from breathing. And it all opened, like a pandora’s box, from looking at the number on the scale.
This was a huge realization.
The number on the scale is a traumatic trigger.
Why? Why is it so triggering?
Well, it didn’t take much digging to know why. I just published a book all about growing up in a house that actively created eating disorders. In our family of four daughters, my father would regularly check our chins and our stomachs and determine whether we needed to lose weight. I was 14 years old, weighed 98 pounds, had a beautiful and perfect body, and my mother bought me my first girdle to make sure my stomach looks flat. It was, at the time, perfectly flat. But never good enough for my father. My mother was grooming us to make our bodies acceptable to my father’s standards. And those standards were never good enough. I was never “okay”. Ever.
My father continued to do this after I was married, and when I was pregnant had incessant commentary about the foibles of women who gain too much weight in pregnancy. He said that women who don’t lose pregnancy weight right away end up with emotional problems and ruining their lives. We would analyze the bodies of women we saw in synagogue, talking about who gained weight and who looked pregnant but was not. Looking pregnant was almost as big a sin for women as having a double chin. After I gave birth, my father would come over and sit on my couch as I cared for my baby, not offering to help in any way – he hasn’t changed a diaper in his life – but complaining about the way I look, telling me I need to wear lipstick or take up jogging and I rocked my baby on my shoulder. My entire experience of motherhood has been clouded by the thought that the only thing that ever really matters is whether my stomach is flat.
My oldest daughter is currently pregnant, and all these memories of the emotional abuse I experienced during pregnancy have been returning. I don’t want to live in that headspace, but it is like the backdrop of my entire life.
Perhaps the worst part for me was that for years, my father would equate how I look with how I’m doing in life. If I was thin, clearly my life was correct. If I were not, then clearly no. On the day that I went to New York to sign my first ever book contract, I went to his office for lunch and offered to pay for his sandwich. He said no. “You can pay when your life starts working out,” he said. He couldn’t see my great career achievement. All he saw was my incorrect waistline.
I have been trying nearly my entire life – literally, since I was 14, which is 37 years – to lose weight. I have actually done it many times. I’ve lost those same 10-15 kilos at least five times. More than that, I’m pretty sure that there has not been a single day in my life when I have not wished that I would somehow, magically, wake up thinner. It’s insane.
After I realized that I was in a frozen post-traumatic state, I did what I should have done to begin with: I removed the scale from my room. I then had a good cry, and a nap, and woke up feeling ready to get on with my life again. Like a cloud had lifted.
After that, I gradually went back to the goals I set when I first came. I went back to enjoying dancing and drumming and watching the sunset, and spending more time than before doing nothing, and giving myself permission to just be. When I am focused on the weight, I can’t even see anything else. Taking out the scale has enabled me to look at other things.
But it’s not easy, and it is not a linear healing process. The voice in my head that says, “You have to lose weight” keeps emerging. I keep looking in the mirror and wishing… well…..
Interestingly, though I noticed something very real: When I take my blood pressure, if I’m thinking, “Look how big my stomach is; I have to lose weight,” my reading is high. If I’m thinking, “I don’t have to do anything; I’m beautiful as I am,” my blood pressure is normal. Exactly like that. It has been happening every day. Just thinking these words, “I have to lose weight” does something physical to my body. It tightens my stomach. It closes my airways. It slows down my blood circulation. This is real. It actually happens. The thoughts of self-hatred physically sabotage my body functioning. A recent Washington Post article on this very topic conjured up a head scratching “Why do people’s blood pressure readings get higher under stress?” Duh.
What I’ve discovered, then, is that the absolute worst thing you can do if you want to lose weight is to think the thought, “I have to lose weight.” So I stopped thinking that thought.
Instead, I started to say nice things to myself.
And that’s when I realized that it’s my father’s voice that is stuck deep in my head. Every single time I look at my stomach with disapproval or disgust, I am replaying my father’s voice. And his ideas. His misogynistic, abusive idea that suggests that even little girls have to accommodate their bodies to the sexual fantasies of adult men. I have been doing that for so long. I have been trying for my entire life to create a body that my father will approve of.
But really, all I ever wanted was to be loved. It’s the world’s oldest cliché, and yet here it was staring at me. I have been trying my whole life to get thinner and thinner just so that I could, just once, hear my father tell me that I am beautiful exactly as I am. And I don’t mean externally beautiful. I mean beautiful as a person. I want to be loved for my spirit, my ideas, my energy, my creativity – for the things I birth into this world. I want to be seen, not seen as just a body that is considered best when it is smallest, not a body measured and monitored according to percentages of fat, but a body that is merely a physical package of something so much more, so much more deep and astonishing and breathtaking for the miraculousness of its very existence. I just want to be seen and loved in my wholeness.
I desperately wanted that from my father. Apparently I still do. Every time I look in the mirror, it’s as if I’m waiting for that to happen. And it never did, never will. In his eyes, I will always be a female body meant to be pleasing to his eye.
So now I’m done. I’ve acknowledged that need or desire. I see it, and I don’t want it anymore. I am done with that. Done. With. That.
Releasing my father’s voice in my head has been harder than it seems. I have to actively disagree with him. It’s like I’m having the debate in my head every time I look in the mirror.
I’ve spent my entire adulthood writing, speaking, working, educating and advocating for women to be empowered in a zillion ways. And yet, here I was, the metaphoric barefoot sandler, never having cleansed my own head from the patriarchal lies that we have been fed. I mean, I know all this. My father is wrong that women are better when we are thin. He is wrong that the most important demonstration of how well our lives are doing is how we look. His attitude that women with double chins or unflat abdomens deserve to be banished from humanity is cruel and utterly misogynistic. And I don’t believe that a father (or mother, actually) should be monitoring his daughters’ weight – or determining his daughters’ worth based on his own concept of sexual attractiveness. It’s all wrong. I don’t actually believe anything my father has to say about women or girls. Or about me. I’ve known that for a long time about the outside world, but it has taken me this long to purge it from inside my own head. And body.
Once I learned to talk back to this voice in my head, other things suddenly emerged. I realized that I don’t actually have such an urgent need to be thin. Deep in my own heart, unowned by anyone but me, actually don’t care how much fat I have in my body. I love real women with real lives and bodies that reflect the many things that we do, think, and feel.
What I do want for myself is to be active and alive and living my life fully. I want to dance and move and laugh and love and eat and play and write and work. I’m doing those things already, round stomach and all. So really, it’s all good. Once my father’s voice is out of my head, I have a wonderful, blessed life.
Now, whenever I look in the mirror or see a photo of myself or think about my life goals or who I am in the world, I know what I have to do. Just talk back. I am cultivating my own voice about myself. I am actively talking to my 14-year-old self, and my pregnant self, and my post-partum self, and my middle-aged self. Really talking to them. Telling them that my father is just wrong. I am now saying to them what someone should have said all along: “You are beautiful exactly is you are, inside and out. You don’t have to be anything other than what you are right now. You do not owe anyone anything, and you don’t have to change a thing.”
It’s a radical thing to say. And hard. I do not know a single woman who doesn’t want to change something in her body. Most women who came on the retreat also want to lose weight. Most women who ask me about the retreat also want me to tell them it’s a magical fairy land where weight melts off. The talk about weight loss is inescapable. Almost every time women sit down to eat, there is someone who starts talking about what’s fattening and what we should or shouldn’t eat. I have walked away from tables where that is the dinner conversation. No more. I’m not doing this anymore. I’m letting go of the obsession to be thinner than whatever it is I am right now. I am good. Right now. Truly. Whatever weight I happen to be.
It is also hard because deep down I also want to believe that somewhere my father loved me and was saying these things out of some kind of care or concern. It’s hard to completely reject everything you were taught as a child. But it’s time. Patriarchy is not love. It is just abuse.
Patriarchy is not an abstract thing. It is a lived language and culture that lives in women's bodies. The struggle to make the world better for women takes political activism and social activity -- but it also takes the really hard work of purging ideas that have taken root in our minds and souls.
If this is the only thing I take away from this health retreat – that is, finally expelling the scale not only from my room but from my heart, releasing my father’s voice of patriarchal judgment from my head once and for all – it will have been worth it. That is the real healing. To expel the internalized patriarchy that tells us we are not good enough. We are more than good enough. We are beautiful, and we always have been.