Today, I’m featuring the last part of my interview with Michelle Lelwica, Th.D, author of The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight, a book I highly recommend reading.
As an adolescent, Michelle also suffered from a plummeting self-image and disordered eating, starving and bingeing, and wanting so badly to be thin. Thankfully, since then, she’s fully recovered. Below, she talks about her experiences and several ways she found peace. She also shares insight on cultivating spirituality, and how eating and body image problems can become a wake-up call.
Q: You also talk about what you’ve learned about the religion of thinness and the path to peace. Can you share a few of those lessons or your favorite lesson about finding peace?
A: While my experience of serenity and peace has expanded and deepened in the years since my own recovery began, I would say that for me the journey of healing took a new and deeper turn when I began to involve my body in the process. This makes sense since an eating disorder is not just a head-trip but also a very physical experience.
The alienation from my body was so deep as a result of years of self-loathing and disordered eating, that moving more deeply into my physical experience and learning to enjoy being in my body has been truly revolutionary for me. This more embodied dimension of my recovery really took off when I started doing sitting meditation over fifteen years ago and when I began studying Aikido shortly after that. (Aikido is a non-competitive Japanese martial art, based on the principle of harmony/non-resistance and the neutralization of aggression).
I also began to use physical exercise (i.e., walking or jogging) as a way to be in my body, rather than to punish it. I have never been athletically talented, and exercise wasn’t very central to my eating disorder. So it was during my recovery that I discovered the pleasure of physical movement. Since I have never been inclined to push myself physically, it wasn’t hard to start using exercise as a means for me to connect with my body, to enjoy its (relative) strength and the simple pleasure of breathing. Although I rarely have a chance to do Aikido these days (I have two young children who are very active!), I still find that both sitting meditation and regular exercise give me opportunities to be present in my body and to experience the energy of Life within me.
Q: How can we become attuned to our spirituality and greater purpose?
A: I once heard someone say that what we give our attention to gets bigger, and I think this is particularly true when it comes to engaging our spiritual energy. If we pour our energy into trying to be thinner, this “purpose” or goal will increase in magnitude, and it may even become an “ultimate purpose” if we become obsessed with it.
But if we can practice paying attention to what really matters in our life—what we know is most important or sacred—our sense of connection to our deepest values will strengthen and grow. Returning our attention to what really matters is something most of us need to practice. Our minds have such a strong habit of being distracted and/or running on auto-pilot.
This is why it’s helpful to have some kind of spiritual practice, some way of centering yourself and being in touch with the part of you that is peaceful and still. The more in touch we are with this inner peace and stillness, the more capable we will be of accepting our lives/our bodies as they are—rather getting stuck in the idea that they should be different.
We can cultivate this connection to the peace and stillness within us in various ways, whether formally (though meditation, prayer, yoga, etc.) or informally (though mundane moments of awareness and remembrance of that which we hold sacred).
Of course, such practice takes time. We need to challenge the notion that taking time to replenish ourselves— mentally, physically, and spiritually—is a luxury. Nourishing our inner lives through beliefs, rituals, images, relationships, choices and experiences that help us feel whole is not a luxury but a necessity—one we would do well to attend to.
Q: What else would you like readers to know about your book, the pursuit of thinness, body image or something related?
A: I hope that the book plants the idea in readers that whatever kind of eating or body image problem they struggle with, however mild or severe their obsession, it is an opportunity for spiritual growth. As painful as this problem can be, it can serve as a kind of wake-up call—a call to realize that we have been missing out on life, that we need new ways to find meaning and feel nourished, and that we have a responsibility to develop our potential as whole human beings who have something important to contribute to the world.
But if you are going to let go of something that has given you an abiding sense of purpose, you will need new ways to find and create meaning in your life. You can’t expect yourself to move beyond an obsession with thinness if there is nothing to look forward to on the other side. So take some time to reflect on what truly nourishes your spirit.
What inspires your creativity? What do you feel passionate about? What helps you feel inwardly strong and stable without having to be in control? Who are the people who love and support you just as you are? How can you best live out your responsibility toward others with whom you share this planet? What replenishes you and gives you peace? These are the kinds of questions we need to explore to create alternative sources of meaning as the goal of thinness loses its appeal.
Finally, it’s not too late to start accepting and loving the body you have—your body right now, just as it is. In fact, the only time you can do this is now—not in the future when you lose 10 pounds, not in the past when you fit into that smaller pair of jeans—but right here and now. You don’t have to worry about whether you will be able to love and accept your body tomorrow, or next week, or next year. The only time you can do this is now. And if you take this opportunity to accept your body in this very moment, you begin to change the body-hating habit that you have been practicing for too long.
The more you practice self-acceptance, the stronger your new habit of self-love will become. This kind of healing is a process—not a destination. Sometimes the journey can be two steps forward and one step back. Just as it’s important to not get perfectionistic about your body, so it’s important to not get perfectionistic about your recovery. The only way to create new habits is to practice, practice, practice.
In addition to practicing self-acceptance, you can practice cultural criticism of society’s demeaning messages; you can practice making daily choices that promote a more peaceful attitude toward your body; you can practice paying attention to what’s going on inside you so that you can discern what you really need; you can practice trusting yourself and trusting life so you don’t feel the need to always be “in control,” you can practice returning to your deepest values to give you a broader perspective and you can practice listening to that wise part of yourself that already sees through the myth that being thinner will save you.
Michelle, thank you so much for a fantastic interview! I’m so grateful that you took the time to share such important and interesting information with us.
Today’s favorite post. Here’s more on practical ways to find peace from Michelle at her Psychology Today blog.