This is the last part of my interview with eating disorder expert Ellen Frankel. Frankel is the co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care and Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide to Treating Compulsive Eating.
Recently, she published the novel Syd Arthur about one woman’s search for true contentment after years of living by diet rules, calorie counts and scale results.
Below, we talked more about her novel, how readers have reacted and what she’d like people to take away from her book.
What really struck me in this interview was Frankel’s emphasis on how we spend our days (in the second question). Years ago, I spent my days being miserable, bashing my body, feeling guilty about eating, consuming tasteless foods (and still feeling bad) and feeling stressed-out and tense — with a very shaky self-worth.
While I know these thoughts and behaviors aren’t entirely under our control (there’s that complicated combo of genetics, parenting, environment, certain stressors, etc.), we can choose to do something about them. We can toss our scales, stop buying diet foods and cookbooks, engage in physical activities we truly enjoy, learn about healthy ways to alleviate anxiety, and focus our attention on bigger and better things (like our passions, loved ones and the beauty of nature).
You can learn more about Ellen Frankel and her work at her website.
Q: You’ve been giving a lot of talks all over the country. What’s been the reaction to your book? What are the biggest misconceptions and myths about dieting and happiness that you’ve heard?
A: It’s been wonderful giving talks and hearing people’s thoughts. The reactions to Syd Arthur have been very positive, and over the months I’ve seen some themes emerge after my talks. There are many people who have recently begun exploring Eastern traditions and have become involved in meditation and yoga and are integrating these practices into their lives.
Some are looking for new ways to become more relaxed, calmer and healthier, while others are exploring these practices as part of a spiritual path. What is clear is that East has met West, and people are experimenting with new ways of connecting with their physical, emotional and spiritual selves.
Another theme that has been prominent in discussions about the book is just how much people relate to Syd and her search for happiness through weight loss. So many women have talked about how many diets they have been on throughout their lives, and how much they have put on hold until they imagined themselves becoming truly happy when (and if) they hit their ideal weight.
I think so many people can relate to Syd because she is you and she is me and she is the woman next door. She represents the person who has followed the rules the culture has laid out, and is beginning to question those long held assumptions.
What if true happiness isn’t found by a magic number on the bathroom scale or a really great shopping day at Bloomingdales? What if real happiness can’t be found on the outside, but instead cultivated on the inside? What if, in the end, our own internal wisdom, our “wise self” or “Buddha nature” is our greatest teacher? What if listening to that quiet voice within us is what ultimately leads us back to our truest self?
These are the questions Syd, in her quirky ways, explores and it’s what many of the people who are reading Syd are finding in their own ways and in their own lives.
Q: Toward the end of the book, Syd tells her friends that she “didn’t want to keep living a life where my goal was to stay on a diet and lose weight.” She talks about the desire to find meaning in her life. And I think so many people can relate to this searching for something greater, to fill the emptiness they feel. What can readers do to start the process of finding true meaning in their lives beyond dieting?
A: One of the things readers can do is to spend some quiet time really listening, truly listening, to their soul’s desires. So much of that inner voice has been drowned out by a culture insisting on certain ways of being, holding certain goals as the way to achieve success.
Sometimes it’s important to disconnect from all the input and noise from our smart phones and computers and iPads and iPods so that we can truly connect to ourselves. Within each of us there are passions and desires and creative impulses that yearn to be released.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s so important to unhook things you want to do in life with weight. In other words, live today as if you are already the person you want to be and were meant to be. Practice not living as a person who will do X, Y or Z when they lose 10 pounds, but who does X,Y or Z now because they are here in this world and have the gift of today!
Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” So the question is, how do you want to truly live? Do you want to live each day counting calories, measuring your self-worth on a bathroom scale or berating yourself for breaking your diet? Or do you want to teach school, paint a portrait, write a book or play a game with your child being fully present?
Do you want to spend your days, your life, telling yourself you’re not good enough, that you won’t be good enough until the bathroom scale tells you otherwise? Or do you want to spend your days, your life, living fully in each moment?
Practicing compassion with yourself and with others? It’s a choice each person has to make. We have one life. How do you want to live it?
Q: What messages do you want readers to take away from your book?
A: First, I want to entertain my readers while at the same time opening up some important ideas for exploration. It’s a funny book, and I think sometimes it’s easier to think about something in a different way when you’re laughing. It loosens your defenses, you’re more relaxed, and maybe the questions Syd asks herself become questions that pertain to the reader’s own life, as well.
There are many themes in the book but I think there are two main ideas that I wanted to explore and play with. The first one deals with much of what we’ve already talked about: How do we move away from the idea that happiness can be attained on the outside, by finding the perfect diet or wearing the perfect dress? How can we move away from women bonding over diet and weight concerns, to women bonding over matters of the heart and soul? And how can we go through life, its pains and its sorrows, its laughter and its joy, being present in each moment?
Another question that I wanted to pose in this novel is this: How do you travel a spiritual path in a consumer driven society where even spirituality has become a commodity to be marketed? If you’ve ever been to a yoga studio, a meditation center or an ashram, you’ve probably come across some pretty cool gift shops and things for sale. Jewelry with OM signs, t-shirts with mantras, Buddha statues and candles and mugs.
That’s all fine, but sometimes it’s possible to get caught up in the trappings of a spiritual tradition, and get lost in the merchandise instead of the wisdom. Someone once asked me where they could buy a meditation kit. I told them to sit down and follow their breath. They didn’t need a kit for that.
But we’re so conditioned in this society to buy, buy, buy and we need to be mindful that moving into an inner spiritual connection with our authentic self DOES NOT require buying all this spiritual stuff. There’s a risk of merely substituting shopping for things on the outside to fill us up on the inside, and the way that spirituality has become marketed in the West, we need to be careful not to get caught up in the trappings of merchandise for sale on the road to nirvana.
Q: Anything in general you’d like readers to know about your book, dieting, weight, body image or a related topic?
A: What I really want people to know is how much joy I found in writing Syd Arthur. In this novel, I was able to integrate so much of what has been my life’s work. The story integrates my years of working with women around dieting, weight and body image issues.
From an early age, I was interested in comparative religion, especially Buddhism. Growing up a Jewish girl in the suburbs, I didn’t find a place to explore these interests or yearning. As I became older, I realized I wasn’t alone (there are a lot of us JuBus or Jewish Buddhists out there) and I became more comfortable with my one foot in the synagogue and the other crossed over into a seated lotus position.
Writing Syd Arthur offered me the opportunity to look at what it might be like for a typical suburban woman to embark upon a spiritual path. What happens when instead of bowing down to the god of merchandise, we instead bow down to our own inner knowing, and our own inner self. What type of reaction might we get from spouses, friends, our Mah Jongg group, when we veer off the cultural path of diets and consumerism and move into our authentic beings? This book gave me a place to bring so much of myself into the pages (though I swear, Syd is not all me!!).
The point is, I found so much joy in writing the book, and it is my great hope that you, the reader find joy in its pages.