Engaging Food & Body

A few weeks ago Dan and Rachael talked about what it means to find flourishing in a world that is slowly reopening, to honor what we’re feeling in our bodies, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t revisit a related, important topic in this season: food and our bodies. Food and how we feel about our bodies can be a place of great conflict, especially as we emerge from the pandemic. It’s imperative we treat our bodies with kindness and be able to name the dangerous influence of diet culture. So today, we’re bringing this episode out from the archives! You’ll hear the first part of a conversation recorded in 2020featuring guests Matt Tiemeyer, LMHC, and Diane Summers, RDN, CEDRD-S, CD about how we can step into greater kindness around food and our bodies.

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Episode Transcript

Dan: Well I have the privilege to talk with two dear friends about something so very important always, but also very, very important as we make our way through this COVID-19 era. So let me introduce Matt Tiemeyer who’s a therapist in private practice in the Seattle area and runs and owns Blue Harbour Counseling. So Matt, thank you for being with us and Diane Summers, who is a dietician who runs the Hope Nutrition Therapy Center. And, Diane and Matt work often together in a conference with a friend by the name of Kate on body and food and have taught a number of times at The Seattle School on behalf of The Allender Center. Both have what I would call deep bonds with The Allender Center. So it is a privilege to have the two of you in this conversation. So Matt, Diane, tell me at least a little bit and tell our audience a little bit about who you are, how you got into this conversation about food, and I have a bunch of questions after that to be able to walk on through this process.

Matt: Well, yeah, Dan, thanks for thanks for having us.I would say that I came into the conversation around food and body completely by accident. I had absolutely no idea that I would want to work with individuals struggling with eating disorders. And I was involved shortly after I graduated at a facility in which—I planned to avoid people with eating disorders. And I was recruited over time to be involved in some intensive situations with some of these folks and found out that I really enjoyed the clients, the struggle that they experienced made some sense to me and it came to be something that I look forward to over time.

Dan: Well it isn’t it true that for most of us we didn’t intend to do the work, but somehow we got into that world. But that’s not quite true for you. Diane, given that you’re a dietitian.

Diane: Yeah. So, I was studying nutrition and undergrad and always thought I would end up working in a hospital setting, did my dietetic internship and during that time realized the only rotations that I enjoyed were my eating disorder rotations. They seemed to give me a lot of life and were centered around returning people to the joy of eating and that’s how I was raised with food, thankfully. So I had that, that personal experience and wanted to help others in my professional life come back to that as well. So I’ve been doing eating disorders my entire nutrition career and have loved it.

Dan: Well the question I want you both to engage through this first episode is why are we why are we at war with food? And particularly we just ran a conference online with about 100 people, about 30 staff. And the issue of food came up often a sense of, in this particular, strange, and really dark period, food has become both solace for many, a lot of overeating or eating in a way that feels dangerous or harmful, at least to some. And then on the other hand, people not only eating differently, but eating in a way in which food becomes almost a means by which they gain control, either by not eating or by eating in ways that feel overwhelming. So I would love to have your perspective. Why are we at war with food? But what do you see particularly in this day?

Diane: Yeah, we’ll talk about this more as the podcast progresses, but we hold trauma in our bodies and this is an era of collective trauma on a global level, and we have to engage food on a daily basis, it’s necessary for survival, it’s part of daily life. And so many folks, whether there’s a history of an eating disorder, disordered eating, chronic dieting or not, are trying to figure out how to nourish during a time of collective trauma. So I’m certainly seeing this come out with a lot of folks that I’m working with, but also just friends and family. There is a sense of food insecurity, a concern around when will I go to the grocery store next, wanting to hold off on going to the grocery store, so drawing out whatever food is available to them or even avoiding it, not knowing when their next trip will be or binging on it, out of food insecurity, both of which are incredibly understandable during this time. And you know, you named Dan just using food as a form of coping. Again, it’s such an understandable thing during such a time, but also emotional eating as we tend to kind of coin it is also somewhat a part of normal eating. We want to be careful not to pathologize that, but to meet it and all manifestations of eating to meet them all with a sense of kindness and tenderness towards ourselves, curiosity. There’s already enough judgment around us. So to meet those presentations with a lot of kindness feels really important. And we live in a region of the world that has pretty prevalent rates of orthorexia, which is a focus on health conscious eating. So, even that is riding on the coattails of this COVID-19 with things going around the internet, advocating for intermittent fasting as a way to avoid the virus. That will not protect anyone from the virus. But I think as we pause and again, just explore that, we look at the fact that folks are wanting to feel safe and secure and are going to look for anything to reduce anxiety. And so orthorexia and that focus on health conscious eating can become that thing to go towards diet culture will use this time and already has used this time to prey on our vulnerabilities.

Dan: Well, two things that I’d love to go back to, we pathologize food and our eating, that that seems to be true outside of an era of trauma, as you’ve talked about collective trauma, but we don’t only pathologize, but we seem to go back and forth between the yo yo of restriction and then on the other side of binging. So do you see those things Matt as a common reality and then exacerbated in this era?

Matt: I would say you’ve hit on something that’s really important. It’s often couched in the context of sin, frankly. As we engage foods, particularly foods of certain kinds, you see foods labeled in some contexts as literally sinful or decadent, indulgent, the kinds of things we associate with other sorts of activities. And in fact, even yesterday I pulled out a brownie recipe to make for my sons and somewhere in the middle of the recipe they called it R rated. What does that mean? There’s an insanity involved here and we have a hard time acknowledging that the desire we have around food in particular is innocent. We may not always handle it well, but the desire under everything and we have going on here is innocent again.

Dan: You hear how radical that is. I mean, in some ways, the very notion of our eating and our sexuality, it isn’t fair to say you’re making a strong connection between that. And my guess is you’re really saying that there’s a lot of shame regarding both our eating and our sexuality that we may not see very clearly wed together, but in fact not too far under the surface there’s a lot of war in that area. Is that fair? I think there is no accident. There’s a war there.

Matt: I think it’s no accident that evil wants to get under our skin, literally and figuratively. And the place to engage us is our bodies. And there is no easier place to infect us if I can use a delicate term at this moment with shame than to do so around our bodies. That’s where a shame is centered. And certainly in the context of both sex and eating things that are designed to be here to bless us, nourishes give us life. That’s where I think evil has attacked in many ways the most.

Dan: Well, if if that’s accurate, which I think it’s totally accurate, then it’s so important that we be open to engaging what seems at first too abstract the ability to listen, to engage our body and to engage the shame that has been wed to our body in eating in our sexuality since, well, since some of us were abused or since some of us grew up in homes that bore a great deal of shaming regarding food. So I’m assuming that you two do a lot of work with the stories that people have with regard to their histories of eating, is that fair?

Diane: Absolutely.

Dan: But where does it take you as you begin to do that work?

Diane: Well in the work that I’m doing with folks on a daily basis, oftentimes were exploring some of the early childhood experiences with food and with their bodies, namely experiences specifically focused around food since I’m a dietitian. But some of the, what I call traumas of force or traumas of deprivation, being expected to finish every crumb on the plate or sit at the table literally overnight, or sometimes more violent forms of punishment. That would be more of a trauma of force, trauma of starvation would be an experience of going as a family on a restrictive diet where certain food groups or food types are limited and literally undernourishment is happening in the family system. So we explore a lot of those as some of the wiring that then creates the vulnerability for struggles with food. Of course later on in life, what we know is that many folks are introduced to a deprivation approach to food or a dieting approach to food before they even have the age to consent before the age of nine. So these are really early experiences of harm to their relationship with food.

Dan: That war with food. You put two terms the idea of force where there’s violence directed toward a child because they have failed to eat certain foods that they either find awful or obnoxious. I mean, do you see that often in the stories you’re engaging?

Matt: I would say that there are stories of force that occur in that sort of context and force takes on all kinds of manifestations because the force can be withholding as well. The force can be putting shame on someone for what they eat, what they don’t eat. And certainly food can be used as a vehicle, or the lack of food can be used as a vehicle for delivering force when the issue has nothing to do with food. And so I think it’s rampant.

Dan: Well the interplay of force plus a dieting culture and Diane, you use that phrase and I think most of us have a sense of what that means. But can you elaborate what, what we’ve all lived in this milieu of a dieting world for I think my whole life, but it’s so much a part of our world that it’s often hard to actually see that it exists.

Diane: Yes. It’s the air that we breathe, the water that we swim in. It is literally everywhere you turn this idea that we should be wrangling our bodies into something other than what they are, that there is inherently something wrong with our bodies. No matter the size, the thin ideal that is out there and promoted as the body that we should all have, that inherently we all fall short of because that’s not even a real image. So many of the images we see out there are multiple folks bodies actually put together into one picture that person doesn’t even exist. So it’s all over and it is so normalized. I think across all genders and not just not just for women but it doesn’t discriminate against the sense that our bodies are inadequate. They have fallen short. And so diet culture as we use that term is really the nearly $70 billion dollar industry that is preying on all of us and promoting this sense of inadequacy that we must strive for a different body. And the diet cycle sets us up to fail every time. It’s never a lack of willpower. It’s truly our bodies, our God given, design to push back against deprivation that actually pulls us out of that cycle and returns us to food.

Dan: Well, look, if we’re talking about a $70 billion dollar industry, it’s because there is this, I don’t know, dark craving for our bodies to not be in that whatever position we’re in where we feel like we’re susceptible to judgment: our own or others. So, again, I know I’m not asking it terribly well, but what’s going on that we bear such body shame?

Diane: Well, I think in many ways, we have become ashamed of desire and pleasure and joy and have been taught that those experiences are going to lead us astray, that we literally cannot trust our bodies. We were given taste buds for a reason. If we were just meant to eat food, to get full, God wouldn’t have given us taste buds, but we have taste buds to experience pleasure with food. And so, when that war with pleasure ensues, food is naturally going to be a target.

Matt: And I would add, you know, certainly, we don’t trust our bodies for different reasons. And of course we’ve already begun to lead in, how there are parallels here with sexual abuse, but certainly that’s one avenue in which we come to a place in which we don’t trust what our bodies are telling us. We don’t like what they’re telling us. We become ambivalent about the signals and certainly about when they begin to tell us that things are, are positive, we’re not sure we want to hear that all the time.

Dan: So if I can name it again, what I’m hearing you both say is we don’t know what to do with desire. And we often, at least I’ll say I fear at times my desire is a rapid movement to indulgence. Indulgence is going to, in one sense, consume and devour. And in that I’m gonna get fat. And some of my earliest, I think the earliest word I heard of contempt from my world was the word fat. And so when I think about the power of the shaming, especially for some of us who were perceived to be overweight at younger ages, it’s so bound in this interplay of I just want to eat and take away my pain. On the other hand, I’ve got to constrict and be thinner to escape the judgments of my own and other people’s eyes. So in one sense, what it says for me, sometimes food feels like craziness.

Diane: Yeah, you’re not alone and you know, being actually very confused about how do we approach food? And I’m going to actually take a moment to first of all, just name how early and young it was that you experienced body shaming and that, oh, that is unfortunately not uncommon. Some of the statistics around the percentage of kids who would rather be dead than being a larger body are just horrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. And also how the term fat has been used as a term of violence as opposed to a descriptive term, a term of just defining size. And there’s a pretty powerful movement going on right now to reclaim that word as a description like tall or short and to move away from some of those medicalized terms of overweight and obesity that are based on a BMI and end up pathologizing bodies. More so, you know all that to say, I may use that term fat or in a larger body more to take a stand and reclaim that there is nothing inherently wrong with fat on our bodies. And to, to speak to that early childhood experience in that young boy who learned really early on that his body was unacceptable. It robs childhood. It robs innocence.

Dan: It really does. I mean, as I think about the use of the term against my own body, but I also think how often I’ve used that term as an eight year old, 12 year old, 16 year old and then frankly to say, people who bear larger bodies often suffer a level of prejudice and violence. Even with people who would say they’re not racist or they’re, they’re not judgmental. There just seems to be body shaming, almost appreciation like there’s something good about body shaming, even if we know deeply that it’s wrong. It’s so endemic to the way we look and think that it shapes in some ways, how we eat a cookie, how we actually go about making a decision whether to have dessert or not or whether a second helping again. Does that seem overstated or does that fit into the world that you work in?

Matt: Not at all. I would say that things like supermarkets are battle grounds for many people. Certainly a number of my clients, fat shaming is one of the last universally accepted, positive social weapons. I would say someone who’s in a larger body at a supermarket is very likely to be ashamed, critiqued for what’s in her or his cart. And knowing that that exists, I think the other night I was out buying some snacks for my office, which I hope to come back to someday. And there was a woman behind me, you know, I buy some high energy types of things to keep me going at the office. And a woman behind me in line asked me about one of the items and made some remark about its sugar content. And that was the first time at a store that I really realized, oh, she’s looking at the cumulative stuff I have here on the counter and making a judgment and probably felt good about it because she had purchased a single lemon. And that was where she was going and complaining about the other lemons. In fact, that were in the store, at any single point, it’s very parallel to, I think what pregnant women find when they’re in public, anybody can talk to you about you being pregnant. So what are you having, where is it going to be? What kind of choices are you making and you’re expected to answer? And the same kind of dynamic happens to those in larger bodies.

Dan: Well, the fact is, as you put it so very well, we are at war with food. We’re at war with desire. We’re at war with our own shame as the intersection between desire and food and sexuality. And especially for those with larger bodies. You put it so well, they are literally in a public category of critique, which feels legitimate because you’re helping them in their health to move toward being thin, which is associated with health. Fat means unwell. Thin means health. And the fact is the research has blown that kind of mythology out of the water. So what we’re at at this point is if we’re at such a war with food, then what happens when we fight food? When we fight our bodies? The fact is a whole lot more chaos seems to increase. So when we come together for a second episode, I’d love for the two of you to begin to talk about the war that plays out and what the debris is that we need to engage in order to begin to move in a much more I think loving, not just healthful but loving way toward our bodies and toward food. So let me again say to folks, if you want to get to know Matt, you can look at Blue Harbour Counseling dot com if you want to know a little bit more about Diane, look at Hope Nutrition Therapy dot com and you can get their profiles of some of the work that they do. These are remarkably good people.