Welcome to ON BEAUTY, a monthly feature highlighting creative, like-minded people who inspire us.
Ten books, 21 years of retreats (sign up for her first digital retreat on May 14), and more than 35 years of workshops, author Geneen Roth links compulsive eating and perpetual dieting with deeply personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight and body image.
After a long battle with Roth’s own fraught relationship with her body, she set out to work with men and women to help them shift their mindset around food. Roth believes the first step to healing and being kind to your body has nothing to do with food. The first step is to use your senses. There is a lack of presence when eating and that plays a considerable part in why we’re disconnected from our bodies.
In her programs, Roth provides her clients with eating guidelines and steps to freedom with food—eat when you’re hungry, eat sitting down, and eat in a calm environment.
Here, Geneen reveals why most of us live in our heads, the importance of undistracted eating, and how to diminish that inner critic.
Most of us live in our heads. And when we live in our heads, we live in our thoughts, we live in our ideas, and not actually in our bodies.
Your whole ethos is about mindful eating and the spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight, and body image. How did you come to make this your niche and topic of your books?
I went on my first diet when I was 11 and then stopped dieting when I was 28. It was 17 years of being on either a diet or a binge, but also 17 years of loathing myself. When I reached the bottom, I became suicidal and started making a plan. And the reason I was suicidal was that I didn’t want to live like that anymore.
Sometimes with suffering it can pierce a trance or pierce a bubble, so to speak. And with me, I realized that what I was doing with food was an expression for a language. It didn’t have to do with food or the size of my body. But that was the way that I was expressing it and broadcasting it. So I stopped dieting and I started being curious about the reasons that I had been using food. What I was trying to say and those do go far beyond body size. Of course, I expressed all this in a way that’s very familiar to many women through body size and incessant judgment about the size of our thighs, our arms, the cellulite, what we can fit into, and what we can’t fit into.
You make a strong case that the way to transform our relationship with food, our body, and so much more in our life is to be open, curious, and kind with ourselves. Can you give me some examples of what you suggest and a few steps to change your mindset?
On the food level, it’s common sense, but also body sense, meaning that you listen to your hunger, you listen to what your body, not what your mind actually wants. That is the distinction that many people don’t make. Because if we have been dieting or depriving ourselves for a long time, and many of us have, then the mind itself is very active about what it wants, which is basically what you haven’t allowed yourself to have without guilt or fear or shame. When people hear what their body wants, they translate that to all hell is going to break loose or binging.
We’re not really taught the difference between what the mind wants and what the body wants and what sustains us and what depresses us. What nourishes us and what spaces us out. What gives us energy and what depletes us. And that’s the line that we’re talking about. When I first started doing this, I was 28 and I could eat whatever I wanted to eat.
And what I wanted to eat in those days was mostly sugar. Because that’s what I felt thin people could eat, that was the prize. I felt like if I lost enough weight, then I would get thin enough and eat as much sugar as I wanted.
For a while, that’s almost all I ate. But then I realized even at 28 that I wasn’t feeling so good. Then it became a matter of discrimination and distinguishing the foods that my body thrived on versus the foods that depleted, depressed.
There’s a cycle with different types of foods. When I was growing up, butter was bad and margarine was good. Things flip. They become the very opposite of what was good for you then is bad for you now. Unfortunately, what’s often popular in the culture is also dependent on the companies that are promoting it.
Confidence becomes a priority and sounds like something most people get out of when reading your books. Why do you think confidence, especially when it comes to the body, is such a hard thing for women to hold on to?
Most of us live in our heads. And when we live in our heads, we live in our thoughts, we live in our ideas, and not actually in our bodies. This is where mindfulness comes into the equation. That awareness happens only in the present moment. It’s hard to have confidence in oneself if you’re living in your head. Thoughts and images and patterns and dreams, all those kinds of things change very quickly. Your body, of course, is the thing that most women have been taught to not have confidence in. To be judgemental, to mistrust. When you don’t trust what you’ve got, that, of course, leads to a lack of confidence.
It’s possible to be loved deeply by someone else, but that doesn’t fill the hole of our own value and that’s the part that’s in Julie’s words is the inside job.
You talk a lot about living in the present. What does that mean to you?
Here, we’re talking about hunger; we’re talking about satisfaction, knowing when you’ve had enough. We’re talking about undistracted eating because you can’t tell when your body’s had enough if you’re on your Facebook page or on Instagram, watching television, or writing an email.
I would say another name for multitasking is the ultimate in distraction. You’re not good at anything when you’re multitasking. What I recommend to people is that when they eat, they eat. When they eat, they sit down and pay attention to the food. Pay attention to preparing the food, and certainly to eating the food. You can’t tell if you’ve had enough if you’re doing something else.
Would you say that everyone has some sort of issue when it comes to food?
I would say since everybody eats, we all have particular issues, so to speak around food—feelings about it, at the very least, and quirks and eccentricities. The difference between an emotional eater and someone who isn’t an emotional eater is that the emotional eaters suffer from their relationship with food. It goes right to the source of their value and self-worth—how much they feel they are worth on this earth. Whereas other people might have pizza three times a day or only eat ice cream, but it’s not a problem. They’re not suffering. Either they’ve never had a weight issue, their metabolism is really fast, or they are beyond their normal or natural weight and it doesn’t bother them. That’s unusual to find in a woman. There are a lot of men who have compulsive eating patterns, but I think because of the cultural emphasis between body size and self-worth for women, it’s more prevalent among women.
Do you believe that shame around certain foods or body image can fully go away or is it something most of us have to live with for the rest of our lives?
This is where the deeper issues come into play. Meaning that if somebody has feelings about or behavioral patterns or conditioning from their childhood, that is about shame and lack of confidence, then that will come up until we learn how to deal with that voice directly. The important thing here is to understand that there are certain human dynamics that we feel. One of them that all of us need to deal with is what I call the GPS from the Twilight Zone or that voice of shame. The inner critic, the inner judge, the inner parent, whatever you want to call that, that voice that tells you you’re doing it wrong. The problem with that voice is that no matter what you do, it always raises the bar so you can do it exactly as that voice told you you should.
When that voice comes in, the best thing to do is be aware of that. Some people are aware of how they feel physically in their body. They feel collapse. They feel paralyzed. They feel small. They go along with their day and suddenly, they feel like nothing is right. And then the task is to disengage from that voice and become aware of what happens and what that voice is telling you and to understand that voice isn’t your friend.
Our founder, Julie Elliott, likes to say healing is an inside job, so what does that mean to you?
Nobody can do this for you. I’ve been teaching retreats for 21 years and workshops for more than 35 years. So I’ve worked with tens of thousands of people over the last few decades. I see that most of us, and I would put myself in this crowd, would like somebody else to do it. We are like children who feel if we didn’t get what we needed as kids, then we deserve to get it now.
With kids, your parents do it for you, if you’re lucky. If you had a parent who cherishes you, who’s made you feel like you belong. Who when you were sad or lonely or bored or angry or scared was able to say to you, “Oh, sweetheart, come and sit with me. Tell me what’s going on.” Many of us did not feel cherished for one reason or another, because our parents didn’t feel cherished because they were busy or sick or they had full-time jobs or had just lost a parent of their own during some critical years. At this point the hardest part is going from being a child to being an adult to realizing that it’s not going to come from someone else. The healing, the cherishing, the feeling of belonging. It’s possible to be loved deeply by someone else, but that doesn’t fill the hole of our own value and that’s the part that’s in Julie’s words is the inside job.
I would say another name for multitasking is the ultimate in distraction. You’re not good at anything when you’re multitasking.
What I find with most eating is that people are either complying by being on a diet or are rebelling by binging. During this COVID time, I’ve heard people saying they’re gaining the COVID-19 pounds because they can’t socially distance from their refrigerators. People are returning to comfort foods of their childhood, highly processed foods, potato chips, Chef Boyardee ravioli, TV dinners, things like that. That’s going back; that’s regressing, going back to being a child and needing to be comforted by food. When people are eating exactly what they think they should be eating, they’re still coming from being a child and obeying. It’s really important to name the feeling, so you acknowledge what’s going on. Allow yourself to be tender with yourself.
I have a couple. At the end of the day, my husband and I go through what we call the five lovelies. It could be sights like the wild purple iris blooming on the side of the road that I saw yesterday. It could be the first bite of a strawberry. It could be playing with our dog or an interaction we had. I learned that when you focus on the good and you really take it in, you start establishing how your brain changes. Aside from those biochemical changes, you start building the ground of benevolence and goodness and not only that, it feels great.
Right now, it’s the smell of Jasmine because I have a huge trellis and the pink jasmine is in full bloom. I feel almost drunk on it. It’s so gorgeous.
Do you have any tips for long-haul flights?
I get up and walk around every half hour. I also bring a little cosmetic bag with me. I love In Fiore products. I don’t eat on planes, but I drink a lot. I can’t imagine my digestive system functions well at 30,000 feet up in the air. I also don’t like airline food and don’t want to schlep my own food. I would rather eat before I go and eat when I get off the plane. So I drink a lot of water, walk around a lot, and stretch where I can stretch.
What’s your favorite beauty food?
These days, I’ve been making my morning breakfast ritual of a matcha chai latte. It has hempseeds, matcha tea, hot water, dates, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. I haven’t thought of it as a beauty food, but it feels great in my body. Another one, which I’ve been really into the last couple of weeks, has been broccoli or cauliflower mash. I steam up a lot of cauliflower and broccoli and then I use my immersion blender and whip it into a mashed potato consistency. I add a lot of ghee from Ancient Organics and salt and I love it.
What’s your vice?
I love watching television police procedurals at night with my husband. Lately, we’ve been into Endeavor.
Do you have any charms or talismans?
I have my father’s pinky ring that he gave me before he died and I wear it on my index finger. That always reminds me of him. I also have a necklace of many charms that my husband gave me over the years that I wear as a necklace. He gave it to me on different occasions like anniversaries, birthdays, or when my book hit The New York Times bestseller list.