Telling the story of my broken relationship to food and the body, as I did in my first article of this series (“Silent Bodies,” FJ Mar.), has already been incredibly healing. Sifting through my past, recognizing whom I need to forgive and what memories I need to confront, has been perhaps the exact medicine I needed to begin truly taking steps forward to develop a healthy, whole relationship with my body. Disordered eating feeds on silence and shame—shame of the body, shame of desiring pleasure and nourishment, and finally, the shame of having the illness itself, a clear indication of spiritual failure.
In spiritual communities, particularly ones traditionally composed of upper-middle-class white people, this last element of shame can be the most toxic—the spaces where we are encouraged to be open to God instead become another opportunity to perform, to put up a veneer of spiritual wholeness and perfection. We cannot confront our darkness because we have a fear of being a burden, of being less than.
As Carl Jung said, however, no one can be perfect (or pure) and be whole. Striving toward perfection comes at the cost of subverting those parts of ourselves we’d rather reject, the consequences of which can be seen in addictions and other compulsive, self-destructive behaviors. If we are projecting only wholeness, lightness, and Spirit, we cannot fully integrate our experience of the Divine with our own humanity, including those dark places.
Our Quaker communities can also fall into this dangerous pattern of using a sincere commitment to spiritual perfection as a shield that blocks our own growth, unconsciously enacting behaviors to further support our individual and collective neuroses. These neuroses, part of the darkness, are often lived out in our bodies, that mysterious matter that has been so long and in so many ways associated with sin.
For thousands of years, Western society has been moving further and further away from the body and increasingly into the mind. But our bodies still speak to us and through us, even when we try to ignore or control them. Despite our best efforts to attain spiritual enlightenment (or power) and exploit or shame our bodies and the earth, that shadow will come back to haunt us in the form of disease and addictions. When we cannot acknowledge or establish a conscious and respectful relationship to our bodies and food, we are led further into darkness.
Quakers can begin to heal our culture’s fractured relationship to food and eating—both as individuals and as a community—by telling the stories of our bodily selves, by bringing our bodies to the light. By examining our collective approach to food and the body, we may even begin to help one another create a more conscious and grounded relationship to the world around us.
While writing my own story, I knew that I was something of an anomaly (if there were more young women and men like me, wouldn’t there have been more dialogue?), but I had a sense that other Friends struggled with eating and body image. Shame of the body and our attempts to control and shape it are in the cultural air we breathe. There had to be more stories.
When I spoke with another young woman I grew up with about this issue, a young woman who has also struggled with her weight, she told me a story of attending a recent yearly meeting session and being rather disturbed by the number of overweight older women she saw around her. Was this a community of unhealthy adults, she thought to herself? Why is so little emphasis put on physical health—either in maintaining it or being honest about where and how we are struggling? Despite her own tumultuous experience with food and the body, and her lifelong commitment to Quakerism, she had never once spoken with other Quakers about these concerns. She could not bring her body to light in the very community where she knew to find spiritual support.
I also spoke with another young woman I had grown up with at Radnor (Pa.) Meeting, who currently works in the field of urban gardening and nutrition. She admitted to me that she hadn’t noticed that I’d struggled with food, and that she, herself, had never struggled. She told me of her family’s nightly tradition of eating dinner together at the table, candles lit—food was regarded with an element of the sacred. Her work growing food and speaking with people in and around Philadelphia about nutrition is certainly grounded in her faith, but she admits that she did not develop that relationship in a Quaker context.
Both women made it clear to me that Quakerism was never a space for developing a relationship with food and the body, but that the relationship does develop. It often begins, of course, in the home with our parents and siblings. Especially in early childhood and throughout adolescence, food is deeply connected to how we negotiate a sense of love and belonging. We bring our experiences and wounds around the body into our spiritual lives as Quakers, whatever they may be.
I asked a f/Friend of mine to post a query on his Facebook page to see if anyone who struggles or has struggled with this issue would be willing to speak with me for this article. He received a flood of responses, and I was able to set up interviews with quite a few. Many I spoke with were relieved or excited about the possibility of discussing what is a rather taboo subject, and many gave me words of encouragement for beginning such a conversation. Many men and women have struggled in silence too long.
Elizabeth* has had a conflicted relationship with eating and food her entire life, and, as with many of the people I spoke with, issues around food and eating began at home—not just at home, but with her mother. Elizabeth told me that her mother has always been obsessed with her weight and dieted almost constantly while she was growing up. Elizabeth has consistently felt shamed for her larger body shape, particularly in comparison with her mother, who prides herself on her tightly controlled slim figure.
As a result, Elizabeth developed a relationship with food that was toxic at times, swinging between being “good” (buying fresh, organic food that she would prepare herself) and being “bad” (binging on packaged baked goods and chips). Food is understood as a source of shame and guilt, a tool for measuring physical (and spiritual) perfection. She still swings between these two extremes, struggling to see food as the nourishing, grounding force that connects her to all of creation. Her broken relationship with food is deeply connected to feelings of shame, guilt, incompleteness—diseases of the spirit.
Having grown up in a Quaker and atheist household, however, Elizabeth never associated her relationship with food to her relationship with Quakerism or the Divine. Whatever help she has received over the years—and she has done a tremendous amount of healing—she found outside of Quakerism, despite her consistent involvement in the faith.
Elizabeth’s story is similar to those of many of the women I spoke with: shame and strange restrictions around food permeated her home life. Any mention of Quakerism in their stories, however, was glaringly absent. But Quakers do eat, of course, and we have our own rules, expectations, and rituals around food and the body. So how does Quakerism negotiate, support, and sometimes foster this spiritual struggle? The signs are subtle and sometimes hidden, but our relationship is as present as our bodies.
One of the most common ways that we share food as Quakers is by eating snacks after meeting for worship—what is normally understood as fellowship. Usually there is a wide array of food to eat—cookies, cake, crackers, cheese, fruit—some of which is healthy, some of which is not. The actual healthiness of the food itself is fairly irrelevant, despite Western culture’s emphasis on health and eating the “right” foods. What is much more important is how we relate to that food, and how we use it.
Many of the people I spoke to commented on Quakers’ tendency to overeat, particularly in this post-meeting setting. After an hour in our minds—in bodies that have become increasingly disconnected through technology and modern life—we are, perhaps, ready to shut off our brains and unconsciously sink into the body through food.
One man I spoke to, Steve*, said that he often finds the insincerity and formality of weekly coffee hour unbearable. The switch from openness, emotionality, and tenderness to small talk and ambiguous relationships can be rough on one’s spirit. Many Quakers tend to eat to stave off social anxiety, an anxiety that is only heightened after an hour of silent prayer.
A few weeks back, Steve, who has struggled with food and body image his entire life, spent one whole weekend tapped into his own spirituality, reading Thoreau and painting. When the weekend came to an end, and his solitude was to be broken, he bought two large cookies and ate them quickly, without thought. Rather than staying with his strong spiritual and emotional mood, his terror of that weekend’s intensity and fragility brought him to food, an old tool. His mother had always used food to please her children, while simultaneously expressing her own feelings of guilt around food by emphasizing the importance of thinness. Steve adopted a similar approach, eating rich foods to consummate loving union while simultaneously experiencing feelings of his body’s unworthiness of those foods. Once Steve had finished his cookies that Sunday afternoon, his mind remained focused on his feelings of guilt rather than negotiating how to bring his deeply spiritual experience into his body and his everyday life. Rather than allowing himself to sit with his feelings, Steve used food to fulfill aching yearning for love and acceptance.
Like Steve, when Quakers sit for an hour in worship every week, bringing up strong emotions and perhaps beginning to feel them in our bodies, we rarely have any outlet or tools for releasing those emotions after the hour is up. Despite their name, many Quakers are embarrassed at the idea of expressing the Spirit through our bodies, either through speaking, quaking, shaking, or dancing. After what can be a rather heady yet emotional experience together, we then emerge, eager to ease the intensity of those emotions, and turn to food to serve as a buffer for our bodies as we transition out of the intense emotional experience of worship and back into secular life.
Like many people today, we overeat or undereat in response to our emotions because we have not learned how to sit with them—either individually or as a group. Those emotions live in our bodies, and we do not know how to handle something so seemingly out of our control. In lives that are increasingly disconnected from the material world around us, food is one of just a few substances in which we can find solid ground or true communion with any material object. When we eat thoughtlessly, out of old habits of shame, we may be using food as a means of cutting off the Spirit and sinking deeper into the darkness.
Our business meetings can similarly evoke strong emotions, particularly frustration as we attempt to submit our egos to the group. As good Quakers (and good middle-class folks), we repress our true feelings in an attempt to love “perfectly”—that is, according to our ideal understanding of love through complete submersion and acceptance. We rarely have a chance to release those emotions until the meal afterward (or some might stock up on desserts before). We are so concerned with “finding the spirit of the meeting,” quieting down our own spirits, that we take out our emotions on our body, relieving intense feelings of anger or sadness or even joy toward others through food.
I grew up in a Quaker household in which other people’s messages and spiritual outpourings were highly scrutinized and sometimes criticized. Our Worship and Ministry Committee was on a seemingly endless campaign to reform the weekly messages during meeting. In this environment, our worship rooms can become another space where we are unable to be authentic, fully embodied individuals. This obsession with perfection and togetherness has deep roots.
Despite having broken away from its Quietist, conservative ancestors and embraced a more open culture, modern-day Quakerism still holds vestiges of its puritanical heritage, especially as it relates to food and pleasure. Due to our rejection of outer forms, we can sometimes hold tremendous amounts of guilt when we experience any pleasure (such as food) that is often equated with superficiality and a separation from something more elevated, like the Spirit.
By extension, our sometimes-dogged commitment to truth and social justice does not necessarily make room for the confusing reality of eating in the twenty-first century, when it is nearly impossible to eat without involving yourself in global destruction. As a result, many Quakers develop a negative rather than a positive view of food—it should be as ethically pure as possible, and should never be too extravagant. When we refrain from enjoying food, however, we are not truly honoring the gifts we’ve been given, as humans, to taste and experience the senses. If we are not present or don’t feel deserving of food, we put ourselves at risk of developing a guilt-ridden, unhealthy relationship with the very thing that gives us life.
While we may be lacking in consciousness around eating and our bodies, we have an elevated awareness of what foods we can and cannot eat—our preferences, allergies, tolerances, and intolerances. Some people do have serious allergies—something that has become increasingly problematic with the industrialization of our food and our bodies—and it is important to be sensitive to those concerns. But what if we developed a positive relationship to food, rather than one that simply says no, that rejects what is offered? What if we focused on what we can eat together, rather than what we cannot?
Quakerism is a culture that prides itself on being committed to truth and justice, seeing people for their goodness, and working to liberate that goodness in the world. Sometimes that emphasis on seeing the good turns into a performance of being the good, of having already arrived into a state of perfect oneness—as if becoming a liberated man or woman can happen by simply being nice, or by simply rejecting patriarchy on an intellectual level. But the truth is that the media affects us all. We are all broken human beings in need of healing, and yet we are ashamed to admit our vulnerability. When we cannot bring our brokenness to light, we cannot effectively work for change in the world. If we cannot connect with our bodies, we cannot connect with the Spirit.
Our spiritual communities should be not only spaces of authenticity, but also places where we can learn to love, accept, and nourish our bodies, both together and as individuals. We start by bringing our stories and experiences—of the body, food, and the earth—to the light.
The third and final article in this series will appear in the September issue.