I recently read Eating in the Light of the Moon by Dr. Anita Johnston. I must say, I feel personally validated and understood in a way that I haven’t before. I won’t really go into many details of Dr. Johnston’s book because I think you should read it yourself! But I’ll cover some of my thoughts and opinions here.
The basic gist is that Dr. Johnston looks at archetypal stories to distill certain psychological principles we can apply in our experiences with eating disorders. She also uses these stories to look at how women can regain a sense of empowerment and a celebration of self. I absolutely love this approach as I personally use archetypes and different parts of self in my clinical work. The use of stories provides a beautiful look at how humanity has deeply embraced different parts of human experience. However, we’ve stopped telling many of these stories. And as Dr. Johnston points out in the first chapter, women’s roles in society used to look quite different. Women were more celebrated in the past as well as empowered. The stories she tells embody power that women can reclaim to celebrate their true selves.
Why this is important
So what’s the big deal? I don’t have bulimia or anorexia. Why should I read this book? Truth be told, I don’t have either of those diagnoses either. But I still found this book wildly validating and affirming because of my experience with a much more insidious pattern of disordered eating: dieting. As some of you may know, I used to be a varsity fencer for The Ohio State University’s Division 1 Women’s Epee Fencing Team. It was an amazing experience to be on one of the country’s top teams for my sport. It was even more amazing that I got a scholarship to do what I did. I learned a lot. And I, like many athletes (this one doesn’t discriminate against gender) developed some funny eating behaviors.
I am a big woman. And I’m not self-deprecating when I say that. I’m tall, muscled from avid weight lifting and exercise, and have a broad skeletal structure. It’s just a true statement that I am physically and anatomically bigger than most women. But in a society that values small, petite, willowy women, it’s difficult to not want to change my eating behavior to try to force my body into that kind of a shape.
I tried many fad diets during college. Everything from Nutrisystem to Weight Watchers. The problem? I would lose weight but then the minute I stopped the diet and tried to self-sustain, I gained it all back (and then some). While many people think that eating gluten free or other current fad diets will help bring them help, I would tend to argue that they are more enamored with a sneaky marketing campaign.
Most of these diets are not rooted in science or are for specific medical conditions and will not cure a general population of fatness. It is also worth asking why you are eating the way you are. Is it because you want to be more healthful or is it because you want to be better liked? If the former, I would look into hiring a licensed dietician or nutritionist. If the latter, being thin will not bring you popularity. Forced dieting may also hurt your body. The vacillation between weight loss and weight gain comes with a number of health complications.
What to consider instead
I love Dr. Johnston’s suggestion of learning how to eat intuitively and mindfully. This is very similar to some good tenants of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy which focuses on strong distress tolerance and increased mindfulness. If you listen, your body will tell you when you are full or hungry. Food journals can actually help with this, something Dr. Johnston also suggests. This isn’t calorie counting. It’s just increasing your awareness of your food intake. You write down every time you ate, what you ate, approximately how much, how you were feeling, and what happened immediately before. A sample entry could be:
Assortment of Chinese food
A full, larger plate
Came home from a long day of work
You might not know what I mean when I say full, larger plate, but I do and that’s enough for me to know what I mean. Now, a single entry doesn’t tell us much. But a week’s or month’s worth just might. As Dr. Johnston suggests, you may begin to notice patterns as you begin to write more.
What if I’m a man?
I think you should still read this book! I think the world won’t truly begin to change until we start caring about issues that don’t belong to us. Women are 50% of the population. It’s about time men start caring about their experiences and how society creates odd and often unrealistic expectations of women. Also, since millennial personality types cannot be differentiated by gender, men are experiencing body dysmorphia and eating disorders in substantially higher amounts.
The purpose of feminism is to create equality for all people. That includes men. Furthermore, if you have a mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, female cousin, or female friends, I really would recommend reading this book to possibly better understand their world.
I loved Eating in the Light of the Moon. While Dr. Johnston can get a little too hippie dippie even for me, I think that many of her descriptions are extremely accurate and rooted in solid therapeutic practice. Of course, if you are struggling through an eating disorder or worry that your dieting may be unhealthy, please book an appointment either with me or another helping professional. DON’T WRITE OFF YOUR INTUITION. If your gut is telling you, something might need to change, chances are, you’re right. It could be scary, like it was for me, but it will be okay.
How did your story end?
Lots and lots of therapy. And crying. And anger. And discomfort. And then self-understanding and self-compassion. And then unfettered joy. Reading Dr. Johnston’s book gave me a new layer of understanding my own heart. I finally had language for fat attacks (suddenly feeling fat even though no change has occurred because we’re feeling a different, strong emotion that we don’t really want to feel) and how to handle them better. It’s definitely uncomfortable, but like Dr. Johnston says, this may be a true addictive experience that can potentially be completely healed. While people struggling with alcohol addiction can solve their problem by simply never drinking again, we can’t do that with food. We are forced to face ourselves and learn to have a good relationship with food and with ourselves. All that to be said, it is a challenge worth embracing in order to experience true self-worth.
Give Dr. Johnston’s book a read and let’s talk!