The Sane Diet: What is Joyful Eating?

A good few years back, I went through a really difficult time in my life. I had just moved to America from England, leaving behind my family and friends. I had a newly minted PhD but couldn’t find a job, and had no academic connections in the U.S. And I knew pretty much no one in America, besides my new husband’s family. New house, no job, and an entirely different culture to deal with. Not to mention homesickness. Not surprisingly, I also began to have panic attacks.

Ridiculously (but I was only about 26 in my defense) I did not give myself permission to feel anger, grief, or upset about these changes. Instead, I blamed myself and internalized everything, thinking there must be something wrong with me for not being able to adjust to them. Jobless, I had a quite a bit of time on my hands with which to ruminate on fixing this problem…

The ‘answer’ I rationalized, was to ‘improve myself.’ The anxiety I felt was my fault, therefore I had to become a more serene, healthier, happier person. I really didn’t stop to think that I had very good reasons to feel anxious!

At around this time, I picked up a book on eating healthily with a plant-based diet. I also started attending yoga classes. I became vegetarian and practiced yoga every day, with a view to becoming a yoga teacher. I started reading lots of books on spirituality, especially Buddhism. A trip to Whole Foods could take two hours because I carefully read the ingredients of every single item I picked up in an effort to avoid any processed or refined ingredients.

Now, this is actually a pretty healthy lifestyle, right? Arguably, yes. But, here’s the thing. I was practicing this lifestyle for all the wrong reasons.

I was feeling so out of control of my own life, placing all of the blame for my negative feelings on myself, that I had turned to diet and spirituality as a means of gaining a modicum of control. Every time I checked the food labels, I felt empowered and in control. In reality, I was anything but. And, crucially, it didn’t make me much happier…it certainly didn’t make me a ‘better’ person (what did, IMO, was gaining confidence at work, and being less serious and more lighthearted about life).

Don’t get me wrong, yoga and healthy eating are both great. I still try to practice both. But I’ve quit the obsessive label-checking; the flirtations with veganism (which, again, I think I flirted with only because I was down this path of food control = moral purification. In other words, it was a way to feel ‘in control’ again) and the self-help/diet book reading. I would like to be vegetarian again, however. I fell off the wagon two years back, but I care deeply about animal welfare, and still feel guilty when I eat meat! I think that is the right reason to be vegetarian, though.

What I’m getting at here is that deep down, you know when you’ve been hijacked by your own desire to ‘self-improve.’ You know it because you feel anxious about food, weirdly ‘high’ when you eat healthily for a whole week (or some other self-imposed goal) and, perhaps the biggest giveaway, you feel like you are on some kind of ‘journey’ or ‘quest.’ Let me tell you, this is a quest that you can never achieve, because the only place it leads is more self-doubt, recrimination, and anxiety. Once you’ve reached one goal, all you can do is replace it with another more restrictive one. Where’s the joy in that?

If you’re wondering why I felt compelled to suddenly share my thoughts on this topic, it’s because I just finished reading an article about a new eating disorder that’s appearing on the DSM V: orthorexia. This is defined as an obsession with food and diet as a means to self-purify, to the point where it negatively impacts one’s health or ability to function in the world.

I don’t think I was even CLOSE to this point…orthorexia is a radical condition, and fairly rare. Still, all disorders appear on a continuum and I perhaps splashed about a bit in the paddling pool end of the spectrum.

So, how SHOULD one eat? What is joyful eating? Really, it’s simple. Too simple for control-freaks like me, perhaps, but all the more healthy because of it’s simplicity! As author Michael Pollan suggests, “eat food, mostly plants.” If you’re eating a well-balanced whole-food diet, getting exercise, drinking enough water, and cutting down on sugars, you’ll be just fine. Cook at home. Eat some chocolate when you feel like it. Avoid binges (which is pretty easy when you’re not dieting) and don’t think about food too much. And, by all means, practice yoga. Yoga, in fact, is the one exercise that keeps me feeling sane and balanced. I just don’t obsess about getting the ‘perfect pose’ anymore. I do it for me, and to feel good – not to prove something to my teacher or to myself. I also highly recommend mindfulness practices. It really helped me deal with my anxiety and accept rather than to seek to change it.

Right now, on this green beauty journey I’m on, I’m careful not to get obsessive about ‘purity’ because I know this is a flaw in myself that can be a problem, especially when I’m feeling out of control or low-confidence. So if a product isn’t 100% clean, I’m OK with that. I don’t want my old food issues to simply transfer to another locus of control!!

I hope this advice proves useful to you guys, and that as 2015 approaches you can put it to some use as you crack out the resolutions journal…

Have a happy healthy Holiday season…and eat joyfully!

Liv 🙂

Tuesday Painting – The Surprising Truth About Who You Are (n’t).

Tuesday painting

Hi Friends,

I normally do a Tuesday poem, but today I was inspired to write about art instead, which kind of makes sense…I have a (unused!) PhD in art history, so my thoughts do tend to drift that way much of the time!

I’m reading a book right now called “Generation Me” by Jean M. Twenge which argues that children born in the 70s-00’s are raised to believe in the power of the individual and that the self (like love) conquers all. It’s an interesting read, but the book never raises the intriguing question of what constitutes self-hood for this generation, and I would assume that this is because we just don’t know. After all, our experience of ‘selfness’ is totally subjective. But you wouldn’t think so from the well-worn platitudes lobbed at us every day: ‘know yourself,’ ‘be true to yourself,’ and ‘love yourself for who you are,’ spring instantly to mind. Such Generation Me aligned philosophies imply that we should know who we are, and that if we don’t we’re just not trying hard enough. The result? Stacks of self-help books all over the place and a burgeoning sense of insecurity.

The truth is it’s nigh-on impossible to ever really ‘know yourself’ because who ‘you’ are is so incredibly defined and shaped by context. I have heard myself described as friendly, kind and generous and cold and aloof! I have been described as both tolerant and self-righteous- by the same person! Bosses have alternately seen me as capable and scattered. How is this possible? We forget sometimes that there are gazillions of variables that influence how we are seen, and how we behave. The one that jumps instantly to mind is status, either real or perceived. If you’ve ever seen Undercover Boss you’ll have enjoyed watching the respected and loved CEO who, in ‘normal person’ guise comes across as a nerd, bully, or just plain average. Women are treated very differently to men; one culture has different expectations to another. One person loves our kooky nature and so labels us ‘quirky;’ another person is irritated by it and so labels us ‘weird.’ And then guess what? If we’re around a lot of those sorts of people we’re going to tone things down – another side of ourselves will emerge from its cocoon because, ultimately, we adapt to survive. We like to think that despite different situations and contexts we have a stable core ‘self,’ but I’m not so sure. Rather, I think our sense of self is shaped largely by what is reflected back at us -more nurture than nature. If this reflection is constantly shifting, which it is, then how on earth are we supposed to ‘be true to ourselves?’ It’s a therapist’s nightmare.

Long before Generation Me existed, Picasso puzzled over this problem in “Girl Before A Mirror” (1932). At once a hauntingly beautiful portrait of his mistress, Marie Therese Walter, as well as a meditation on vanity and mortality, there is perhaps more to this work than meets the eye.

Image

Marie is shown contemplating her fate. Her youthful body and made-up face seem to sag and melt, dripping like candle-wax, in the mirror before her. It is a spin on the seventeenth-century Dutch still-life, in which evanescent objects such as flowers and fruit are studded with tiny maggot holes, rotting around the edges. “Ah, you are young and careless now,” these paintings murmur, “but, like this fruit, look at what will happen to you!” Dutch artists weren’t totally callous, however. A reminder of life’s true meaning – religion or knowledge – is depicted in the form of a bible, astrolabe, or other tool of man’s potential. Grasp these, the painter suggests, and all will be well.

Of course, Picasso’s work differs significantly in many ways. It is a painting about a woman’s fate, not a man’s. Moreover, no alternative vision of existence – through study or prayer- is presented. This in itself could be a comment on women’s limited options in the 1930s. Marie is trapped, Narcissus-like, by the limited role she has come to occupy. If a religious object exists in the painting, it is her own body. Her image folds out, like a church diptych. An object of male worship, she is at once prostitute and divine being: a duality that reflects Picasso’s dark prediction of the hellish slide into old age.

If we look at Marie’s face in the mirror, however, she seems to smile warmly. There is a peacefulness about the eyes, her face looks relaxed. A single red tear resembles rather a blur of tribal paint, recollecting a more primal self. Sagging breasts and belly also evoke relaxation: a visual gauntlet thrown down to the “other” Marie, who is expected to be sexual and eventually child-bearing – two states in which both breasts and belly are distended, even “perky.”

For me, this painting is not really about vanity or the horrors of old age. It is about the ‘other’ versions of ourselves that lurk when we look in the mirror. Is this cause for anxiety though? Marie’s arm is gently outstretched to her reflection, literally embracing a darker, sadder, but somehow more liberated self. It’s a striking emblem of acceptance, not just of how others see her, but of how she sees herself. May we all be so bold…

This Halloween, I’ve Been Forced to Dress As A Racoon.

Friends,

I have a confession to make. I don’t love Halloween.

I know. Crazy, no? I mean, who doesn’t LOVE Halloween? Well, to be more specific, what I really don’t like is dressing up for Halloween…

halloween funny

The truth is, I’m just sick and tired of Halloween costumes…for women. Why is it that men get to dress like this?

bacon costume

Whilst women have to wear costumes like this:

gretchen costume

I say ‘have’ to – of course, it’s a choice. But I spent this weekend browsing the costume aisles at my local Halloween store and to say there was a dearth of non-sexy costume choices is an understatement. Those that are, let’s say, less revealing, go to the other extreme…wanna go to a Halloween party dressed as a giant bumblebee? No, me neither.

In the end, I found ONE costume for teen girls which is neither ‘slutty’ nor ‘blob-inducing.’ It’s a racoon costume. Akkkkk.

So the reason I am dressing as a racoon for Halloween is because I cannot be anything feminine: a pixie, a fairy, an angel or whatever, due to my pixie cut and being petite and overtly ‘feminine’ looking. Let me tell you, I don’t want to be courting harassment disaster. Only the other day a guy wanders over to be in Corner Bakery and asks, ‘what are you dressing up as for Halloween? Tinkerbell?’

Guffaw, guffaw. Funny, right? Er, no! Let’s go with patronizing. Of course, he meant well, but I’m just sick and tired of hearing comments like this, and I certainly don’t want any costume that might make me look ‘cute,’ ‘sweet,’ or ‘like a pixie.’

I guess what I’m saying is that, for women, Halloween seems to be about reducing yourself to a cartoon version of what a woman should look like, OR rebelling against that and wearing some voluminous costume that hides every feminine curve just to avoid predatory eyes or caving to the ‘slutty’ costume trend.

The third option is to make your own costume, but who has the time? Not me! If I was less tired and feeling more creative I would try to come up with something amusing and fun and something that represented ‘me’ but I’m just not feeling it this year.

The fourth option is to don a witch’s hat and cape and look like you don’t really give a damn.

So this year, I’m gonna be a racoon.

A. Racoon.

Have pity on me.

Every Woman Should Learn to Love Art…

First off, I was nominated for a Liebster Award! Woot! However, I need time to construct a half-decent, non-garbled response, so I’m going to save that for another day.

Today I am in a garbling mood, so I’m going to have a little blather…about natural beauty, and how art can inspire us on this front.

Some of you may know that I have another blog. It’s called Dial the Lobster, and it’s about art, life, and philosophical musings. Before I became a teacher I was an art historian, with a PhD and everything (!). I didn’t love it too much, but I do love art, and I still love to write about it.

For women, art can be especially useful. It’s a wonderful antidote to all of those awful air-brushed images of perfect beauty that appear in magazines, not to mention the gorgeously made-up ladies that grace our TV screens. Great artists have a way of capturing a woman’s inner beauty that photography (IMHO) struggles to do – even really good photography. And whilst it’s true that the history of art is generally also a history of the male gaze, I feel that the selection I’m presenting today depicts women in a truthful, sensitive light, compared to many contemporary, ‘promotional’ images (and isn’t that half the problem? That so many images of women today are promotional, be they on instagram feeds, or billboards?) So I’m taking a break from product reviews (because I also want this blog to be a support system for women in a more general way) to present to you a few paintings of women who are beautiful in ways which have nothing to do with their ‘outer’ beauty and everything to do with character, strength, grace, vulnerability…in essence, their humanity. If you like this post, let me know…I’m happy to do more like it!

self portrait with monkey

Frida Kahlo “Self-Portrait with Monkey.” I love the bold, almost arrogant gaze Frida projects in the painting. And the monkey suggests a touch of mischief as well.

seated woman with bent knee

Egon Schiele “Seated Woman With Bent Knee.” The title says it all: this isn’t a woman to be ‘adored’ or objectified; this is simply a ‘seated woman’ in control of her own image. I love the contrast of the boldness of her opened legs with her slightly protective, hunched over posture. It captures so well the confusion all women have regarding how we wish to be viewed.

sargent

John Singer Sargent “Ena and Betty: Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer.” I love the way Sargent captures the haughty elegance of these sisters, and the differences in their personalities. The lady in white seems more extroverted and self-assured than her sister in red, but they both exude quiet confidence and elegance.

young woman with a water pitcher

Johannes Vermeer ‘Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.” Vermeer was a master of light and interior space, but here the young woman is clearly the focus of the scene. Vermeer sought to elevate the humble to a spiritual level, and I think he captures perfectly the grace and beauty of this servant’s devotion to duty, offset by her very natural desire to gaze out the window at the world beyond.

pieta

Michelangelo. “Pieta.” Now in the Vatican, this incredible sculpture perfectly captures the sense of loss and grief Mary feels, holding her dead son. Her body verges on the brink of collapse, the body seemingly about to slide from her lap, yet she has the strength to cradle him in her arms for a moment.

picasso

Pablo Picasso I love this portrait of Picasso’s model (and lover), Marie, which is sensual in its curviness, yet also portrays Marie as distant and far away from the artist himself; head tilted to one side, eyes closed, as if locked in a private reverie.

woman in a chemise

Pablo Picasso, “Woman In a Chemise.” A very different image here, yet this ghostly woman’s determined face and the stark lines of her body afford her a kind of ‘strength under fire’ beauty which could be consoling in difficult times.