Beloved Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a prolific writer and major figure of the mindfulness movement, died this weekend. I’ve followed him loosely for the past ten years or so, and have turned to his books and practices as I have worked out my own philosophy of work, anger, parenting, and of course, mindfulness practice.
One area in which I did not find his work personally useful for me was his approach towards mindful eating, a practice which, in my disordered hands, became just another restrictive diet, one with a spiritual gloss.
However, once I used other tools to heal my relationship with food and my body, I found that Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy, which encourages a focus on finding peace in the present moment, aligned completely with my own anti-diet philosophy.
In Peace is Every Step, he writes
“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear… But that is the most that hope can do for us–to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes a kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here.”Thich Nhat Hanh
The analogy to dieting here is obvious.
As with hope, we use dieting to try to “arrive at peace,” or bring about a future state we can feel safe in. This is because dieting actually serves one purpose: control. We believe that, by dieting—including all its variants, like intermittent fasting, removing entire food groups, “portion control,” “protocols,” etc.—we will be able to control the size, shape and appearance of our bodies.
And by doing that, we believe that we will bring about the thing in our lives that we long for the most. That generally means core needs like:
- love, respect, acceptance
- confidence, esteem, belonging
- security, comfort and peace
In this light, dieting is very, very logical. This is why I don’t shame or blame anyone for dieting. Controlling the world by controlling your body is a foundational premise in our society, and has been since we decided God was dead.
As with the tragedy of hope Thich Nhat Hanh points to, the tragedy of dieting is that, as long as we focus on the thing we want to happen in the future, we completely overlook the present moment, and all that our flawed, imperfect bodies have to offer us here, today, in this very moment.
Dieting itself is the obstacle, rather than the way, to peace. In dieting, freedom is sought where its very opposite is sown.
It is super important to note that controlling your body so that you can control how others see you is not entirely a silly little belief you have in your mind.
It is true that we live in a culture of fatphobia, ageism, racism, ableism and sexism that accords power to those who are thin, young, white, able-bodied and male, and attempts to limit, constrict, objectify and destroy anyone who is not—especially those who may be a threat to the status quo.
So the control you’re trying to exert through your diet absolutely makes sense in this context. You don’t want to gain weight and lose your thin privilege, if you currently have it—losing privilege suuuuuucks! You don’t want to be discriminated against, lose out in the dating market, have people judge you at work, or lessen your chances of getting that gig. In our fucked up society, this feels like and sometimes is a genuine risk. And that makes you want to keep on dieting, no matter how high the cost.
But here is the thing: you never had that much control over that stuff in the first place.
In my case, when I was healing my relationship with my food and my body, I had to spend a LONG time coaching myself around my fears that, if I gained weight, people would think I was incompetent. Because fat = incompetent, right?
But the reality is that I was never in control of what people thought about me in the first place. They were going to make judgements about me whether I was shaped like a swizzle stick or not. There are so many other things to judge me on! Like, I have a weird voice, a laugh once described as “braying,” and I have a polarizing personality—some folks are fans and some people are reaaaallly not.
I had to accept that if I gained weight, certain people would indeed go ahead and judge me. There was absolutely no way of controlling others’ thoughts, no matter my size.
More than that, I also had to understand that the person who would make comments about any weight gain would actually be making a commentary on their own discomfort with their own bodies.
Which brings us back to Thich Nhat Nanh.
Or, in more contemporary parlance:
Now, this does not at all mean that fatphobes deserve some special level of tolerance or compassion. What it does mean is that fatphobia hurts everybody, though it certainly hurts some of us more than others. This is why it’s important for those with thin privilege to consider the ways fatphobia both benefits them and harms them.
The bottom line is that spiritual, emotional, relational abundance lies inside the bitch who decides to stop hoping, stop banking on a future self to bring her what she most needs, and instead decides to live this life now, here, in this wacky-ass body. She divests from the spiritual poverty of dieting—a symptom of a life constricted, constrained, contained by the forces of un-freedom.
The good news is that we can make peace with our bodies without the prior condition of losing weight first. This is where a book like Peace is Every Step can be useful, as can working with a diet recovery coach (like me!). But you don’t actually need a book or a coach or a course. All you need is a willingness to, as the old saying goes, be here now.