This magnet attracts the ways in which the women express their epistemology - how they know what they know. Intuitions, emotions, and rational and non-rational ways of knowing are all included. I hold the five definitions of women’s ways of knowing (Belenky et al., 1986) in mind as I work with the data, and I remain open to new, more transpersonal perspectives on knowing. As I sense into the ways women discern what is best for them, I find that as they grow in their confidence of their ability to know, they portray greater degrees of self-trust. The images that come to mind are “the sword” and “emotions in motion.”
I begin these findings with an excerpt from the teaching sessions at our Tahoe retreat. The dialogue speaks to me beautifully of the burden these women carry from their history of dieting. This piece sets a foundation and a point of contrast for all that follows in this section, which explores the co-researchers’ developing epistemologies:
Rose: Well, I’ll say one resonance as I remember it. It’s sort of resonance and it’s sort of a difference. I was really struck by your “you’re thin, you’re fat, you’re thin, you’re fat.” I feel like I had that more when I was young. It was up and down, up and down. The thing that came up was the pain of that for me. For several years now I’ve only gained weight, I haven’t lost weight at all. I feel part of it may be because it’s just so painful to go back and forth and I don’t want to even do that. My psyche doesn’t and that’s when my psyche rebels.
Katrina: It felt better to have fat years in a row than to have a skinny year.Having that total inner dialog, like for me the anxiety of going home to Colorado, and my family seeing me in the fat year after they just last year saw me skinny. In every single skinny year, I’d say, “It’s not going to happen again. I’m not going to gain the weight back.”
Rose: I just want to cry hearing and talking about it because that is so much the pain, the hope, the false hope.
Wild Horse Woman: Right. I didn’t have it so regularly, the up and down. I know one of the things I continually struggle with is not even wanting to start again because of not having the trust built up that it’s going to be any different. I’m facing the failure before even beginning. I can’t get into the excitement of walking or hiking or having a goal. It’s so hard to have the excitement of any of that when the failure is there as well.
Katrina: Plus I think the failure isn’t simply just failure. It’s failure because I’m weak, it’s failure because I, you know, have some kind of defect.
Becky: And the back and forth feels like it reinforces that.
Wild Horse Woman brings up a key point here about not trusting that it’s going to be different and facing the failure before even beginning. She suggests that it is inevitable that she will fail unless... what? She becomes super-human and has perfect eating and exercising? She finally finds the expert with THE right answer? These women are smart. They know enough not to keep banging their heads against the same wall. They hear their emotions saying, pain lies in that direction, false hope. Because they do not want to reinforce the untrue label that says, "lam a failure, weak, defective, ” they do not begin a weight loss program that feels like those of the past. They have a new respect for the wisdom and language of their bodies.
I begin working with this magnet by getting a feel for the pieces in the text that attract to the five ways of knowing defined by Belenky et al (1986): silence, received, subjective, procedural, and constructed I find no clear evidence of “silence ” in the stories, only occasional allusions to not wanting or knowing how to talk about their issues with food when they were in their teens. However, every woman describes the experience of received knowing as part of her history of taking care of her body. They describe knowledge as outside of themselves, to be learned from powerful, knowing, authorities, often deemed experts. A few examples of received knowing follow.
Katrina: When I got into junior high I got a subscription to Seventeen Magazine. That was the end-all/be-all magazine and in that magazine I learned all about eating disorders and all about dieting - even more so. I learned that if I stuck my toothbrush down my throat I could throw up, if I took laxatives I could be skinny. I desperately wanted to learn how to do that so I tried and I tried and I tried.
By the grace of god I could never figure out how to throw up. So I continued to binge and I experimented with laxatives and that was not pleasant at all. By the time I was probably a sophomore/junior in high school my weight progressively got higher and higher. I think my junior year I weighed about 210. At that point I was the largest I had been.
Though tempting, it is important not to judge the ways of knowing as better or worse than each other, as they each have their value in the appropriate context. This example from Katrina reveals that she is committed to learn and to experiment with new behaviors for the sake of achieving her goal. Learning something new brings the hope of positive change even though this example of applying received knowledge produced weight gain, the opposite of the desired outcome.
In the following example Rose describes how she learned from an unnamed source the number of pounds she was supposed to weigh as a young woman.
Rose: I was into a weight range of about 30 pounds. The bottom of my weight range was 140 pounds, which I thought was way too high. I heard somewhere that women are supposed to be 100 pounds up to 5 feet tall, plus 5 pounds for each inch over 5 feet. So I was 5’5” and I knew that I was supposed to weigh 125 and 120 would be even better, but I could never seem to get below 140. If I would get anywhere close to 170 I would panic and start dieting. When I got down to about 140 I would start bingeing. I didn’t talk to anybody about it; I hated talking to people about this whole weight thing.
Eventually Rose learns the value of talking with people about “this whole weight thing. ” Still relying on received knowledge, she is looking for someone to give her an answer, if not THE answer, to help her lose weight.
Rose: In college I got into psychotherapy. I thought maybe the psychiatrist would say something magical in the first couple of sessions that would get me to start losing weight. I knew that I gained and lost weight all the time. I didn’t care if I gained it back later, I just wanted to lose in that moment. I literally had that thought.
In the following passage, Katrina, mocking herself, smiles as she describes her reliance on finding "all” the answers outside herself.
Katrina: I started going to OA in Denver, found a sponsor, tried to work a perfect program because I found all the answers in the twelve-steps.
For each of the women a shift from received knowing comes when they begin to find value in “subjective knowing” which is defined by Belenky et al.(1986) as internal, personal, and based on feeling states and/or intuition. The writings and support groups of Roth (1984), Wardell (1985), and Hirschmann and Munter (1988,1995) strongly influenced the co-researchers. The women began learning to listen to their inner signals of hunger, satiation, and desire to make food choices rather than following an externally prescribed regime. Two particularly potent examples from Katrina and Christy follow.
Katrina: Geneen Roth too created another shift for me as far as viewing this process and eliminating the rules. Now, I kind of view this process as a recipe and the dish is always changing. I can season it differently depending on what I'm in the mood for and it's all worked. Weight Watcher's worked for me when I did it, it worked for me and then I kind of didn't like it anymore so I didn’t have to eat it anymore. Same with OA and same with everything I've ever done. I used to search externally for the answers, for the recipes and that worked beautifully for as long as it worked. Now I really feel that the recipe’s within. The past year and a half have given me the opportunity to connect internally.
Now, I have no rules whatsoever. It seems like I've naturally made healthier choices and what's interesting is even when I was bingeing, in my normal eating I ate fairly healthy. I typically chose fairly healthy food, it was just the compulsive bingeing that burdened me so much. It's hard for me to even - like this really blows me away - I haven't binged since May. Again, what's so amazing is it's been so effortless. I really trust what my body craves and I eat when my body says it's hungry and I always thought that was bullshit that somebody could actually do that. Like, yeah, right, whatever, like your whacked, please. I'm living it, I'm doing it and I’m not even thinking about it.
Katrina exudes excitement and self-confidence in her newly incorporated knowledge. While careful not to judge her past as not useful, she finds greater personal satisfaction and freedom in subjective knowing at this point in her life.
In the following piece, Christy relies on her subjective knowing about her body in a non-weight-related situation even with the potential for the most severe consequences.
Christy: With kidney transplants, like most other big medical things, if you take one medication it has side effects, so you take another medication to deal with the side effects of that, but then there’s a third medication you’ve got to take for the side effects of the second medication. I figured this is a pain in the butt. It is my body, it is my life, and I’m taking control over this. I self-medicated myself off all the medication that one takes for kidney transplant. That is thoroughly unheard of in the medical community. I felt it was right to do in part because I was part of a study that gave me some background information that I had as a little inkling in the back of my mind, and partly because my body felt like it didn’t need the medications. I don’t know how to tell you the difference between that and not complying with what you need to do when you really do need to do it. I don’t know how to tell you how to figure out the difference. But my body didn’t feel like it needed that stuff and I was really pissed at all the side effects that it was giving me so I self-medicated off. I have been off all medication for the kidney transplant for the past nine years. I’m just healthy and I’m fine. It’s very cool.
The confidence and accomplishment in Christy's tone is palpable. This experience of trusting her inner knowing is profound for a woman whose history includes numerous surgeries, where everyone got a say about the "right” course of action for her body except her. Her huge leap of faith in acting on the messages she heard from her body, gave her a new appreciation for that channel of knowledge.
My sense as I worked with the stories was that with regard to food and weight most of the co-researchers were facing the tension of moving to a new way of knowing, “procedural. ” I heard in their reflections a fear, or at least distaste, of returning to received knowing regarding their bodies and weight. However, movement into procedural knowing requires that they evaluate and validate external knowledge claims. Somehow they must find a new level of confidence in their ability to discern the value of both internal and external knowledge in their own experience. The example below from Rose's one-year follow-up illustrates this tension beautifully.
Rose: The whole pregnancy thing is so big. It’s too big to even go into half the time. I get sort of mad at my body sometimes and other times it just feels like the same process. It feels like it’s been a lot about all these experts, you know? I feel like THEY’RE in my body telling me, “Eat more. Eat different. Exercise different. Eat better.” I’m so susceptible to their voices.
Being a large woman and pregnant has turned out to be so much less of a problem than I thought it was gonna be. The books say, “Obesity is a risk factor.” Meanwhile, I haven’t had any significant problems. My blood pressure’s been great. I thought I might have gestational diabetes but I didn’t. It’s all worked out so far.
The really interesting thing has been around weight and food and eating, because my whole life I’ve heard, “Don’t gain weight!” Or, “start losing weight!” I get pregnant and all of a sudden it’s like, “Don’t lose weight.” I never knew that large women don’t gain as much weight in pregnancy. In fact, sometimes they don’t gain any weight. For a lot of the pregnancy, I didn’t gain any weight. I thought I was going to gain 35 pounds because that’s what the books say. I was like, “How am I gonna deal with another 35 pounds?” I didn’t gain 35 pounds at all. I have all these pregnancy books and they ALL say, “When you’re pregnant is not the time to lose weight.” So I’ve been terrified. It’s been the same struggle to listen to my body and trust myself as it was when I was trying not to gain weight. I realized if I kept listening to my body and eating the way I was eating before I got pregnant, I would continue to lose some weight. It stopped there for a little while, but then I started losing a little bit again. It’s been so scary to just trust what my body’s craving. So that has been part of the challenge.
At this tension point Rose is not willing to trade her hard-won ability to rely on her own knowledge for potentially inaccurate or harmful received knowledge. The tension between receiving the opinion of experts and remaining with one's opinion is apparent in the preceding example. As I reflect on this quote from Rose I sense this tension is arising because she is now moving more deeply into procedural knowing regarding how to care for her body.
At this juncture I started to feel that something very important is missing in the five ways of knowing as originally defined by Belenky et al. (1986). Because my focus is so body-based and the Belenky et al. perspective is not, I see this departure as a natural outcome of my specific focus. While I continue to feel their explication of procedural and constructed ways of knowing are extremely valuable categorizations, I keep running up against a subjugation of the subjective classification that demeans the value of the co-researchers ’ knowing process. This will be discussed in greater detail in light of new literature on ways of knowing in the discussion immediately following these results. For now, it feels most useful to create my own classification—“embodied knowing”—which includes procedural and constructed knowing, in particular, with greater reference to and reverence for the body as a tool for the construction of knowledge.
Seemingly influenced (in my classes and at the retreat) by my own story of experimentation, three of the women began their own experimentation in the year between the retreat and our follow-up. At the follow-up meeting they tell of their own active participation in testing out knowledge about “healthful ” eating and movement in their bodies.
Like the co-researchers, I was also effected by our discussions about open- hearted, connected experimentation during the teaching sessions at the retreat. It inspired me to spend more time with the concept of working with the body, which I eventually called "compassionate research. ” I observed my capacity to know with greater complexity grow as I studied connected forms of academic research, such as intuitive inquiry; this encouraged me in my exploration of compassionate inquiry as a model for women to experiment with methods of taking care of their bodies. Below, I begin with a dialogue from the retreat about my own process of compassionate research, (experimenting with different food to see how they feel in my body) and follow it with excerpts from the one-year follow-up stories of Rose, Christy, and Tara.
Becky: It was not the plan and that was totally different. I talk a lot about how I think on the outside doing a fast may look very much like any other diet program. But the experience of it was so different because it was a continual process of making a choice. The choice of acting on my own behalf was to check in with my body. To not go blindly by the method of the fast, but to say, “Is my body liking this? Does this feel good?” And, “What am I learning if it does feel good?” The big piece was experimenting with taking so much food away to be able to check and see if there really is a chemical relationship in this. Have I been blaming myself this whole time for an “emotional problem” that’s partly chemical and biological? I can’t tell you how valuable that is. It was crazy-making the other way, to put it all on the emotional aspect. I certainly don’t think it’s all chemical either. Everything else that we’re talking about feeds into it as well. But for me a piece is chemical. Learning that involved a whole process that again distinguishes my method from yours (Katrina). Like when I’m craving something that’s not what my body generally feels good eating, I really try and figure out why I want it. Is it a nutrient that I need? Can I get another way that isn’t going to have the side effects?Or is it emotional? Or what it is? So it causes me to have to be more precise, which I’m not that crazy about, but for me it’s worked even though it’s been hard.
Katrina: From a research point of view, the fact that each step along the way I have to figure out what works best for me sounds very similar to what you have to do to find out what’s best for you. That whole trial and error, like let’s see.
Becky: Perhaps the reason it seems so different to Wild Horse Woman from your (Katrina) natural knowing about what to eat is because we’re talking about a food structure. Perhaps it has extra juice on it because it’s a diet in the traditional sense and it can be hard to think about a food structure without thinking something is unnatural.
Tara: Well, also because while I can be unconscious in my overeating, my pattern is to be unconscious generally, so that I just go unconscious being on a food plan and that’s why it’s so crazy-making. What I hear is there’s a way to be conscious on a food plan.
Becky: That’s an important distinction.
Rose shares her own process of experimenting with food choices to see how they feel in her body:
Rose: I was really ready at that point to start trying to experiment with food and stuff that I was learning in Becky’s classes about researching. What happens if I follow this book’s idea of nutrition and what happens if I go this other way? So I read three or four books including Your Body Knows Best, by Anne Gittleman (1997). I also looked at the blood type stuff. It was extremely confusing because it all contradicted each other about what I was supposed to do. But in a way, that was great, because it made me have to try and not just rely on the book. Because I always wanted just the answer, you know? [everyone laughs]. Everybody laughs because no one else just wanted the answer [everyone laughs with her].
Looking at the Tahoe video last night, I talked a lot about how I was feeling so stuck. I never knew which direction to go, like what to do next. Over the course of all the years of dieting and trying to change my body size, trying to heal my relationship with my body, and basically trying to get free, I just got more and more worn down. I was feeling like none of them were gonna work. So, why try any of them, and why care?
I feel different than that right now, which is amazing. I feel that a lot of it has been from having the opportunity to try things and see what’s true for me. For example, in the blood type thing, it said that I’m supposed to be sort of a vegetarian because of my blood type. So I checked that out and I was starving. Over the course of a couple days, I was eating every kind of protein I could think of that wasn’t meat, and I just couldn’t get satisfied. Finally, I opened a can of tuna fish and I ate it, and I relaxed. It was like okay, well this is information. This is like very clear, direct information about what’s true for me. It’s not gonna work for me to be a vegetarian.
So I did a lot of that for several months. I kind of went from here to there and everything between. I noticed that I lost a little weight, which is not something that happened for a long, long, time before that. I’m talking 10 pounds or something. And it wasn’t with this feeling like I know the next minute it’s gonna all be back plus.
I was also experimenting with what happens if I weigh myself regularly. I noticed that after losing those few pounds, I stopped losing weight, and I was like, "Oh okay, well what’s not working?” Then I found out I was pregnant. It’s like, “Oh! That’s what’s going on!” My body doesn’t want to lose weight anymore. So that was a very frustrating moment for me. Last year when we were together, I was trying to get pregnant. I was in the process. I wanted it all my whole life, and here I was, starting to lose weight and what do you know, I get pregnant. I’m like “Damn! God, let’s talk about that.” I said, “Well, here you go!”
In the following piece Christy details her embodied experience of experimenting with foods and vitamins based on the feedback from a psychic nutritionist.
Christy: Another important aspect has been that I met up with a psychic nutritionist. She is a wonderful person, and her magnificent work has allowed me to hear and experience my body from a whole different perspective. For instance, she talks about how much calcium does your body need, does your body metabolize calcium, how much potassium, all those kinds of questions using a pendulum. It hadn’t even occurred to me to listen to my body from my body’s point of view. “Uh, excuse me? It’s like duh.” I’ve tried all these psychological things, emotional things, and spiritual things to get in touch with my body all of which have been very helpful. And there are some practical things that need to happen.
I found out that I’m to allergic to caffeine, sugar, potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant - a whole bunch of stuff - chocolate, ooohhhhh [everyone laughs with her]. I’m learning how to be in a body and make choices. Before I didn’t think about choices, I just chugged the food down. There was a compulsion to it.
I don’t have any craving. It is very nice to be able to see a piece of chocolate and say yes or no to it without the physical or psychological craving. It’s fascinating. I will occasionally get a thought that says, “You really want that.” And it’s a thought, it’s not a body craving, it’s not a physical thing, it’s not even a psychological thing. It’s sort of like leftover thoughts from when I was a teenager or something. “You really want those M&Ms,” I don’t think so. It’s a fascinating experience talking back to my body and experiencing my body from that level.
I’m taking lots of vitamins. I was so completely out of balance that she said we needed to stabilize with the vitamins and minerals first and then work with the rest of whatever else is happening with me. I’m really excited and I love her perspective of, “Your body has its own particular weight that it wants to be and it will be whatever it will be in any given time.” The idea is not to lose weight, it’s to get your body healthy and let it find its own particular weight in its own time.
I really like that and I’ve lost about 25 pounds since May. Unlike the fasting it feels like this is the kind of weight that may stay off because it’s lost over a period of time. I’m certainly hoping that’s true, but again, we’ll find out.
More important I like getting in touch with my body from a chemical point of view. I’m asking, “What foods does my body want?” I’m listening to my body’s response to different foods and I’ve never done that before. I said, “I want chocolate” and because I had a compulsion for it that’s what I gave my body. I didn’t listen to whether my body liked it or not. Surprisingly all those things that I thought were year-long colds were actually food allergies. Now I don’t display those symptoms much unless I eat something that I know that I really shouldn’t. Even in those cases I’ve noticed the symptoms are less if I talk to my body before hand and say, “I know you’re allergic to this but it’s been so long since I’ve had a burrito. I’d really appreciate it if you could handle it really well.” If I talk to my body and be honest with her, she doesn’t seem to be as blatant about the consequences like, “Okay I’m going to give you all those tears and you’re going to feel really upset, etc.” I’m creating that kind of a relationship with my body, and that’s very new for me.
Below Tara describes her process of experimenting with food choices by energetically assessing them—referred to here as “dousing ”—to ascertain their goodness of fit for her body.
Tara: In January, the psychic woman I used to work with, came back into my life and told me that Spirit, her guides, told her to work with me. She does not work with other people anymore, but her guides told her specifically to work with me. So we sat down and she said, “I’m supposed to work with you, now what do you want me to do?” I said, “Well I think what I want is to know about this physical stuff. God wants me here for a reason, so what’s this physical trip? Don’t tell me about it, what do I do about it?” She said, “Well you need to walk an hour a day and you need to douse to choose what foods to eat - it’s pendulum work.”
Dousing doesn’t work for everybody but apparently it works for me. I can ask the pendulum to move in the direction that is a “yes,” then I can ask the pendulum to move in a direction that is a “no,” and it will stop and it will move the other direction. If I’m getting information that is incorrect or if I need more information it will go diagonal. So, I started using that process with a pendulum to douse my food to ask what was appropriate for me to eat.
I don’t have to douse over everything, just when I have a question. My challenging areas are grains. It’s pretty clear I’m allergic to chocolate. I can eat wheat sometimes if it’s sprouted wheat. I don’t have to go into details but when it gets to grains I will douse. I mean this is not like a diet book, I figure the dousing is the meridians of my body, bypassing my brain.
The other thing this woman told me to do was to learn how to close my chakras. All she told me to do was to touch each chakra and say “close, close, close, close, close, close.” I’ve heard other people talking about working to let people in, but in my case it was getting people out. My issue with putting weight on my body has a lot to do with my psychic abilities. I apparently have gifts that I’m not even allowed to touch, because if I cannot keep my energy body intact and protected from beings both incarnate and disincarnate, then it is possible for these entities to have access to my gifts through me - and that could be dangerous to myself and others. This is what I’m told. So I am learning to close my chakras.
I’ve also been learning that I take on other people’s emotions and their diseases. There’s stuff that I’ve contracted to deal with for myself but I am so used to taking on other people’s emotions and diseases that I really think they’re mine too. Well, they’re not. While I’m learning all this, the weight’s coming off my body. I think my top weight was 296 and I’m about 221 now. That’s about 75 pounds. Most of that came off between January and May and then it’s been sort of a plateau in the space between then and now.
It was fascinating to me that both Christy and Tara had discovered helpful information through dousing. This was a method totally unfamiliar to me and I learned so much from their experiences with it that I incorporated into my understanding of “embodied knowing. "Above, Tara also introduces the fact of hiding some of her knowing from herself. While I am sometimes tempted to classify material that speaks to one’s cosmology as meaning-making, I feel it would be a huge disservice to my learning about psychic ways of knowing and subtle energy experiences to exclude them from this conversation.
This line of inquiry led me to thinking about the many incidences the co-researchers describe as closing down their channels of information so they would not have to explicitly know or address what was going on in the environment. Typically the channels discussed are emotions and intuition, both of which come through the body. In the following dialogue Tara, Becky, and Rose relate their diverse experiences with psychic knowing and their mixed feelings about receiving information through that channel.
Tara: So I would say things to people that I would pick up on a psychic level and feel like it was my responsibility to tell them. Some people seek me out for that information and others get mad. So what do I do? How do I know when it is appropriate to say something? I was taught by taking care of my dad that you just say these things and then everything kind of comes together. In my early 30’s I started losing weight and it was then I began working to energetically take him and my family out of my system. I would go into trance and I had to drive them out kicking and screaming. I ended up in the hospital at one point because they were so mad at me. On the surface they were as loving as ever, but on a psychic energy level, I was being attacked and I had to deal with that. Well, where do we go to get information like that? My weight was definitely tied into the energetic relationships going on. It’s beyond therapy to find that stuff out.
Becky: Yeah, that's just not common. Part of what speaks to me so strongly about your story is how you hold the differentness. I think that like Wild Horse Woman described that a number of us might relate to the thing about knowing something that’s going on. But for me, my family did not support it at all. So when I had a little test of my psychic ability, my result came out so low that it was significantly pointing to something outside what is expected. I think it’s possible that I hide it from myself. Part of that hiding has been with food because I don’t want to know. Because putting it out there means annihilation or abandonment or rejection.
Tara: Is this in the present tense or is this past?
Becky: I think I’m learning but I feel very far away from what I think is available. In the past it was even more hidden.
Rose: It seems to me that psychic abilities for some of us, for me anyway, went underground to being conscious of everybody all the time, so that we could know how to behave, so that we could know how to be safe. So they were there for me but in a different way. I don’t feel real psychic but I feel pretty intuitive. To me it’s a continuum.
The preceding conversation points to an intentional, albeit, at times unconscious, blocking or not knowing what to do with deeply intuitive or psychic knowing. While the stories reveal that all the co-researchers now rely on their emotions for critical information, they often covered powerful emotions with their emphasis on food and/or controlling their body size. A number of examples of this can be found in the Motivation to Act findings in the previous section.
In addition to the emotional channel, embodied knowing requires the reclaiming of channels of knowing through the body that are not simply subjective and internal. It could be argued that psychic and/or deeply intuitive knowing are more about receiving information from outside oneself through the body. Wild Horse Woman speaks to the intelligence of the body:
Wild Horse Woman: Every little cell in my body has this intelligence, it knows exactly how it should be. It’s not my mind running away with what I should be but my whole psyche knows and expresses what’s going to help me be safe and move forward.
In the following excerpt, Christy shares an example of dismissing received knowing and embracing embodied knowing regarding her self-determined right-body- size. In other places in her story she speaks to the need for a body size that will support her sacred work This implies incorporating her relationship with the divine in the process of discerning her right body size.
Christy: After the fast I weighed about 130 pounds. It was too small for me. I think I passed a place during the fast where I said, “That feels more like my right weight.” They wanted me to go lower, so I went lower because it was their program. What did I know at the moment about what’s low and what isn’t? I never started out with a normal body so I didn’t have a clue what “normal” felt like. So having been that low I know that that’s too low for me. I’m not hanging my hat on that number or any number. What I’m doing is saying I feel like I can’t move as well or as gracefully as I want to right now. So I need to let go of some weight. But even then it’s not about, “Okay I’m going to let go of weight,” it’s more like, “I’m going to be in this body and let her find the right foods and the right way of being instead of trying to force myself into some other configuration.”
This passage reveals a kind of spaciousness, in not knowing and not having a definitive answer, that reveals her maturity. I see the same spaciousness applied to her process of knowing herself sexually in the following example. The contextual nature of Christy’s exploration reminds me of Belenky et al. 's (1986) constructed knowing. There is a relaxed and compassionate quality to her inquiry as she makes room for things to become known.
Tara [to Christy, reflecting on her Tahoe story]: You described your weight as, “A container for not quite knowing how to deal with my sexuality, sexuality is much more than genital.” You talked about having to reinterpret what sexuality means because so much of what is sexual or sensual in this culture is not resonant for you. The sexual path for you is one you need to form on your own because you couldn’t count on what the culture was coming up with.
Christy: Yeah. I had an opportunity to meet with a polyamorous group. I came in on a night in which the discussion was about what does your polyamorous perspective look like when you join your spirituality with it? It was the perfect setting for me to go in on and it gave me the opportunity to hear other people’s descriptions, definitions, perspectives. And I realized that wasn’t where I belong or at least not now. But it was helpful to hear that. That class was a wonderful opening up of just simply being able to talk sexuality. So I’m trying to figure out how the heck do I put all of this together for myself, and then say gee it would nice to meet up with some folks who could at least join me on the path of asking questions. Not even having the same answers but at least asking the questions. Because I’m fine with not having the answers - I just want to be in a place where I can ask the questions. I think that’s why the poly group was so fine for that evening because it gave me an opportunity to join a group of people who were asking questions that a good chunk of the society doesn’t even bother asking. I like being around people who are attempting to be conscious about their sexuality and being in the not knowing phase.
Rose has also found herself in the “not knowing ” place as she experiences her first pregnancy. In the following excerpt she illustrates that “compassionate research ” is a tool she is inclined to use with body-related concerns other than weight.
Rose: Throughout the pregnancy I’ve been getting to use some of the same researching techniques to figure out how I want to have the baby. Do I want to have the baby at home? In the hospital? What kind of doctor? Midwife? I’ve been reading about embodied childbirth. Like the idea of listening to the body’s rhythms rather than trying to manipulate the whole thing with inductions and drugs and stuff.
I’m planning to have a natural childbirth, but it’s not because I’m so against drugs. The truth is, I don’t know that I am so against them. But it’s more because without all that stuff, it could be a lot more embodied. It could be like listening to the rhythms of the baby in the body, finding the position your body wants to be in for birthing, and that is what appeals to me. Because maybe more than anything I can’t stand a lot of intrusion into my body because of my history of sexual abuse. I want to do everything I can to keep it from feeling inappropriately intrusive.
Throughout the stories, the co-researchers reveal their love of learning. When they describe their growth in discerning how best to care for their bodies, they exude an obvious excitement and confidence in their expressions. The growth of their embodied knowing heals their wounded self-trust. They can relax into themselves more deeply. The following passages from Katrina and Tara speak to these aspects of the process. First Katrina describes her passion for learning. Then, reflecting on her process of listening to her body for knowledge about how to eat, she addresses the trust she's developed along the way.
Katrina: I had really started to learn more about nutrition. I started to realize that bingeing, purging, and dieting wasn't really working for me. I had read enough that I figured out that I had some issues around compulsive eating. When I went back to school at the community college I took a psychology class. My semester project was to do a term paper and I chose to write about eating disorders. It was the first time I had ever read anything by Geneen Roth. I knew that there was anorexia and bulimia but I didn't know there was an eating disorder called compulsive overeating. That was like the first bit of exposure I had. I was like a sponge. I couldn't learn enough about it. I couldn't get enough. I've never experienced so much shift in my body, so much change without trying, without doing anything consciously. So I'll close I think by just saying how deeply I trust this process and how rich this experience has been. I feel that I've come to a point in my life where I have a much greater appreciation for my history. I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.
The following pieces are from Tara’s story at the one-year follow-up. They effectively capture her commitment to learning and her development of self-trust as she becomes more intimately familiar with and confident in her construction and use of knowledge. There is also a spaciousness in the final excerpt that, once again, hints at the critical impact of embodying aspects of the sacred feminine.
Tara: I’ve learned that there are things I know about children and humans that I can not expect other people to know. I just know these things. I have a lot of rage about the pain that we cause each other as humans and I’m just paying attention. What happens to me when I drive by road kill? What happens to me when I see the sun coming down a certain way? What’s going on inside of me? What’s happening when I want to go eat something?
I’ve been given energy exercises to do and the toughest thing that I’m supposed to be practicing every day is automatic writing. It is to help me develop confidence in and familiarity with my psychic abilities.
I’m trying to make sense of what’s been going on with me and it’s basically been this simple thing of learning to trust more, learning to channel, learning to listen to who I truly am.
Sometimes I get really frightened or my body gets really frightened, and I have to stop and breathe. I am feeling calm and relaxed now but I had to work for it. See, I’m knowing more now how to do that and that’s the trick.
This Learning and Knowing magnet needed to follow the Wisdom of Space and Love as Power magnets, because a woman’s connection with her body through the Feminine and a shift in a woman’s power principle dramatically impact her reverence for certain kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing.
In the search for improvements in obesity treatment, Schwartz and Brownell (1995) ask, “Do people learn from each program in an additive manner, or do repeated relapses discourage clients and make weight loss more difficult?” (p. 152). Based on this research, the answer to their question is yes. It is not an either/or proposition. The question assumes that useful learning will occur naturally, without specific encouragement of women to trust their knowing. Such an assumption is misplaced; repeated relapse, common to nearly 100% of people who attempt to lose weight (Zerbe, 1993), undermines a woman’s belief in her ability to care for her body (Hirschmann & Munter, 1995; Roese: 1996).
Obesity researchers and physicians are in powerful roles as purveyors of knowledge. Brink and Ferguson (1998) found strong evidence in their study to suggest that healthcare professionals’ comments and opinions with regard to weight and weight loss affect peoples lives. The question is, does it effect them for the better in all cases? Based on the stories of these women, I believe the underlying mechanistic philosophy of medical science greatly undermines the healing of obesity culturally and individually, in part because it infuses obesity “experts” with the responsibility of solving the “problem.”
There are many examples of research that gives researchers and/or healthcare professionals control of people’s process of healing obesity. An example comes from Stroe (1995): “As professionals learn to predict and control who will succeed and who will not with a particular approach they will be able to match the individual with the correct treatment” (p. 35). This stance, also employed by Schwartz and Brownell (1995) in their study of obesity experts (reviewed in Chapter 2), instills a lack of trust in the ability of patients to learn enough to direct their healing process. I believe such inner direction is essential for people to take responsibility for their healing. This means not being able to rely on others to “fix” us. With greater personal responsibility will likely come greater discomfort and a greater opportunity for growth, than if someone handed us a pill or THE answer. This notion of expert power to heal perpetuates the problem of women not trusting themselves to grow as knowers.
An alternative, growth-oriented, view from Maslow (1968) offers a refreshing perspective on trust which, I argue, should be incorporated into obesity treatment: “Not allowing people to go through their pain and protecting them from it, may turn out to be a kind of over-protection, which in turn implies a certain lack of respect for the integrity and intrinsic nature and the future development of the individual” (p. 8).
The findings of this study suggest that women are greatly discouraged and emotionally harmed by repeated relapse. They also attribute repeated relapse to relying on expert or received information. Part of their healing included reclaiming their authority and their expertise through subjective, body-positive learning processes. This finding supports research by Casper (1994). As the co-researchers make space for the value of their experiences, they began to see themselves as knowers instead of failures. This continues to inspire them to withstand the tension between their discouragement and their desire for growthful change. Seeing themselves as the “expert” on their relationship with body fuels their passion for learning how best to care for their health and well-being.
Obesity researchers such as Schwartz and Brownell (1995) will hopefully consider adopting a more trusting and respectful stance, and be encouraged by this research to use their influence as and with obesity experts to support women in their knowing. Relevant suggestions for researchers and healthcare providers are included in the Practice section of Chapter 5: Discussion.
Women’s ways of knowing
Rather than teaching girls and women to enjoy and take care of their female form, our body-controlling culture tends to teach girls and women “to hate and harm themselves” (Goodman, 1999, p. A29). Countering the culture’s body-care instructions to women and girls requires a better understanding about female construction of knowledge.
Women’s ways of knowing, as defined by Belenky et al. (1986) and expanded upon by various contributors in Knowledge, Difference and Power (Goldberger et al., 1996), still stand as formidable and pioneering work in this area. They have been useful tools in this data analysis. Casper (1994) also drew upon the Belenky et al. (1986) research in her study on women’s lived experience of weight loss treatment. This study confirms the findings of Casper (1994), in the following ways. The co-researchers in this study described experiencing healing by changing their beliefs about dieting and becoming their own internal authority. Additionally, they began using procedural knowledge and new paradigms of thought for building their self-rooted understanding. Finally, some of the women in this study constructed new knowledge by integrating their intuition with knowledge from others, while at the same time maintaining a stable sense of self.
The recurring subjective rootedness I observed in these stories indicates learning well beyond the subjective knowing position originally defined by Belenky et al. (1986). This open and subjective stance appears in the Casper (1994) findings as well. It is also discussed with respect to embodying knowledge by Debold, Tolman, and Mikel Brown (1996) as an issue in need of further elucidation. Part of the problem lies in defining the developmental structure as linear. Belenky et al. (1986) themselves acknowledge the risk of outlining women’s knowing process as a sequential process. This linear perspective appears to be inaccurate in this study as the women’s various ways of knowing appear to be developing more circularly and, in various areas of the women’s lives, simultaneously. Most importantly, the sequential ordering subjugates subjective rootedness to a position that is less potent than I experience it to be in the data. While I agree there is a subjective way of knowing that excludes outside information, I also feel there is strong body-based subjective grounding in both procedural and constructed ways of knowing. Debold et al. (1996), go further, arguing that body-based subjectivity is critical to healing the mind body split in girls and women.
After working with the magnets a while, I discovered Maslow’s (1968) definition of growth, which addressed my concerns about both Belenky et al.’s (1986) framing of subjectivity and their exclusion of spiritual aspects of knowing. Based on his self actualization theory, which suggests a connection between spirituality and growth, Maslow (1968) includes the subjective foundation of knowing in his definition of growth:
Growth takes place when the next step forward is subjectively more delightful, more joyous and more intrinsically satisfying than the previous gratification with which we have become familiar, even bored ... the only way we can ever know what is right for us is that it feels better subjectively than any alternative. The new experience validates itself rather than by any outside criterion. It is self-justifying, self-validating, (p. 45)
With support from Maslow’s (1968) transpersonal view, I followed my desire to step away from the Belenky et al. (1986) definitions and offer the concept of “embodied knowing” - a more body-central, self-rooted, spiritually-based way of knowing.
Many examples from the data, which might traditionally be categorized as subjective knowing, felt misplaced to me. My experience suggests there is a way of knowing rooted in the body that includes the complexity of constructed knowing while incorporating access to spiritual or mystical knowledge. I experienced great complexity in the embodied knowing processes revealed by the co-researchers. It is important both to women and to the fields of transpersonal psychology and obesity treatment to further explore embodied knowing.
Ettling’s (1994) transpersonal perspective on the body, knowing, and spirituality offers an informed starting place for this discussion.
With a sense of embodiment, there is an increased recognition and acceptance of one’s body. One takes more and more into account how one’s body feels, functions, responds, and communicates interiorly within the context of experience. The body is less and less dismissed or disregarded as an unreliable source of information. Viewing one’s body as a reliable source of important information, particularly with regard to one’s spiritual journey, is not common. The most common instances of references of the body’s contribution to human spirituality occur in relation to mystical experiences in most traditions, (p. 36)
According to De Quincey (2000), mystical knowing is thought to include and integrate all other ways of knowing. It is also commonly thought to include outside information that is derived through the senses or cognition, including material learned in an extrasensory way or by uncovering existing information ordinarily buried deep within our nature (De Quincey, 2000; Tart, 1992).
This notion of spiritual or mystical knowing, which I include in embodied knowing, adds to the complexity of healing one’s relationship with body, by adding new channels of access to information and requiring learning the language of the new channel of information. While it was more common for women to discuss the language of their bodies through feelings, Tara gave us an example of learning the intricacies and language of her psychic way of knowing.
Based on my experience with the co-researchers, emotions are also a significant channel to access spiritual information. This is affirmed by Tart (1992), who states, “Spiritual psychologies see emotions as a key tool for understanding certain kinds of truths, and so eliminating them makes certain kinds of knowledge impossible” (Tart, 1992, p.97). The co-researchers talked about using food to manage, numb, or cover their emotions. Accessing emotions are a key to one’s knowing: They represent energy in the body that brings information to the knower; and, by shutting the process down with food, the women in effect were shutting down their own ability to know. Good reasons were given for using food this way, including for survival and to lessen intolerable pain. In the healing process, women learn to re-connect with their bodies, including and sometimes beginning with their emotions. They also leam to know their hunger, satiation, specific food and movement needs. Beyond that they develop their intuition and other spiritual ways of knowing.
Literature on women’s spirituality and fictional stories of women’s spiritual journeys posit the body as the site of spiritual knowledge. The findings of this study support assertions by researchers in feminist spirituality, who suggest that an embodied way of knowing is a powerful and generative spiritual force (Bauer, 1996; Christ, 1997).
As I reflect on these findings I now see embodied knowing as having the following qualities in relation to the co-researcher’s stories. Having integrated so many of the values of the Wisdom of Space in their journeys, the co-researchers now revere the ability to gestate their individual embodied knowledge in their own time. They know from experience that, unlike a diet or exercise regimen where the knowledge is only as useful as long as one is able to employ the artificial environment required for successful implementation, embodied knowledge stays with them. Embodied knowing makes space for what is not known and provides openings to a woman’s authentic truth. She is open to hear her true hunger. Rooted in the sacred feminine, embodied knowing provides a supportive foundation for the tensions associated with these women’s commitment to lifelong learning. While a visceral epistemology, such as embodied knowing, extends to every aspect of women’s self-knowledge, I see issues with body, food, and weight as a particularly poignant invitation and transformative exploration.
Right body size
I use the term “right body size” or “self-determined right body size” throughout this manuscript to indicate a woman’s natural or authentic expression of body stature. This term invites a woman to discern for herself the body size most congruent with her full knowing of herself as a woman. The fullness of this knowing includes her spiritual understanding of her soulful natural expression. The co-researchers each describe different qualities of natural expression that are important to them. It is often easier to think of soulful expression through qualities other than body. However, within the obvious limits of genetics and physiology, which are assumed to be incorporated in a woman’s full knowing of herself, I believe addressing the question of body size—from the deepest perspective we are in contact with—is appropriate.
For many years I’ve used the word “congruent” to discuss body size and body choices that match my sense of my own natural expression. While some women in the research may have picked up this term from me, others began using it on their own. Like embodiment, the word “congruent” came to have shared meaning and potency among us. In light of this, it was interesting to discover Tart’s (1992) use of the term “congruent” in his definition of knowledge. He suggests knowledge is “an immediately given experiential feeling of congruence between two kinds of experiences, a feeling of matching” (p. 20). His definition inspired me to reflect on our attraction to the word “congruence.” It occurred to me that the term “right body size” invites a woman to hold together her experiential feeling of her current body size and her experiential sense of her authentic natural expression to assess for matching. I believe our group’s collective adoption of the term “congruence” is evidence of our process of embodying knowledge.
Access to my feeling states was critical to my own assessment of a need for change in body size. My experiential feeling of my natural expression became clear to me through a painful longing to move more freely in the world. While at first this insight had a mostly physical emphasis, I realize with hindsight that it was also symbolic of my longing to experience greater freedom of self-expression in the world through my relationships and my work. The co-researchers indicate they have also noticed that their longing to accurately be themselves in the world helps them identify a soulful expression of body and creativity.
Information about right body size is not meant to be used as a justification for forcing oneself into yet another pre-constructed configuration. Rather it can support the question, “Do I need to make a change here?” If an affirmative response is discerned it can lead a woman to new questions and new information about taking good care of her body. The question may also lead her to explore new foods, ways of moving, and philosophies - what I’ve called embodied experimentation or compassionate research.
Embodied experimentation and self-trust
In this discussion of experimentation and self-trust, I will first conceptualize the knowing process of the women in this study through the lens of the inner marriage (introduced in the previous section, Wisdom of Space and discussed in greater detail in Meaning Making). The co-researchers have come to trust the spaciousness and openness they found in the Wisdom of Space. This helped them heal their dieting self-abuse at the hands of their own internalized, twisted masculine principles. The embodiment of the feminine catalyzed a shift in the women’s own power principle, from domination to dominion. There is a safety in power that is rooted in love and self-care that gave the women new courage to test their ability to implement outside information and structure in a new way. They now have the potential to embody masculine virtues of order, action, and structure in service of their sacred feminine values and their bodies. While this is not a constant and static transformation, the overall appearance of their stories reveal incidents of healthy relationship between their feminine and masculine aspects. There is a movement toward balance and greater harmony-the inner marriage-as described by Woodman and Mellick (1998) and Johnston (1996).
The women show their excitement as they discuss their “compassionate research” - the process of researching and experimentation with foods and movement from a place of compassionate curiosity, open inquiry, and exploration. While the experimentation may also appear as a back and forth process of shifting weight and changing patterns of eating and moving, the interpretation is very different. There is no failure in the process, just learning what is and is not a good fit for their unique bodies. This support’s Roese’s (1996) findings that women revealed growth in their relationship with body through a non-linear back and forth process of testing, evaluating and re-evaluating. The women themselves are the head researchers and, utilizing both objective and subjective knowledge, each one develops trust in herself and her ability to know and apply what she knows to her health and well-being.
Like Christ (1997), the women enlist their thinking function to test their various channels of knowledge for accuracy. As in the Casper (1994) research, where women’s knowing and experimentation was specifically observed regarding body and weight, this study reveals the innate integrity of the embodied process which supports women’s development of self-trust.
The women in this study exhibit a love of learning in spite of the challenges associated with it. Tart (1992) suggests that developing important knowledge demands great effort. I would agree, as the women’s stories describe both the development of essential knowledge and the expenditure of great effort.
The effort of understanding my spiritual nature through the rigors of healing my relationship with body, including embodied experimentation, has been a spiritual discipline for me. The rigor and intensity of the co-researcher’s processes suggest healing their relationship with body involved disciplined inquiry and action on behalf of spiritual knowing. This leads me to describe our processes as a spiritual discipline.
Culturally, the experimentation with food and exercise commonly known as dieting is so guilt- and failure-laden that, unless it is held as compassionate inquiry and rooted in power as love/self-care, it reinforces the pain of weight cycling and the perceived failure of a woman to take good care of her body. As with other foci of spiritual discipline, part of the learning is actually unlearning or stripping away incorrect information so our more basic spiritual nature may come through (Tart, 1992). These women, in their psycho-spiritual process of healing the relationship with body, have granted themselves the spaciousness to let go of outworn and unhelpful lessons to make room for their essential nature to be known. At this point, information tested in their experiential, emotional, intuitive, psychic, physical, or intellectual ways of knowing builds self-trust. They are learning they can count on their system of knowing to take good care of themselves, including how they care for their bodies.
Modeled after my personal experience of learning in academic women’s circles, this research design models an environment of collaborative knowing as defined by Tarule (1996). Collaborative knowing speaks to the powerful type of learning I’ve experienced in women’s circles. Tarule describes it as proceeding in an environment of “trust, intersubjectivity, and respect which moves the dialogue into a 3rd space” (p. 293). In my frame of reference the movement to a third space addresses the transcendent nature of the healing that happens in women’s circles. In the teaching sessions in this study, the women’s own voices reveal the process and the value of the learning better than my interpretations; we all learned a great deal in our experiences together as a group. Through my embodied memory of our interactions, I know that Tarule’s statement, “Dialogue is making knowledge in conversation” (p. 280), is profoundly true.
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