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"Meaning Making" Findings and Discussion

rebecca's research May 11, 2000

Definition

This magnet attracted material about how the women interpreted their issues with weight by putting it in a larger context. It answers the question, “How did they make sense of their struggles?” Phrases I held in connection with this magnet are “purpose changes over time,” “myth making,” “belief,” “making sense,” “interpretation,” “puts life in context,” “storying,” and “we’re making it all up anyway so it might as well be useful.” Images associated with the magnet are river, green vines, and eyes. As I hold this magnet in my body I notice a concentration of energy in my forehead.

Findings

As I begin the writing of these results I sense the momentum of meaning making is running out of steam. So many of our stories and discussions about the cultural dynamics effecting our lives have been addressed that I notice there is little left to offer without repeating myself. The focus of these findings is to widen the lens and put our lives in context of a larger cultural and historical story.

In the following dialogue we discuss the power and meaning of the word "fat. ”

Rose: Because we have so much energy around what it means to have fat thighs or whatever, that’s what gives it all the meaning. There’s a possibility of someone saying “you have fat thighs” and have it be just a neutral statement or a positive statement. But I can’t even look at you and say that because the taboo is so strong. I’ve done some work around the yearning for people to just be able to say that to me or me say it to them, to take all that energy off the word.

Tara: Well there’s the piece about, “No one has the right to say any comments about my body.”

Rose: One way or the other.

Wild Horse Woman: I was remembering this little piece that I didn’t say in my story and I’m curious if others related to it. Real succinctly, my mom was a smoker, she smoked all day long. We would hear at school about smoking and cancer and dying - it was the big thing and she would constantly say, “I can’t give up smoking because then I would get fat.” The way I took that on a deep level was she would rather be dead than fat. So my fat has got to be pretty disgusting to her, which it was, though it kept me from competing. She sure didn’t want me thin. I just wonder if anybody relates to any of that.

Rose: Well, I relate to being aware of it in the culture. Some study was asking girls would they rather be “a,” “b,” or “c?” One of which was to be fat, and that was the very worst, was to be fat or to have a fat friend. People are always saying they wish they could be anorexic, and anorexia is so much about dying.

At some point each of us began asking questions beyond, “How many calories should I eat a day? ” Questions of a much greater importance that stretched beyond the personal aspects of the issue but powerfully informed the personal aspects of the issue. Marion Woodman's work was a strong influence in many of the co-researcher’s lives, and particularly for Christy and Becky.

Tara: There’s one other piece I have to ask about which is that you had put Marion Woodsman’s Addiction to Perfection and the Pregnant Virgin on the altar. I wondered if there were any pieces of those and how they affected you that we have not covered and you’d like to share?

Christy: They affected me by being the jumping off points for all my journaling stuff. Marion was probably the first person that I really genuinely resonated with. Because in her I read all about the symbolism and the aspect of the unconscious as it relates to this issue. She was one of the first writers that I read who didn’t see weight as a matter of calories, counting calories kind of stuff, but looked for the deeper stuff. I felt so excited because I knew there was more intuitively and it was just wonderful to read about it. Especially the Pregnant Virgin, the last section where she talks about her own journey to India. I thought yes, this woman really understands what’s going on.

Becky: Does anybody else resonate like that with Woodman’s work?

Rose: Well it’s just brand new for me but it’s working. It’s good.

Becky: I totally resonate with what you [Christy] said about her work. For me, the missing piece was that somebody was finally looking at it as a meaning making thing, that there was meaning in it. Because that was so frustrating to me to feel like there was so much more than what appeared on the surface. Somebody was finally taking it to a deeper level, which spoke to the hunger in me.

Christy: Yes, I absolutely resonate with that because I’ve always made meaning out of my life.

Being cast out, being the outsider, or being the scapegoat were themes in our stories, as Christy points out below.

Christy: Also another thing that occurs to me is “outcasts” - because that seems to be a theme that runs through our stories. I know I felt like an outcast in many ways because of the physical stuff, in many ways because of the sexual abuse and the weight. I mean all of that kind of combined. I’ve heard in many stories that we were on the outside and it occurs to me that we’re a collection of outsiders, you know. That for me is where the black Madonna comes in and is a wonderful symbol of all those women especially who’ve been cast out or put to the side or aren’t good enough or need to be fixed or whatever it is that culture says about them. That they don’t fit in.

While very aware of being projected upon by the culture as the preceding excerpt indicates, we must also claim our projections on other groups in the culture. Rose acknowledges her own discrimination against others, including fat people, in the following passage.

Rose: We were talking about being outcasts and I had some of those feelings growing up. I also had the feelings of superiority and judgment of other people. It felt good to hear myself say the other day that I used to think big fat people were disgusting. I also thought that poor people didn’t have it together and people who didn’t do well in school, well, I didn’t pay them much attention. I’ve been thinking about it since marrying Greg because he’s somebody who I’d have written off as not as important as I was. I think I need to bring that shadow side out, for myself, to say it out loud.

Below, we talk about how our stories reflect the cultural story:

Tara: Rose said, “Society encourages us to put it all on our bodies and society encourages us to have it be all about our bodies.” I’ve heard that over and over in every story, the food was there for us to survive which makes sense considering the molest upbringings.

Christy: That's true. There you have the matter without spirit.

Tara: Or even the matter without the healthy mater. We’re looking for the healthy mater in the matter.

Becky: I realized when somebody said it earlier, that it’s like the grotesqueness of materialism comes out through the consuming. To me it’s no accident that all these things are so similar. I wrote down what someone said about it was like an indicator light that points to what’s happening in the culture. The kind of bingeing really that happens in the culture, the emphasis on the consumerism. When what everyone really wants is the mother, the feminine - and the wanting is totally disowned and projected on fat. That word and everything that goes with it. Like it’s over there, it’s on the fat. Whatever the fat is. When it’s really about this other need, this other seeking.

Tara: I was just thinking, like Woodman’s stuff, isn’t just about comforting ourselves with food or wanting the mother, there is a split. The patriarchal masculine encourages a split between spirit and matter. Then because there’s a split, we want the mother and to get it we’re going towards matter of cars and food and sex and addictions.

Christy: We also don’t have any Kali figure. We don’t have a positive feminine that speaks her truth, including the anger and the rage.

Discussion

In her own story of transforming the physical and psycho-spiritual realities of obesity, Salliant (1996) states her purpose for writing about her process for public consumption: “This book represents a pact with the people around me, a way of completing the change as well as integrating it, because we often forget what it means to change your body” (p. 13). The latter part of that phrase has stayed with me the entire duration of this project as I’ve asked myself the question, “What does it mean to change your body?”

The women’s stories and discussions have gone far to illuminate their personal answers to this question. For me, each woman’s story had particular themes that emerged out of the woman’s own meaning making process. Some of their individual themes were: coming out of hiding in mom’s shadow; coming into the body rather than living in matters of the spirit; embodying the feminine in relationship with men; harnessing the courage to let go into the feminine; and the relationship between right livelihood and embodiment. The themes seemed to be very important to the women’s sense of themselves and how they know themselves in relation to others.

“The process of losing weight has cultural meaning far beyond the shrinkage of one’s body” (Honeycutt, 1999, p. 56). As women living in a culture that places a certain meaning on obesity, I also ask, “What does it mean in a collective sense to change, or not change, one’s body?”

Meaning making happens continuously whether we choose intentionally to make meaning in our lives or not. However, consciously choosing to not simply resolve, but to understand the tensions of one’s issues with food and weight can make one’s suffering useful (Schnarch, 1997; Woodman, 1980). Discussions of the meaning of fat, the cultural scapegoating of obesity, and the patriarchal or dominator paradigm of our Western culture are relevant and useful means for investigating the question, “What does it mean to change one’s body?”

As Rose describes above, there is a huge charge and taboo on the word “fat.” Fat says much more to individuals than the physiology of one of the body’s energy systems. The meaning of fat in our culture is fairly well established. Woodman (1980) states, “Fatness, not sex, is a taboo in our culture, and fatness has taken on evil and moral overtones” (p. 104). Manlowe’s (1993) research also speaks forcefully to the mass cultural scapegoating of fat and fat people, particularly fat women in North America.

The reality of the culture’s perspective on fat can be harmful to women who carry the cultural shame within their personal context only. Expanding the context, which often happens progressively—first to family and then to culture—relieves the woman of some of her burden. Expanding the context further to the transpersonal level will encourage her to incorporate spiritual levels of understanding, thus integrating her own life in the context of the greater mystery of life. A study by Goudy (1997) suggests a lack of spiritual health is related to one’s motivation for eating. Goudy (1997) posits that incorporating a spiritual context with this issue may imbue one’s life with the qualities of connectedness, hope, and fulfillment, “the very elements missing in the lives of [some] overweight people” (Goudy, 1997, p. 57). Each progressive level of contextual development can decrease the personal load of projections from the culture a woman carries.

Understanding the function of scapegoating within a culture—both for the culture and the individual or group on which it projects—offers a means for the scapegoated group, such as fat women, to grow themselves and heal the culture in the process. According to Perera (1986):

Most groups retain their shared sense of positive identity by coalescing against an adversary - thrusting out what is felt to be negative - just as most individuals do. But the type of consciousness that permits witnessing this fact is not a characteristic of the primitive group spirit. It must be deliberately fostered. It can only be carried by individuals and unless there is respect for individual perspectives within a group, the gadfly voices crying in the collective wilderness may go undifferentiated, (p. 108)

In our culture, the dominant group has chosen fatness as one of the adversaries to be thrust out and to hold the disowned negative (shadow) aspects of the culture. I believe the primary disavowed aspect projected onto this group is our materialism. We don’t want to see the grossness of our indiscriminate consumption of materials and resources. We are a bingeing materialistic society, which acquires, consumes, and possesses all the matter within our grasp. For the most part we live in denial of the destructiveness of this behavior, upon which our economy is founded, to both our interior sense of integrity and to our planet. Rather than bring consciousness to bear on our addiction to consumerism, we cast the bloated, disgusting behavior of our culture onto fat and fatness, which includes fat people. As a result of this process of scapegoating, the larger group experiences feelings of purity, renewal, and freedom from the negative disowned qualities.

Both the culture and the scapegoated individuals contribute to the perpetuation of scapegoating. Scapegoated individuals and groups identify with the glory, usefulness, and inflation of being the ones chosen to carry the burden. Being needed because one is loathsome, inferior, or hateful offers a kind of perverted affirmation. Healing occurs for both the culture and the scapegoated individuals when a meaningful image, such as the Great Goddess (which contains both light and dark qualities) is brought in to enlarge our understanding. The useful image must be able to contain and maintain the split nature—good and evil—in its own nature. Transformation occurs for individuals through processes that feel like grace, which brings their inner contradictions to consciousness. Women in this process with body learn to claim their part of the dominator/discriminator mentality, their own power to harm, while also acknowledging their authentic goodness. Those who have been through the crucible of healing the scapegoat complex individually, says Perera (1986),

have intimate knowledge of shadow and suffering.... Such perception is hard won. It is what patriarchs of religion shield humankind from knowing when they circumscribe reality and the godhead with the ideals of virtue. Paradoxically, it is also those very virtues, and their companion vices, which create scapegoating and through it the potential development of consciousness and conscience capable of relating to the reality behind what is called virtue and vice. (p. 110)

Carrying the cultural projection of evil, over-consumption, and lack of self-control is both a burden and a potential opportunity. Those who suffer and transform the scapegoat complex within themselves must be strong, disciplined, and devoted in order “to penetrate the paradoxical and painful awareness of the multivalent wholeness of life” (Perera, 1986 p. 111). The women in this study are in a process that includes both the suffering and the healing of the scapegoat complex. The gift of the wisdom they gain in this process of redemption and reclamation has the potential to bring new understanding to the culture. Through their processes of growth these women are building inner strength. They are not learning to just bear the influence of the culture, they are learning to influence the culture. I experience their contribution as much needed wisdom for the healing of our materialistic, dominator culture.

Much has been written about the waning usefulness of our culture’s domination power principle. Christ (1997) describes the ethos of domination as denying or disparaging human embodiment, relationship, and interdependence through controlling women, nature, children, animals, other men, their own bodies, and their feelings and sensations.

Drawing on the work of Sorenson (1998), De Quincey (2000) describes the current power principle as “post-conquest consciousness.” This mental and social frame of reference is based on “dialectical reasoning that intrinsically involves domination or conquest: A thesis is confronted and ‘conquered’ by its antithesis, which in turn is overcome by a new synthesis. By its very nature, then, dialectic, rational, post-conquest consciousness is confrontational.” (p. 44) In contrast to post-conquest consciousness, pre-conquest or liminal consciousness is rooted in feeling or empathy. This mental and social orientation is striving for what feels right for the collective while it seeks to accommodate differences. As DeQuincy explains, “When confronted by reason, it naturally wants to please the other and so invariably yields. Reason strives to conquer, feeling strives to please, and the result: obliteration or suppression of liminal consciousness by reason” (p. 44). De Quincey associates the cultivation of truth with reason, and wisdom with feeling.

Adding to this dialogue from a biological perspective, Shlain (1998) suggests the roots of our dominator culture originate from the birth of the written word and its effects on the development of the human brain. He associates the left side of the brain with a masculine outlook, including thinking, which is linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract. The right side of the brain processes images and encourages a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world, which he describes as the feminine outlook. Shlain posits a relationship between the alphabet and patriarchy, suggesting that the written word contributed to an over-emphasis on left hemispheric values: “Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of image supercedes that of the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish” (p. 7). The current explosion in imagery and iconic information via computers, television, and advance technologies has fostered a shift in mental processing, making it possible for us to see the alphabet’s role in the formation of our dominator culture and the repression of women (Shlain, 1998).

Like Christ (1997), De Quincey (2000), and Shlain (1998), I also see the potential for a rebalancing of our consciousness in the future. The microcosmic stories of the women in this study are beacons of hope for me. If it is possible for individuals among us to begin to shift our own internal dominator mentalities to a more embodied dominion position, perhaps we are capable of doing so as a culture as well. Such transformation would require a balance or harmony of left and right brain, masculine and feminine functions, and complementarity between truth and wisdom. De Quincey suggests it is only when reason is “unplugged from its roots in the deep wisdom of the body” that thinking dominates feeling (p. 46).

The macrocosmic potential of becoming more embodied as a culture is being tested in the daily life experiences of the co-researchers and women like them. As they continue to grow themselves in the wisdom of space, hone their embodied learning and knowing processes, harness their love as power, and bring their voices forth, our culture may be enriched by the heretofore lost wisdom of powerful, beautiful women.

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