”Any symptom can force you to go deeper into some area… Many people nowadays who discover that they have a major symptom, whether psychological or physical, begin to study it. They get drawn very deeply into the area of their trouble. They want to know more than their doctor. That’s a curious thing, and not at all the way it used to be. People used to trust their doctor. They went to an expert. Now people have new ideas and are thinking for themselves. That’s a very important change in our collective psychology.“(Hillman, 1998, p. 11)
Much has been written about the multibillion dollar weight loss industry and the paradoxical fact that the voluminous consumer and research dollars spent have not curbed the rise in obesity in the North American population. While more people become overweight and begin dieting increasingly earlier in life, media personnel, health care professionals, and consumers continue to rely on the knowledge of research experts in the fields of eating disorders and obesity for solutions to these conditions (Chemin, 1981; Orbach, 1988; Roth, 1984). The aim of this study is to add greater diversity to the position of research expert in the body of scientific literature on obesity by including the embodied knowledge gained from the lived experiences of 6 middle-class Euro-American women, including the researcher, who are in the process of healing the complexities of obesity for themselves.
It is important to acknowledge early in this investigation an underlying assumption of the researcher, namely that women may live fully, healthfully, and comfortably in a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Use of the term “obesity” is controversial as it may perpetuate the stigmatization of obesity as a personal “problem” in need of a solution that will lead to the person’s physical and sociological redemption. Honeycutt (1999) asserts that use of the term “obesity” reinforces and furthers the hegemonic discourse regarding fatness in academic literature. In support of Honeycutt’s argument, I specifically use the term “obesity” here, not to further cast out a particular group of women based on their physical stature, but rather to point to the need for healing the internalized stigma and oppression this subculture of women carry with this sociologically potent word. This study, and the women in it, are attempting to walk the fine line between sustaining unconditional positive regard for themselves and honoring their own healthy need for change. Within this context, this study supports diversity in body size while also acknowledging the discomfort and frustration of women who feel dissonance between their actual body size and the body size most comfortable and congruent to their life experience and soul needs. Although research that validates women of size as healthy, self-esteemed, productive, and creative individuals is greatly needed, this investigation is not specifically directed toward that endeavor. The aim of this study is to elucidate the experiences of women who are seeking to define for themselves whether or not there is an incongruity between their actual (larger) body size and their “congruent” body size, and who are in the process of healing their relationship with body and weight by exploring the psycho-spiritual dynamics of being obese.
Another term used frequently in this manuscript is “disordered eating.” Generally, disordered eating suggests eating behavior which is unhealthy to the degree that it limits one’s functioning and compromises one’s health. Classically, anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating are classifications of disordered eating. Although not used interchangeably, “healing obesity” and “healing disordered eating” are considered herein to be connected with the rationale that disordered eating is a component of obesity in the population of this study. While not all cases of obesity include disordered eating, and certainly not all cases of disordered eating include obesity, for the subculture studied here this language is appropriate as disordered eating is a prominent aspect of this psycho spiritual perspective on obesity.
The motivation for this research is social change. The vast majority of individuals living with obesity in this country are not benefiting by the money, energy, and attention currently being spent toward developing solutions. Only 3% of those who lose weight will maintain that loss for more than a year (Zerbe, 1993). While the value of traditional medical and psychological research on obesity to explicate the physical and emotional nuances of these conditions is indisputable, research efforts to date are not improving the lives of people who are living unhappily in large bodies. To date, researchers’ efforts at developing viable, accessible long-term weight loss and maintenance solutions for utilization by health care professionals have proven unsuccessful. Exhaustive efforts from the currently revered scientific perspective will continue to provide more precise understanding of physiology and psychology; however, it is doubtful that greater quantities of unembodied knowledge will have much impact on the lives of obese people. Already there is a temptation for frustrated health care practitioners to judge that their scientifically developed tools are lost on “terribly difficult, resistant clients” (Johnston, 1996, p. xiii). Statistics indicate that 95% of those “resistant clients” are women and young girls (Casper 1994; Johnston, 1996; Lopez, 1995).
Given the lack of useful research toward transforming the cultural reality of obesity in women, it is reasonable and important to pursue new strategies and new sources for information about obesity at this time. The motivation of this project is to empower obese women, and to introduce obesity researchers and health care professionals to the knowledge and wisdom of this group which has been typified as empty of significant knowledge with regard to their weight condition.
The crisis of obesity and disordered eating among women provides an opportunity to view the issues from a different perspective – the perspective of the women working with and transforming these issues for themselves. This transpersonal investigation rigorously explores the in-depth stories of 6 women who report that they are in the process of transforming their relationships with their bodies, food, and weight.
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