When Your Body Talks to You, What Is It Saying?
Did you even know that your body talks to you? Well, it does: and as a matter of fact, it never shuts up! It’s not entirely our fault if we’ve lost the ability to hear messages from the body. One thing true of human beings is that once something (an event, a thought, an emotion, or whatever) becomes familiar to us, it slips below our threshold of awareness (via a process called habituation) and we become unable to perceive it with our conscious mind.
Another reason that it’s not entirely our fault if we’re blind to internal messages from the body is that in English “body” and “mind” are two separate words, implying two separate things or concepts. But this linguistic anomaly fails to describe the elegant processes taking place within a human body. A much better way to think about this subject would be to employ the concept of “bodymind,” i.e., the body that is a visible manifestation, an inevitable result, of a group of interacting subliminally held ideas.
The biggest obstacle to reading the bodymind’s messages is that we’ve lost the key to understanding what it’s saying. It’s very much as if the body were speaking highly rhetorical classical Greek, but because we didn’t understand Greek, we took it to be spouting gibberish. Or perhaps it’s better described as an issue of mistranslation.
When it comes to food, the body’s language, like classical Greek, is archaic: our food needs were defined several million years ago, long before the invention of processed food. Therefore, there may be an immense gulf between the food or substance the body is actually requesting and what we in our ignorance select to eat.
Take, for example, the perennial human “sweet tooth,” the bane of a fat person’s existence. The question is logical: why do we even have a sweet tooth if we weren’t meant to be eating Twinkies? Well, from the point of view of the archaic body, it’s hypothesized that our inborn taste for sweetness is intended as a pointer to sources of vitamin C. Millions of years ago—through what may have been an evolutionary hiccup—humans lost the ability to synthesize their own vitamin C. Since vitamin C is vital to stress management in the body, humans had to develop cravings that would lead them to seek out the fruits which were its richest source. Similarly, our inborn taste for salt probably exists because millions of years ago we were largely herbivorous and (like deer) needed salt to balance the overload of potassium our vegetarian diet provided. Now, however, food manufacturers capitalize on these tastes, increasing their profits by giving us too much of “what we want”—more concentrated sources of salt and sugar than we were ever intended to consume—and we suffer accordingly. (Another example of mistranslation between the body and the conscious mind is the body’s habit of “mimicking,”—e.g., the effect of chocolate “mimics” the effect of estrogen in the body, so what a premenstrual woman experiences as a craving for chocolate is actually the body’s expressed wish to restore a previous high level of estrogen.)
Overweight people have an additional reason not to hear the body’s messages accurately: they tend to actively distrust, or even hate, their body and may not be willing to listen attentively to what it has to say. The problem is not the dieter’s lack of factual knowledge about calories, carbohydrate grams, and such, but a basic lack of respect for the body’s inner wisdom. Such people have become so insensitive to their body’s own tempo that they try to run it as if it were a corporation—by means of directives issued from above. This misguided attempt to control the body is particularly common among dieters.
Dieters are usually terrified of the idea of giving up control over themselves; they think of it as the equivalent of letting a mental incompetent hold a responsible job—who knows what disaster would follow? Their rational mind, used to controlling things, cannot comprehend that the irrational things the body seems to be doing (retaining water, for example) are simply the things it must do, given the circumstances. The major source of the difficulty is the failure to understand the body rather than leap to moral judgments about what it “should” be doing.
Diets as we know them are diabolical schemes for keeping overweight people estranged from their bodies. Every month or so a “new” one comes out in a magazine or online. You decide to have a go at it. (This is like seeing a size 4 pair of shoes in a shop window and buying them even though your feet are a size 8.) Following all the instructions, you can’t be bothered to notice what your body is trying to tell you—until it starts talking quite loudly and insistently (you faint, or feel lightheaded, or get terribly grouchy). You go off the diet and blame yourself for your “lack of willpower.” You’re definitely not alone. In his book Energetics, Grant Gwinup wrote, “The average person will stick to [a fad diet] for about three days.”
Dieters: everything your body tells you—as unacceptable as the message may be—makes sense; everything it says has a reason. Ignoring the message, or trying to muffle it or change it, is simply a willful ignoring of the clearest form of reality you have access to. You may not like your overweight body very much, or like what it is saying, but it is being as honest with you as it can be at the moment. Every one of its infirmities speaks of the wish to return to health.
The body is constantly trying to keep itself in the best equilibrium possible; if you constantly make yourself feel anxious and thereby put your body continually out of hormonal balance, it will arrange cravings for you that will redress that imbalance. Strange as it may sound, compulsive eating and other addictions are the body’s misguided attempts to restore health under highly adverse conditions.
But let’s be frank: the body always manages to have the last word. The body carries out innumerable unseen activities just to keep a person in equilibrium. The body is a miracle, performing each day a wide range of extremely complex functions over a range of conditions that would cause other, lesser machines to sputter and die. Each of the body’s crucial mechanisms (breathing, cooling itself, transporting water, and so forth) has at least five “fail-safe” mechanisms or alternate pathways by which the function can be accomplished, which ensures that the body won’t fail even if component parts do. We need to talk about all the fail-safe mechanisms because it is essential that every dieter be impressed with this one fact about the body: it is going to do what it has to do, come hell or high water.
If we’d like to become our body’s ally instead of its adversary, perhaps one place to start would be with Don Gerrard’s words from the admirable little book One Bowl:
“I eat because I am hungry but I also eat to affirm my being, my personality, my sense of life. Naturally then eating is an important emotional experience. My diet concept begins by isolating you from external noise so that you can concentrate on your internal sounds. Then it shows you how to interpret and evaluate these sounds for the important signals they are. I used to eat mostly with my head, paying attention to my ideas and memories of food and to its taste, but ignoring the food once it was swallowed. Now I eat more with my whole body.”
Sounds like an awfully sensible plan to me.
About Nancy Bryan
Nancy Bryan, Ph.D., author of this revised and updated edition of Thin is a State of Mind (first published in 1980 by Harper & Row, and subsequently by CompCare Publications), has spent her entire working life as an editor: in the sixties at The Rand Corporation; in the seventies at an ARPANET research institute; in the eighties at a worldwide employee-benefits consulting firm; and in the nineties for the J. Paul Getty Trust. In addition to Thin is a State of Mind, Bryan has written a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and has ghostwritten a bestselling self-help book. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Self, Family Health, and various museum and computer-science publications. She is currently working on a forthcoming title, Metathinking: Working Knowledge for Women.