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Self Help That Doesn’t Suck #9 – Women, Food and God

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Title: Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth

The Break-Down: In Women, Food and God author Geneen Roth breaks down how our appetites and allowances around food are pretty good indicators for what we believe about what we deserve in life. Roth was a chronic dieter who experienced much madness around food before giving up dieting for good. In this book she outlines the processes of how she was finally able to come to peace around her own food compulsions and inspire thousands of women to do the same.

Why I Loved It: Everytime I read this book, an inner part of me stops holding her breath; I realize I don’t have to live in fear of food or fat, that I can eat in a way that is free from “shoulds” and rules. So much of what we are told about eating is rule based and ignores the often complicated relationship we have with food and our bodies. In reading this book, I come back to inquiry, play and acceptance. How many times have I admonished myself with what I should or shouldn’t have eaten, how many times have I felt shame for the compulsions that surround my intake of food, how many times have I tried to correct my body with food? Too many times to count. And yet, a large part of me truly believed the only way to eat well and be at my optimum best was to subscribe to this inner cacophony of shame. Thanks to this book, I know there is a better way. I read this book years ago and only understood it on  purely intellectual level. Today when I read it, I feel the book and the lessons within.

For You, If…: You are tired of your food compulsions, whatever they may     be. You want to stop dieting and hating your body but don’t know where to start. You often find yourself stuck in shame about your body and food habits. You dig mindfulness concepts. You want to eat with more joy and less guilt.

Woo-Woo Factor: 2 out of 5 patchouli  sticks. If you don’t like spiritual analogies, this book may not do it for you, friend.

Onward,

Hannah

 

Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat #4: A Conversation with Roxane, Stephanie and Becky

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Hello Beautiful People,

I’m back with the Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat series (check out Part One, Two, and Three.)

Today’s post is a conversation with the writing of three women: Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Stephanie Armstrong Covington author of Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat, and Becky W. Thompson’s A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems.

Sometimes when I want to talk about being a black woman who is healing her emotional eating issues, I feel a little like Dave Chapelle in Half Baked. You know that part where his character decides to go to rehab for weed and meets a crazed, coke-addicted Bob Saget:

Bob Saget: Marijuana is not a drug. I used to suck dick for coke.

Rehab patient: I seen him do it!

Bob Saget:  Now that’s an addiction, man. You ever suck some dick for marijuana?

Yeah, sometimes I feel like that. Like with the assortment of ills that black Women face on the daily, I’m gonna make a big deal out of emotional eating and body image?

But, then, I remember that this is not  my highest self talking or even a well-meaning balance toward empathy for other’s pain.

Nah, this voice is a virulent, parroting of patriarchal values which instruct me to rank pain and to always, always situate frivolous “women’s issues” at the very bottom. It is a voice steeped in meanness and denial.

This is not the voice which wants me to heal and be honest.

Eating is something we have to do to live. And for women, it can often become a deeply divisive and harmful act which we use to control our bodies from becoming too much. Food is social and in our country, usually widely available. It is therefore easy to self-abuse with.

Food becomes another mode of employing a steady degree of self-loathing, we eat foods that make us feel ill, we create highly rigid diets that take out all the pleasure of eating, we starve our bodies from what nutrients they actually need.

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In a blog post, Stephanie Armstrong Covington, author of Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat writes,

“…As a child my mother explained my harsh realities, “You’re poor, you’re Black, and you’re a woman. You’ve got three strikes against you so don’t expect life to be easy. But she was wrong. My dark chocolate colored coating protected me from suspicion, judgment and the intervention I desperately needed. When I finally sought out mental health support my family was mortified. I had broken the one sacred covenant. Church was offered up as the only acceptable alternative. I had revealed my deepest secrets to strangers who did not look like me. I had relinquished my role as the strong Black woman archetype. Why couldn’t I suffer in silence? Or have more self-control? There was so much I needed to learn about my relationship with food. Instead of celebration and ceremony it became a weapon I used to shove down my shame and loathing. It took a long time to learn that I could not heal my relationship to food on my own. There was no diet that would work for me…”

Food, for me,  was and sometimes still continues to be, a place where my shame of being too much, where my desire for comfort are the most salient.

Unlike Ms. Covington who mainly grew up in inner city Brooklyn, I was raised in a suburb made up mainly of Mexican and white people in Orange County, CA. My Nigerian parents had no real idea what it meant to grow up in a setting that was not a black majority.

When I think back on my youth: the desire to be a famous catwalk model in Milan, the tiny white girls I was surrounded by, the teasing from black guys in high school about looking African, it’s not difficult to see how my relationship with food became so fraught. I see why I carried so much shame about my deep attachment to sugar, why the binges occurred, and the resultant obsessiveness about diets and workouts.

It was all so damn confusing: Eating was supposed to be fun! All the commercials said so, including the Carl’s Jr. ones with lanky blondes somehow sexily chewing up a hamburger. I wanted to be skinny like Alek Wek. (When I wasn’t wanting to be built like J.Lo.)

At family parties, aunties would pinch my cheeks and with the sharp straightforwardness of the non-Westerner issue a loud, “Hannah, you’re getting FAT.” I was encouraged to eat jollof rice, red stew, fried rice, dodo and if I took a smaller helping an uncle would say I was showing off or trying to be white. You got admonished for being too skinny AND too chubby.

Curtailing my sugar intake felt scary in a way I deep down knew was not normal (sometimes when our junior high school Snack Shack was closed, the one that sold 3 Snickers for 99 cents, I’d get all panicky and almost about to cry…okay, sometimes I actually did.)

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When I decided to seek help like Ms. Covington, I felt stupid, like any minute a trio consisting of Oprah, bell hooks, and Toni Morrisson would revoke my black girl card. And because I did not see Women and girls who looked like me talking about their struggles with eating, because I did not fall cleanly into the standards set forth for bulimia or anorexia, because I felt like I was a burden and “too much” already, because there were Bigger Things To Deal With As a Strong Black Woman, I mostly stayed silent. I kept my constant anxiousness about food to myself.

If no one else gave a shit, what right did I have to?

In an interview at Adios Barbie! Professor Becky W. Thompson offers this,

“…Racism, poverty, homophobia or the stress of acculturation from immigration–those are the disorders. Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating are very orderly, sane responses to those disorders. So that’s why I don’t even use the word “disorder.” I’m shifting the focus away from the notion of eating problems as pathology, and instead labeling forms of discrimination as pathological. I even thought for a while that I should say “eating issues.” But I ended up using the term because eating problems do become problems for women. So why the shroud of silence? Shame makes it especially difficult for women who don’t fit the “profile” to speak up and seek help. For many women, healing from body problems goes hand-in-hand with finding a solid racial, sexual, or personal identity…”

The deeper healing from harmful eating habits in my life is a reckoning with the actual problems: the daily assaults of racism and sexism, the emotional phobic nature of our society, the ways I had truly internalized that I was only important if I had the right kind of body, my deep-seated belief that I was bad, the way sugar offered a steady comfort I could find nowhere else.

Before, I saw myself as the problem: I had too little willpower, I was lazy, weak, the wrong kind of black girl.

Seeing words like those from Professor Thompson removed a thick veil, a veil that thought I was all alone, that I was irredeemable and broken.

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I cannot divorce my eating habits from the issues of YM (an old school teen Magazine) I read like crazy and the MTV I devoured unconsciously as a teen. Or the way I felt unsafe in my body. How high fructose corn syrup made up for the sweetness missing from my actual life (but not really). The pressures to be a good African daughter. The kids at school who would ask pointed painful questions about my skin, hair, and lips. My model dreams. The want to be romantically desired by a certain type of brown or black boy. The vocal judgement from an Auntie about my belly.

Our eating habits do not exist in a vacuum.

“…This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us,” Roxane Gay writes.

This message from Gay is not solely about thinness.

Blanket assumptions are the worst BUT on a whole, black and brown communities usually have an appreciation for “thicker” bodies. Thick does not usually translate to fat but to a thin-waist-big-butt-and-boobs ideal.

I have no issues with the thickness but even this ideal can become associated with the “not taking up space” Gay speaks about.

Basing our self worth on an arbitrary cultural ideal (even if said ideal is “big”) and letting this ideal control our lives is still wanting to be small,  for our lives become firmly attached to seeking external approval (a never ending contest) and disallow space for what actually is.

I long to live a life that isn’t pinched into smallness by the demands and tastes of unconscious men to take up less space in my actual body.

My relationship with food is a perfect barometer of how much I still believe in being small and pleasing.

So….

How do we relearn how to eat with the intent to nurture and not to control? How do we let go of being pleasing and work on being pleased ourselves? What ideas about smallness and scarcity are fueling our relationship with food?

It starts with realizing you are not alone. Like, at all.

You do an inventory of your history. Was there trauma that you encountered that affected your relationship with food? Where you grew up. What messages you learned about eating. Your fears about your body—aesthetic and otherwise. The media you took in. The shame you held or currently hold.

You hold that desire to be small, to fit in, to be pleasing with as much compassion as you can. You are not weak for seeking love or validation the only way you could see fit.

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There is real social and even economic capital in having a “a good body” in our society.

However, we have to look closely at the way eating is stifling our lives. Eating does not have to be a place of anxiety and turmoil. It doesn’t have to be exhausting or scary.

But, you may have to do some digging and some reckoning.

When that old shame of being too much and being the Weak Black Woman creep up on me (and they are stubborn little creepers let me tell you…), I breathe. I know there will be some people in my community who DO believe I am taking myself too seriously, that I am Dave Chapelle trying to get off the weed.

That’s okay. This is my life and what makes me feel more Whole is to shine a light in any area shadowed in shame.

And for me, this is definitely, definitely eating.

Dear one, if you are reading this and suffering or just fed up having a low-level dread of eating, do not be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help. To do all that you can within your means to heal. A wound is crying out for your attention; heed it.

You are not alone.

You are not broken.

You are not solely defined by how you eat.

You can heal.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

 

Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat #3: What Are You Hungry For?

“My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know that hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.”
― Roxane Gay, Hunger

Hello Beautiful People,

Welcome to Part #3 of Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat! For Parts #1 and #2, here ya’ go.

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It’s hard to make good decisions when you are starving.

I know this and yet…

I have a bad habit–I forget to eat. A lot. And sometimes, I just don’t make time to eat. I decide that everything is more important than eating: catching the bus, trying to perfect my cat-eye eyeliner, checking up on Instagram, writing.

And then when my hunger is on a scale of 9-10, when my stomach is groaning in impatient annoyance, I will finally acknowledge my hunger and then I will eat.

But, “eat” isn’t the correct term, devour is more like it.

I am indiscriminate and often attracted to the foods I tell myself I “should” not be eating: sugar and more sugar usually. For years, I’ve been angry at my body’s intense hunger, while doing almost nothing to actively address it.

I ignored the science and the beautiful balancing act of my body and bodies in general (facts like, our bodies are more attracted to those very foods that will give us the biggest boost in energy or calories when it is stressed or overly hungry so reaching for French fries or a Kit Kat is actually our bodies way of being smart).

They tell you that emotional eating can be solved by quick introspection. That you just decide that you’re not really hungry for that cupcake or second helping and so you go for a walk; call a friend. It all sounds so easy-peazy.

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I now believe that we have to take constant deep gazes upon our individual lives and ways of eating. I believe we have to pair the vague advice about eating “right” with the idiosyncrasies of our actual lived experience.

I believe we have to sit–and sit for long periods of time usually–with our specific relationship to hunger.

I started to see some very interesting parallels with how I treat my hunger and how I treat my life. I noticed that I often approach people and situations when I am starving. Nowhere is this more clear than in relationships.

I’d often wait until I was desperate for attention and admiration and adoration before I approached someone. I expected this person to fulfill my ravenous hunger for love and when they couldn’t fulfill the stupendous depth of my desire (no being could), I would grow angry, resentful, intensely sad and searching. I distrusted my hunger for love. I was disgusted by my hunger.

I wished my hunger would just disappear.

They tell us: don’t go grocery shopping when we are hungry because our physical hunger will transmute and sharpen our actual needs. I think we’ve all been there: we go in for toilet paper and toothpaste and leave with 99 cent pink notepads, Oreos, a new sports bra we didn’t need, Captain Crunch, five avocados, a sewing kit and headphones.

We are not always logical, rational beings. We are soft. We desire. We are oftentimes hungry.

This I know:

I need to stop waiting until I am starving to eat.

I need to stop waiting until I am starving to seek love.

I need to become comfortable and present with my hungers as they are.

I need to feed upon the things that will actual feed my hunger, not dull it and then intensify it much later elsewhere.

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Our hunger for adoration, attention, or admiration are not shameful. What they are at their barest are desires for love and belonging and connection. Many of us were starved of these desires at some point in our lives. And then we meet people and buffet lines with our stomachs and hearts on empty.

And instead of getting the love we really want, the food that will sustain us, we are attracted to anything that will do the trick. The chocolate chip cookies. The guy who never has time for us. The Chinese take-out for a third night in a row. The friend who constantly makes us feel on edge and anxious.

It’s hard to make good decisions when you are starving.

But, we do not have to be hungry ghosts forever, waiting on something external to feed us.

Yes, we need other people. Self-care and self-love do not exclude connection and love from others.

Still, we must learn to feed ourselves consistently.

We must learn to recognize our hunger before it becomes acute and overtaking. Feed ourselves when our hunger levels are between 3-4 and not well past 0.

We must learn to see our hunger with accepting eyes and give ourselves what we need so that we approach our food and our friends and our partners from a place of satiety. From a place of enough where they become the exquisite dessert and not the whole damn meal.

Our hunger and the way we handle it can be a spiritual path in itself.

So, are you hungry? Are you starving?

What are you hungry for?

Are you looking for what you truly hunger for in a place that it can be found?

What are the places in your life that are starving for attention and for your gentle holding and care? Where can you make time to feed yourself? It’s okay to take time to learn. And relearn.

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My hope for all of us is that we learn to acknowledge our hunger and treat it with respect. This is not always so simple in a society that demonizes women’s hungers for food and anything beyond the bare minimum AND also expects women to feed everyone else.

“Good Women” don’t feed themselves first. “Good Women” starve.

Le sigh, the patriarchy sucks my friend but all is not lost.

Not everyone in the world, shit, not everyone in our country has the ability to feed themselves on a consistent basis. But, many of us do and for that, I am thankful everyday.

We can honor our hunger.

We do not have to wait until we are starving to feed ourselves.

Onward,

Hannah

Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat #2: An Interview with Jennifer Sterling

Hello Beautiful People,

Welcome to: Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat #2. (For Part One, here ya’ go…)

I’m constantly searching and scrounging around for personal growth stuff, especially in terms of eating. I entered the self-help world mainly through my haphazard, strained relationship with eating and my body.

I wanted a life free from constant body dissatisfaction and eating my feelings through the portal of Cadbury Roasted Almond Chocolate bars.

I found many wellness coaches, eating disorder specialists, health gurus and body positivity warriors. Many of them white women. And while I gained a lot from their level of mastery, I wanted a more culturally nuanced view.

Someone who got why if “eating clean” meant forsaking jollof rice, I was, um, not gonna do it.

Enter Jennifer Sterling. Jennifer is the Holistic Nutritionist and Wellness Coach of my fucking dreams. She’s a former pole dance instructor, went to culinary school, and is well-versed in black girl wellness. Her weekly emails about healing from trauma and learning to nurture ourselves with food instead of numb ourselves, buoy me upwards every time I read them. She doesn’t believe in diets or that health only comes in one size. She is also the founder of the Black Girl Healing Project.

She is amazing and has gracefully agreed to be interviewed here. I hope you enjoy and definitely, definitely check out her site! You won’t regret it.

Jennifer Sterling
Jennifer Sterling

Please tell us all a little about yourself, Jennifer. What are three things we would not know about you just by looking at you (weird, random factoids welcome!)

I am a Holistic Nutritionist, plant-based chef and creative arts therapy candidate. I help women learn to eat intuitively and nourish themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Three things that no one would know about me by just looking at me? I taught pole dancing for about 8 years, I owned an allergen-free baking business for about 6 years, and I play the alto saxophone.

What led you to become a holistic nutritionist?

My interest in nutrition came from a desire to heal myself. When I was in college, I started experiencing recurrent yeast infections, headaches, and fatigue. I saw several doctors, and everyone swore there was nothing wrong with me – my blood work came back normal and it appeared that everything was fine. After a few years of feeling like I was getting nowhere, I decided to take my health into my own hands and do a little research on my own. As I was researching, I discovered that the way I was eating was contributing to my symptoms. I changed the way I was eating and many of my symptoms disappeared – discovering the power of food for myself, made me want to share it with others, especially since it was never mentioned anytime I saw a doctor. I didn’t want other women to have to suffer for as long as I did.

What issues do you find particularly affecting women of color with eating/body image? Are these issues being addressed in your opinion?

The issues I see affecting women of color have more to do with bigger societal issues – the thought that women of color can’t or don’t suffer from eating disorders, and women of color feeling as though they have to look a certain way based on societal norms.

There are some conversations that are happening around these issues – some acknowledgement that anyone can have an eating disorder, no matter what their shape or size. Sometimes, it is assumed that only a thin person can have an eating disorder, and this is not the case.

I think with the anti-diet movement that’s happening now, a lot of body image issues are being addressed – as more practitioners come to understand the dangers of dieting for weight loss, there is more talk about body kindness, self-love and acceptance. I think these conversations and understandings will be helpful for all women.

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What is the one piece of wisdom you would offer to a woman wishing to heal her relationship with food?

Let go of dieting and everything that goes with it – counting calories, weigh-ins, etc. – and focus instead on the needs of your body. There is no one size fits all diet and 95% of people who diet end up gaining the weight back plus some within 5 years – learning to eat in a way that makes you feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally is much more sustainable and supportive of your overall health than eating to control the size of your body.

What mainstream nutritionist advice or guidance do you find problematic, especially in regard to women of color?

That you need to be or have to be vegan to be healthy. I see this a lot on social media, especially on accounts run by women of color. Being vegan is great, if it works for your body – if you feel energized, satisfied, and well when you eat that way long-term. It’s not the only way, however. For some, eating high-quality animal protein is helpful.

In general, I find any nutrition advice that only focuses on one way of eating to be problematic. We’re not all the same, and we don’t all have the same needs when it comes to food and eating.

What is your favorite meal? Dessert?

My favorite meal…that’s a tricky one! I love mac and cheese, pizza, and tacos. What can I say, I’m a nutritionist, but I love comfort food. Who doesn’t!?!

My favorite dessert. Hmmm….sweet potato pie!

And a curiosity of mine: can you give us your inspiration behind your sign-off, “hugs and curves”?

For sure! It was inspired by the years I spent as a pole dancing instructor – so much of that work was about helping women to celebrate and appreciate their curves. That sign-off is meant to be an extension of that work – offering support with a hug and a little encouragement to embrace your curves.

So, please remind us again, where can we find you?

You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @jennmsterling or visit my website: jennifersterling.com for more info about me and my work.

Thank you so much Jennifer!

I hope this interview has helped some of you out there. Eating does not have to be a struggle and I am learning this along with you. I too have succumbed to notions that there is a “right” way to eat and look, but I am happy to say, that this type of thinking is fading away. I truly hope all of us can find the freedom to be our best selves in our bodies, and that we can learn to treat them with grace and love through the way we eat.

Onward,

Hannah

 

Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat #1: A Primer


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MARTIN: But if there is someone who’s listening to our conversation, who is perhaps of color, who does not recognize herself in the narrative–or even himself let’s say–in the narrative that they typically see about eating disorders, what’s your message to them, to him or her?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: You’re not alone. You know, this disease is already isolating. Don’t allow your skin tone to make you feel more isolated. I have met hundreds of black women who are suffering. I get emails daily from people all over the country, so I know that you can get to the other side of this because I got to the other side of this. You deserve a happy life and you can, you know, learn to have your feelings and not use food.

-From an NPR interview with Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat author Stephanie Covington Armstrong

What is your relationship with food ?

Is it an abusive lover? Do you feel equally torn and tortured, pushed and pulled, loved and discarded?

Is it motherly? Is food one of the only reliable ways you can feel hugged from the inside, comforted, protected by life’s blows?

Is food a sworn enemy? A sometimes friend? A sisterly confidante?

I believe that we can use all aspects of our lives to heal, to connect, to get to know ourselves and the world on a deeper level. Most articles and blog posts that exist about food are all about WHAT we SHOULD be eating. We neglect the how, the emotional, the sensual, the spiritual aspects of eating.

And black women and women of color’s diverse relationships with food are widely ignored and cheapened.

The title of this blog series is taken from Stephanie Covington Armstrong’s memoir, Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat: A Story of Bulimia.

Covington dispels the notion that eating disorders are a “white girl problem” only to be discussed at elite private schools and Ivy League campuses. She was born to a single mother and raised working-class.

Girls from the hood struggle with eating.

Black girls from suburbia struggle with eating.

Black women who are fierce and all things #blackgirlmagic struggle with eating.

And you don’t have to be diagnosed or have an eating disorder to examine the way you eat or to feel confused or hurt by the way you eat.

Looking at our relationship with food may seem mundane, myopic, another addition to “first world problems”. Whatever. At this point, I am done denying myself valuable insights all because a culture that doles out superficial judgment on anything that has to do with the bodies of women says it’s pathetic.

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I believe what we can learn from our relationship with food can be life changing, spiritual, a way to full engage and meet ourselves in the present moment every day.

As holiday season rolls around, there is a lot of fear-based promulgations about food. We are encouraged to stuff ourselves and to be zealously terrified of weight gain. We are told to stay away from the cookie table and please our Auntie who spent all day cooking. We are called fat by our uncles and told we are showing off when we let people know about our food allergies.

I don’t want to talk about food that way.

There is a real lack of resources and discussions on food that is geared towards women of color. Most books I’ve read about establishing healthy emotional relationships with food and eating are written by white women. And to be sure, I have found many of these books highly useful and illuminating (like Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God).

Often, when I do find books written by black women concerning food and eating, they are usually about recipes or going vegan or marketing some specific diet. Again, useful information, but I want something that is a bit less prescriptive.

Here is my offering. When I write, I write what I want to read.

And I want to read about a black woman engaging with food from both a spiritual and sensual level.

In this blog series, I’ll be interviewing the amazing holistic nutritionist and founder of the Black Girl Healing Project, Jennifer Sterling.

There will be a Self-Help That Doesn’t Suck on Geneen Roth’s, Women, Food, and God.

There will be a guide to using food as a site for meditation inspired by Abiola Abrams.

There will be a blog “conversation” with Stephanie Covington Armstrong’s Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, Becky Thompson’s A Hunger So Wide and Deep: A Multi-Racial View of Women’s Eating Problems and Roxane Gay’s Hunger.

Through it all, I will be sharing personal pieces of my own history with eating. The highs and the lows. The nasty seventh grade box salads and my long-time affair with Cadbury Eggs.

I am so excited to share.

Not because I am some master on intuitive eating or whatever. I am excited because I hope that these blog posts will bring you some much needed peace and openness around food.

Because I have so much to learn and digest myself around how to eat myself.

Because we deserve to have peaceful relationships with food, eating, and our bodies.

I urge you to gently look at your relationship with food not with an air of judgment, disgust, disappointment or comparison.

You are not a problem to be fixed.

Instead, I ask you to notice. Notice what thoughts arise about what you “should” be eating. How you feel about caloric dense foods. How would you characterize your family and culture’s relationship with food? What does hunger feel like? How about fullness?

Your relationship with food can tell you so much about what you expect from life. What your fears are. What deep seated insecurities are driving you. What you truly need to be happy.

Maybe you have a totally sane and peaceful relationship with food: you eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, don’t overworry about nutrition and “perfect eating”, feel energetic and satiated in your body.

Awesome, awesome.

But maybe you are a classic binger. Maybe you have a “sugar addiction”. Maybe you try a new diet every week. Maybe you feel out of control away from your diet plans or whenever you go to a restaurant. Maybe you fear being fat with an alarm you recognize is not healthy. Maybe you count calories like its your job. Maybe you know that the foods you are eating make you feel sluggish and ill but you  can’t seem to stop eating them anyways.

And maybe you are anorexic or bulimic.

Wherever you are, know that you are not alone.  You are not bad. You are not wrong.

Your relationship with food is a mirror to your life.

Please know also, that this blog series or even reading books about food is NOT a substitute for seeking out help. I am not a mental health professional. If you believe you need extra help around eating and are harming yourself, PLEASE seek out the help of a medical professional.

(The National Eating Disorder Helpline)

I look forward to growing with you here.

Onward,

Hannah

Redefining Sexy

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It kinda all started when Blake Shelton was named Sexiest Man Alive 2017 by the authority of authorities on sexiness, People Magazine.

So me and a friend started talking about what has been universally accepted as sexy these days: What images proliferate in our media. Think pieces on how Beyoncé, Kim K, or Rihanna have “changed” the way women experience their sexuality and sensuality. Does personality count? The ways in which strip club culture has altered the conversation on Sexy.

Lately, I have been paying closer attention to my body in the world. When it expands. When it contracts. When I feel that anxious tightening in my chest or clamping down over my ribcage. When butterflies start. And stop.

During our text conversation, I felt my body constrict, like a dozen thin ropes were wrapped around my mid-section. In the past, I would have ignored this tell-tale signal and blustered forward in intellectual conversation. But, yesterday, I stayed with my body.

I started to think about what I had been told was sexy, the images and attitudes that came into sharper focus once I got to junior high. I thought of Beyoncé in the Baby Boy video. I thought about rappers comments about their love for “honeys with the light eyes” and the current hyper-fascination with big asses. I thought about duck faced selfies and hour-glass silhouettes. I thought about how American-made porn dictates much of what the world is supposed to find sexy.

Sometimes, I think about how I should “already know this”.  Shouldn’t I already have accepted that what I believe doesn’t always jive with what the culture sees as sexy? Haven’t I read enough feminist theory, books about sexuality, blog posts by sensuality coaches? Haven’t I browsed Babeland and She-Bop enough in my lifetime? Shouldn’t I already have an expanded view of sex and sexuality and how I fit into it?

Earlier this week, I read this quote from Bethany Webster:

“Cognitive understanding is very important but it isn’t enough to transform us and create lasting, meaningful change…Concepts are like seeds of transformation, that when dropped into the body can take root and begin to transform us on the deepest levels. When we gobble concepts it is a superficial action. What creates lasting transformation is fully digesting the concepts and allowing them to sink deeply into our bodies, where the alchemy takes place.

Transformation has its own organic timeline that is out of our hands. It cannot be rushed. We cannot control or predict it. This truth can be hard to swallow, especially because our culture sends the message that success is equivalent to control and timely “results”.”

I had been “eating” up the truth about what sexy was for a long time, but the deeper understanding of it was not connected in any real way to my body. So while I was espousing a belief that sexy was more than gyrations and “acceptable” hip-to-waist ratios and long hair, etc. etc., the truth was that deeper in my body, I didn’t really believe it.

The truth is that my views are very much aligned with what the culture has declared as Sexy.

Even now.

This can be traced to living in a culture that devalues women and their experiences. If we are taught that men are superior to women, then it follows that male opinion is more important than what women opine. It is therefore imperative to focus on what men, especially the most powerful men, define as desirable and good and oh-so-sexy. Women must take their cues from their desires and fall in line.

And so, if the idea of Sexy is Kim K and women who look similarly and a handful of Victoria Secret Models and the “hot” yogi or what have you, then this is sexy. End of story.

The rest of us are just there.

I do know that sexuality and sensuality and attraction to who we name as the Sexiest People in our society isn’t a neatly drawn line between women and men. I know that “not all men” find the same women sexy.

However, I also know that there is still a very narrow definition of what constitutes sexy: it is young and immaculate and usually white-or-near-white looking. It is often performative. It is frequently divorced from how women actually experience their bodies. It is sterile and open mouthed and always eager to please.

Part of my journey in revising my relationship to my body, untying myself from the patriarchy is really digging deep in the most common assumptions I make about the world. This includes what I have define as Sexy.

Taking a moment to center.
Taking a moment to center.

The largest leap I made when entering the world of burlesque was not physical. It was not the tassel twirling or the hip shimmies, the bump-or-grinds or the standing split (which my ass can’t do without killing myself anyways.)

It was learning to see myself as a sexy woman.

More importantly, it was feeling sexy.

For so long, despite my reading of Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, I had pretty much accepted that only certain types of bodies and women could be seen as sexy. I was more comfortable being funny and theatrical, because that was where I saw myself. Girls and women like me, weren’t seen as inherently sexy and feminine.

Intellectually, I knew this was bullshit, but I would literally find myself unable to do certain movements or flirtations in burlesque class due to these mental formations. And when I did, I felt stupid and silly. I was afraid people might laugh at me, that they would smell my awkward display of sensuality a mile away.

I felt like some kind of impersonator, that I was behaving like what Sexy “should” be. A kind of sexy that had no real connection to my living, breathing body.

But, I kept going. The first time I took a burlesque class through Brown Girls Burlesque, I stood in awe of these women of varying shapes and shades who so proudly flaunted their erotic personas on stage. I went to a ton of burlesque shows. I let myself feel awkward as I winked and circled my hips and was fully alive on stage. I danced alone in front of mirrors at home. I journaled about the hard truths about how I had defined sexy before. I expanded my media intake. I asked myself tons of questions:

Where did I first learn about what sexy was? How would my views on sexuality be different if I had never seen music videos or porn in my life? Why am I so tied up to mainstream’s definitions of sexy? When do I feel the sexiest? Who’s the sexiest person I know in real life? Which celebrities do I actually find sexy and which ones have I just been told that they are and reluctantly agree?

I’m still asking myself these questions, but the answers are taking on a deeper level of cognition because they are not just located within my grey matter. I realize that I can’t just “gobble” up these redefinitions. They will take time. The journey is not about what everyone else is doing or how others experience me or even their own sensuality, it is about my own truth.

So.

 I am sexy. I know that Perle Noire is my sensual hero. I know that mainstream attitudes about what constitutes sexy will probably not change much in my lifetime. I know that it is my experience and definition of sexy that matters more than People Magazine’s. I think that sexuality can be spiritual. I know that there is true power in the erotic.

I don’t know if Beyoncé or Kim K or Rihanna have really changed the conversation on women and their sexuality. Perhaps for some women, they have. Still, I think our experience of sensuality and sex is still too firmly tied to the most superficial of attributes. I want more.

I would like to see women talking more about their sexual journeys toward wholeness after experiencing trauma, I would like to hear about how women who aren’t the mainstream definition of sexy still experience themselves as very sexual beings, I would like to see a diversity of bodies of varying ages and abilities and sizes full embodied in their erotic power (but not just in a social media campaign), I would like to hear how black women have redefined sexy amidst racist and sexist expectations. I would like to hear how women came to love and enjoy their natural rhythms and love the most disparaged parts of their bodies; their periods, their menopause, their pussies.

These stories ARE happening, don’t get me wrong. I read about them. I listen to podcasts about them. New paradigms are being created. I think the journey towards redefinition starts when just one woman hears a common patriarchal “law”, tilts her head and names her own experience as valid.

Kudos to People Magazine for prodding me along.

Questions for further reflection: What do you define as sexy? When do you feel the sexiest? What struggles have you encountered in defining yourself as an erotic being? Who would you pick to coach you around feeling sexy if you could pick anyone in the world? What gets in the way of redefining your world?

Onward,

Hannah

 

How Being Corny Saved My Life

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It’s funny, but I didn’t really take the deep, deep dive into Self-Help Land until I got to NYC.

Funny only because I had lived the previous three years of my life in Portland, Oregon, Lair of the Happy Hippy.

New York City was where I upped my yoga practice, did shamanic breathwork, visited mediums, went to the Open Center, started going to weekly meditation classes.

The New York City subway system is where I read a plethora of self-help books.

I often hid the titles of these book by the cover of my lap.

Because reading You Can Change Your Life! replete with a smiling white woman and 80s neon colors was the definition of Corny. And this was New. York. City. I couldn’t have the random passerby who could care less that I existed think about my uncoolness!

Amidst my desire to outgrow unhealthy habits and modes of thinking, there was still an ever-present need to be cool.

There was only a certain cadre of my friends who I shared my self-help leanings with. And then I would usually follow up with some random aside about the literary novel I was reading or the nugget of political news I had discovered that week. (Did you hear about the call to restructure the electoral college?)

These asides were not some esemplastic mode of expressing my total truth as a person.

Nah.

I added these asides so I sounded “smart” and “cool” and “deep”. Because: I was really, really embarrassed by the often corny nature of changing one’s life.

There are some people out there who gain emotional and mental wellness via 18th century philosophers, ancient mystics, and deep study of archaic religions. When they talk about their journeys toward depth, they sound intelligent and sharp and use tons of three-syllable words.

But, these weren’t the places that usually worked for me.

What worked for me were things like affirmations and dialoguing with my Inner Child and blindfolded screaming in yoga studios with strangers. What worked for me was reading O Magazine instead of some fashion glossy and books with titles like The Disease to Please. What worked for me was going to Soul Camp where we had an OM off (which group could hold their yoga OM the longest) and a “tug of love” instead of a tug of war. What worked for me was asking W.W.M.D? (What would Maya Do?) and having cumbaya sing-a-longs with Kombucha drinking Wiccans and carrying citrine in my pocket. What worked for me was dancing my anger out to Tubthumping and visualizing the future I wanted via Desire Lists on hot pink paper.

What worked for me was corny as fuck.

There was no way to make this stuff cool.

And I hated that.

Why did all the things that actually worked for changing my life seem so silly?

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There were times when I’d look around at the strangers beaming around me, the people who used phrases like “heart opening” and “shadow work” and talked about their chakras with as much seriousness as people talk about their mortages and I’d be like, how the hell did I get here?

I have been sarcastic and self-deprecating since forever. It runs in my family I think. I did not grow up in a household of hugs and effervescent happiness. I and my siblings often show our love for each other with our ironic teasing and deadpan observations of life. Both me and my sister have been told that we have “dark senses of humor” and that our sarcasm confuses (and scares) some people.

I often laugh at things that are truly not funny.

And yet, I really desired to change my life. I knew that the way I was living: constantly chasing perfection, lingering in self-doubt, being constrained by old stories, vituperating my very existence was NOT going to bring me to the life I desired to live.

But, I also wanted to be cool. I wanted to be known as deep, intellectual, razor sharp, a woman of the mind.

What was a sardonic black woman to do?

*

I will call her Eve. She was the owner of Lucky Lotus, the yoga studio I often went to for meditation and creative art classes in Fort Greene.

She was loud, flamboyantly in love with life, unafraid to dance and laugh with gusto. She was a tall, white lady who once trained to be a Yoruba priestess and now led shamanic breathwork classes where she walked around beating a handheld drum. She was enthusiastic about everything.

She was simultaneously someone I wanted to emulate and also the most intense stereotype of Hippie Seeker I had ever met in real life.

I really liked Eve. Initially I deemed her to be just another client, no way did I expect the owner of this successful, beautiful yoga studio to be so wild and outspoken. We often would talk after yoga and breathwork classes and she listened in a way that is kind of hard to find these days: never discounted my experiences, never lost that childlike joy.

Over time, she revealed more of her story. I won’t go into details here because that is her story and not mine, but this was not a woman who had a simple, la-di-dah existence. She had demons she had faced down—and was still facing. Her entry into this world of spirituality wasn’t some navel gazing pastime. It was her route from a rock bottom and frenzied existence.

She talked about how affirmations had literally saved her from the brink of suicide, that if she wasn’t saying these words of positivity to herself during her more precarious times, she would not be here talking to me.

One day, she and I went to Fort Green Park. We bought a bottle of bubbles from a local bodega and set ourselves atop a grassy hill. We meditated and then spoke aloud of all the things we wanted to let go of and what we wanted to be in life. And then, we blew bubbles. Like kids. And I watched those sensitive balls of light float away into the spring sun. I half wondered what we looked like to the people passing by, two grown women sitting cross-legged and blowing bubbles. Afterwards, I felt lighter and more buoyant than I had in a very long time.

I felt that a life of true joy and happiness was possible. Of course, the feeling did not last forever (it never does….this is another lesson), but I started to approach the corniness of the self-help world with more openness.

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I started to own my corny. And my sarcastic streak. I started to see the ways they could co-exist.

Not long after, I rode my bike over the Manhattan Bridge listening to the Grand Dame of Self-Help Herself Louis Hay (may her soul rest in peace) deliver syrupy affirmations into my ears. It felt good and I felt good. And that was all that mattered.

I started to become more open about my love of goddess culture, didn’t lie about the fist-bumping You’re-Okay-I’m-Okay-We’re-All-Okay! conferences I was going to, blogged more and more honestly about all the sorta-weird self-help things I was doing.

Because as much as I still wanted to be known for my dry wit, I wanted to live a life of love way more.

If that meant that I was going to be corny and do corny things, so be it.

Oftentimes, our assigning certain self-care practices a signifier of corny or silly or stupid is just another clever mode of resistance. It is us clinging to the very behaviors that are harming us. It is our fear of change and being cast out of our friend group. It is our fear of doing something different.

We may have decided that happiness and health are only for certain types of naïve or shallow people. We may even decided it’s only for people who grew up in nice homes or white people or the lucky few. We decide that we are not those people and therefore, happiness and salubrious living is out of the cards for us.

In some ways, our culture is deeply afraid of true joy. We call it immature and stupid, as if wallowing in misery and being incessantly down on life makes someone smarter or more sophisticated, assigns them depth.

No, it usually just makes that someone a boring, bitter jerk.

Cultivating emotional and mental wellness, embracing our joy, being vulnerable with those we love are not easy modes of being. It’s much, much easier to be impenetrable and unkind and closed off and make snarky comments about shiny-happy-people. (Ask me how I know…)

But, we don’t get close to the lives we want this way.

So, if you’re worrying about being too cool for self-help, I hope you reconsider. Everyone has their own flavor of what calls out to their hearts and I hope you can be with how silly and weird it feels and really decide that your happiness is worth the struggle and being uncool.

Let’s be cornballs.

Onward,

Hannah

Until the Next Harvey

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This post is dedicated to the man who told me the only reason Bill Cosby was being accused was because he was a powerful black man in America.

It is dedicated to the woman who ended a work diversity meeting during Sexual Assault Awareness Month with, “But, what do they expect? Going out dressed like that?”

It is dedicated to all the women who are not famous or white enough to warrant protection. It is dedicated to all of us who have blamed ourselves.

It is dedicated to the women afraid to be sensual, to the women harassed and silenced on social media, to the little girls who fear becoming women.

It is dedicated to the next time.

*

I had a friend who worked for the Weinstein Brothers. In 1986, it was her first job when she moved to NYC from New Mexico when she was 28 years old. I liked to imagined her then—young and vivacious; right in the middle of the artsy, wild New York City I had always admired.

“Was it cool working for them?” I asked.

“No, they were assholes.”

This was uttered with the kind of deadweight that makes it clear that this was all that was going to be said on the matter.

*

The first time I realized I was not a girl anymore was when I was 12. I was walking home from school and the sky was slowly changing into a dusty orange.  A pick-up truck of skater dudes slowed down and one of the guys in the front seat yelled out, “Hey! My friend here wants to pop your cherry!” I could still hear them laugh as they drove over the hill and away from me.

*

The thing about these Weinstein and Cosby stories is that it will happen again. It is a matter of when and not if. My friend says if we all knew half of what these industry heavyweights were doing, we’d probably be disgusted. We texted back and forth about bystander syndrome and why it is that certain men feel so powerful when they sexually harass and assault women. I want to live in a world where women share more in common than our victimization.

*

3 Things I Will Never Forget from 2011 Coast Guard Victim Advocate Training:

  1. Serial rapists and harassers often have a “calling card”. Much like serial killers, they like to leave an accent mark on their crimes. For Cosby it was ‘ludes and “let me help you with your career”. The allegations against Weinstein reveal a man who always wanted a massage and private casting meetings. These men are predators.
  2. Serial rapists and harassers will most likely go after the kind of woman (or man) who no one would ever believe. In the Coast Guard, it was the loudmouth girl who was always late to formation, the skinny guy seen as a quiet loner type, the girl already labelled a slut weeks out of boot camp at her new duty station. These perpetrators know exactly who to pick and use their power strategically.
  3. A victim/survivor doesn’t want advice or plastic sympathy. They just want you to listen. And to believe them.

*

I read an article the other day before the Weinstein story broke. It was from Bill Cosby’s daughters. They were saying what a good, kind-hearted man their father was and that he was being taken advantage of solely based on his race. I think the letter even used the words “public lynching”. They were women using the same one-dimensional logic Clarence Thomas did to recuse himself from responsibility after harassing Anita Hill.

It was sad but predictable.

And I’ve always wondered about Them; the perpetrator’s closest friends and family. I can only imagine how difficult it must be, how world splitting to see another side to this person you always thought you knew.

When I was at military school, a friend of mine was accused of rape and I vehemently defended him, was 100% sure of his innocence. I was 20 and since this was the same guy who made me laugh with his silliness and came to my birthday party–this was “not the sorta guy” who would rape anyone.

Eleven years later, I know better.

*

Most of the time, due to an amalgamation of racism, the masculinization of dark-skinned black women, and being 6’3″, I feel pretty powerful when I walk the streets. I still get weird, sexual, disrespectful shit said to me all the time, but I think there is something to be said about being taller and stronger than a lot of men out there.

Physical presence counts for something.

And yet.

When I was 19, a fellow cadet would say rude sexual stuff about me while I was in formation. I reported it but nothing happened and I decided it wasn’t a big deal, especially since many of my friends had experienced far worse. What was a little crude language?

Months later, this same guy sat next to me on a bench and asked if he could take me out sometime. I nervously declined. He then asked if I was lesbian.

*

What I hope is that more men speak out. That instead of shaking their heads in private or getting into “not all men” arguments, that they open their damn mouths and do something. It’s kinda like white people doing the work of dismantling racism. Men need to do this work, they need to look closely at how these behaviors dehumanize not only women, but themselves. Talk to your brother because this shit is a headache.

Stil.

I am an optimist. I believe we are getting better as a society when it comes to allegations like these:

Donna Karan says something victim blaming and gets called to the carpet for it.

Terry Crews and James Van Der Beek speak out their own stories.

We have a long way to go, but I believe we are moving in the right direction.

*

In 2014, I took a self-defense class via the Center for Anti-Violence Education in Brooklyn. We learned to block attacks from on high, the correct and most hurtful to kick someone, how to interrupt sexual harassment in public. At the end of the course, all the women break a 2X4 block of wood Karate Kid style, with a quick dash of the palm.

I will never forget the look of sheer amazement and delight as each woman cleanly sliced those blocks in two. For the briefest of moments, we were seeing evidence of our power and not just our supposed weakness.

It was beautiful.

*

I am a tall woman who weight-lifts and sometimes I still get scared walking around cities alone. I worry about the little girls I know who are becoming young women. If I give a friend a ride home, I watch them actually enter into their houses before driving away

I know that this is not the end.

But, I also know that there are many out there who are eager to create a world free from this sort of fear.

I think we are on our way.

A reminder: Take care of yourself. These kinda news stories can drum all kinds of traumatic memories. Talk to someone. Don’t feel you have to deal with this on your own.

For those in power, if you see something, say something. What’s the smallest step you can take to combat sexual harassment and misogyny? Find out what that is for you and commit to doing it as regularly as you can.

Onward,

Hannah

Art : Gerber Daisy by Grace Mehan de Vito

It Is Okay To Be Happy

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Today started out in a good, good way.

And I was instantly suspicious.

I have been noticing this tendency in myself over this past year—my commitment to suffering, to melancholy, the deep safety I feel within chaos and misery.

Today, I had a tasty protein heavy breakfast. I and my boyfriend joked before I headed out the door. The air was slightly warm while waiting for the bus. My students laughed at my jokes and we talked about Junot Diaz. I had lunch with a professor who was kind and engaging.

And all throughout the day, I was awaiting for the piano to fall. For the stomachache to start, for the mean person to cut across my path, anything, anything, anything, that would ruin this sweet blessing of a day.

I know today, to pay attention to such feelings. To sit with them, to jot them down on my phone or a nearby notebook.

Why is it that happiness and feeling good simultaneously make me feel so ill at ease? Why does a heavy cloak of foreboding feel ever present, on the edge of my consciousness anytime my life starts to go well? Why do I expect bad shit to happen to me?

Sometimes it feels obscene to be filled with anything resembling joy in a world like ours. Especially in the last week with the horrific (but oh so sadly predictable) shooting in Las Vegas, the devastation in Puerto Rico, the fact that DACA is being phased out…what right do I have to call myself happy?

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I worry it is yet another form of American propaganda, this cult of happiness, and that I am falling into it, that I am another hippy-dippy privileged woman who is unaware of the real pain in this world.

But, I know this is not the complete story. I know that my fear of being happy and well-adjusted are not just social or national concerns. I know that my misery or depression does nothing to alleviate the depression or misery of another person or nation. I know this but…

When I allow myself to dig deeper, I see something else: I see a little girl who was well used to being on edge, tense, anxious, and afraid. I see a little girl who has immigrant parents who work and worked so damn hard and were not always rewarded for their efforts. I see a little girl who was taught that it is not “if” things go wrong, but “when” they go wrong…

I see the way this little girl has a limited understanding of happiness, that she truly believes her happiness and well-being is a betrayal to the people whom she loves. These belief are bone deep, not exactly conscious, but always there.

Last week, I did a vlog about the story of trauma as told by Bessel Van Der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score. One of the main machinations of trauma is a tendency to repeat the painful patterns that keep us stuck in the past. We almost can’t help it. Such behavior is hardwired into our brains and into our bodies.

We want to eat well, but stay feeling shitty on processed foods.

We want to date people who care about us, but find ourselves attracting emotionally unavailable people who ghost or leave us every single time.

We want to go for our entrepreneurial dreams, but we stay stuck in comparison and afraid to take the action to make our dreams a reality.

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We want to be happy but find ourselves self-sabotaging our well-being time and time again.

To be sure, there are things we cannot control. Life is life. We don’t get to call all the shots. We will never be able to control other people’s behavior. Ever.

But, I think we can be curious about our patterns, especially in relation to self-sabotage and being stuck, especially if we notice that feeling good makes us feel uneasy.

Unless you are a sadist, I think it may be useful to know why we tend to distance ourselves from happiness and keep ourselves mired in misery.

I’ll admit it: there is something about chaos and sadness and disappointment and being alone that feels oddly comforting to me. These are feelings and emotional states I have an almost sisterly connection with. I have had many experiences of being let down, of letting my heart open only to have it crushed with severity by those closest to me.

So, it makes perfect sense that when I have good days, when life seems to be handing me lemonade with extra sugar, I start looking upwards at the blazing blue sky waiting for the piano to crash upon my head.

It makes sense that these are the days I am most likely to pick fights with my partner, to eat something I know my digestive system will hate me for, to laze around so that I have to hurry and rush before an appointment even though I had more than enough leisure to be on time.

Part of me is absolutely terrified of being happy.

And I can love that part of me. I can slowly, gently, but always assure her that she deserves good things, that she can open her arms to more than the basics in life. I can let her know again and again and again that she not only deserves to survive, she has full permission to thrive.

It will take time to stop looking for falling pianos, this I know.

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So, if you are a Queen (or King) of self-sabotage, I urge you to take a holy pause to remind yourself that you deserve to feel good. I suggest you sit with those parts of your soul which are used to being left, being sad, being alone, being pulled in seventy directions and let them know that your new normal can be peace and love and ease. It will take time. It will take patience.

I am right there with you, trying to learn that being happy is not sin or a sign of immaturity or selfishness or a betrayal to those I care for. Being well-adjusted is a gift we can all pass on to those who follow us.

And I urge you to remind yourself as much as you need to:

It is okay to be happy. 

It is okay to be happy.

It is okay to be happy.

I will do the same.

Onward,

Hannah

Self-Help That Doesn’t Suck – #8 – The Body Keeps The Score

Hello Beautiful People,

I did a blog (vlog?) post about The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

It’s been one of the most illuminating and life changing books I’ve ever read about trauma, inspiring me to take new direction in my own healing journey and expanding my compassion for others. 

I hope you find something useful here​​​​​​!

Five minutes of self-help…that doesn’t suck. 

Thanks for watching

Onward,

Hannah