Shedding Shame by Joyce Zonana

jz-headshotAt the lovely small Chanukah party I attended earlier this month, I did not taste the latkes, those delicious potato pancakes fried in oil and typically served with sour cream and applesauce. My hostess offered them to me repeatedly, proudly noting that she’d used her Polish grandmother’s recipe. But I politely said “no thank you,” I’d just started a diet. “Who starts a diet in December?” someone asked. Someone else pointedly wondered “How can you not eat latkes at Chanukah?” but I quietly insisted that I needed to refrain. I promised, though, that I’d have some next year, once I’d shed the extra pounds that were making me uneasy in my own body.

In my Middle Eastern Jewish home it was the height of rudeness not to partake of what someone offered you to eat. So my refusal was difficult on many levels. But in fact, we never ate latkes at Chanukah. Instead we had deep-fried beignets, little balls of dough, sticky-sweet and drenched in rosewater-scented sugar syrup. I wouldn’t be having any of those this year either. And though another friend at the party assured me I didn’t need to lose weight— “You’re zaftig and beautiful just as you are,” she said—I’d decided a few weeks earlier that, Chanukah or no Chanukah, Christmas or no Christmas, this December was exactly when I wanted to begin my journey to what I believe is, for me, a healthier body weight.

I’m well aware of—and entirely support—the “fat is beautiful” movement, and I recognize the importance of resisting and not engaging in “fat shaming.” Yet I’m choosing now to shed these pounds. It’s a deep choice, a genuine resolution that emerged spontaneously after a long gestation.

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Photo by Substantia Jones, “The Adipositivity Project”

I’ve been subject to fat shaming—both external and internal—for most of my life: when I was less than ten years old, one of our closest relatives regularly reminded me to hold my stomach in, to “watch” what I ate. “A minute on the lips, forever on the hips,” she’d warn. Later, I vainly tried to ignore my mother’s coolly calculating assessment whenever she saw me after an absence. She’d look me up and down, sometimes pinching the flesh around my waist, then issue either an approving “You’ve lost weight,” or a disappointed “You’ve gained.” This from a woman who prided herself on her cooking, who served homemade baklava and rice pudding at the conclusion of her elaborate traditional meals, and who was herself more rounded than angular. I took comfort in the Venus of Willendorf, favored baggy pants and tops, and avoided looking at myself in mirrors. I was, in fact, always ashamed: of my body, my appetite, my apparent failure to “control” myself.

And of course, too, I tried many, many diets: Weight Watchers, Atkins, Dr. Fuhrman’s, and others. In my mid-twenties, feeling entirely out of control during a period of deep depression, I joined Overeaters Anonymous and found relief from the compulsive eating that had made me swell to over 160 pounds. (I’m just five foot three inches tall.) While in OA, I religiously practiced abstinence—from all grains and refined sugars—but once I left the rigorous program, the weight crept back. During the more than fifty years since my first crash diet in high school (lots of grapefruit and cottage cheese), I’ve gone up and down again and again, occasionally finding a moment of comfortable stasis, but more often feeling awkward and ungainly in my own skin.

This time, I’ve chosen to work with a nonjudgmental, experienced nutritionist who has prepared a balanced program that honors my own preferences and habits, and with whom I meet once a week to discuss how it’s going. So far, this “diet” feels different from those I’ve attempted in the past, largely because part of what I’m shedding is not just pounds or inches, but attitudes and judgments. Mostly what I’m shedding is an old image of myself, as the girl who was never quite right no matter what she did, the girl who always wanted to hide. Or rather, I’m learning to embrace and love that girl, to hold her gently within me. She is me. I’m no longer ashamed of her, ashamed of myself.

And so, for the first time ever, it’s easy to say “no thank you” because I’m more fully myself, more fully in my body, able to acknowledge my own needs and limits

And, also for the first time, I’m willing to speak out loud about those needs and limits—as well as about the dark places that led me to so much self-abuse and shame. Hence this post.

I’ve written several times here recently about the desirability of undoing boundaries—between genders, races, nationalities and religions. And I still hold to what I wrote. But what I’m discovering now is the value of a different kind of boundary, the one only I can draw around my self for my Self, the one that involves simply staying present and not succumbing to outside pressures. Choosing to say “no” or “yes” to food is like choosing to say “no” or “yes” to sex: what Carol Christ has been writing lately about “rape culture” is profoundly relevant to what I’m learning about my relationship to food and my body. In letting others be the judges of what I should or shouldn’t eat, how much I should or shouldn’t weigh, what was good or bad for me, I was ignoring the evidence of my own body, not listening to my own feelings of rightness or wrongness.

(I remember an older man I looked up to once, my professor, telling me I “should” want him, I “should” relax and let him penetrate me against my will . . . I remember thinking he knew better than me . . . Some of why I grew fat back then was to keep men like him away; the fat also blunted the sensation of my own desires, protected me from my own impulses.)

As I follow my program these days, I grow clearer and stronger. I know exactly what I want and I take it. When I sit down to eat, I feel my appetite, healthy and strong. I feed that appetite, choosing just what I need and what will truly nurture me. When I get up from the table, I am complete and whole within myself. Whether I reach my “goal weight” or not, I’ve already succeeded.

And so, this New Year, I won’t be making any new resolutions. I’m already on my path, shedding shame.

Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from the French of Egyptian-Jewish writer Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [This Land That Is Like You], a novel celebrating Arab-Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has also translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.



Categories: abuse, Body, Food, General, Healing, Rape Culture, Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

19 replies

  1. really lovely Joyce … being with your-self: what a journey to Her/her. I do think that is the quest set witinin so many ailments: that is, the deep desire for agency, for sovereignty if you like. If only well meaning people would be more respectful of that: a deep respect for the self of other. I wish you well in this journey. Maybe others will learn something from your resoluteness to be true to your-self; though it may be just a seed sown.


  2. Thank you for sharing yourself with us. I know that I can relate to what you have written.


  3. Hi Joyce, this is powerful. Your writing makes me think of myself in some ways too. It was so nice to see you a while ago. Hope to see you more in 2019. Happy New Year.


  4. I so appreciate all the connections you are making between different kinds of abuse and shame, how claiming sovereignty heals us. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Here is to your sovereignty and sovereignty for all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful courageous post! I love these words: “Or rather, I’m learning to embrace and love that girl, to hold her gently within me. She is me. I’m no longer ashamed of her, ashamed of myself.” Here is the core issue – self love. I don’t have a weight problem now – in fact my issue is to keep weight on – but I remember dieting and binging in self hate… and oh, the sorrow that brings me. Hurrah for you! You are shedding the demon of shame.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your comment Sara. Yes, it’s shame that is the demon, whatever form of self-loathing it causes us or wherever it comes from. Time for love and self-acceptance! For all of us.


  6. Just before I read your post, Joyce, I was reading an interview with Brene Brown about her new book, _Braving the Wilderness_. At the beginning of the her talk, she says that the hardest place not to fit in is in our families. Your experience of not fitting in, because of weight issues, is one that many of us can relate to. In my case, it was being intuitive rather than rational, like both of my parents. I was smart enough to fake it for years (in fact, I got a Ph.D.). Just in the last year, I began to own my intuitive side again. I have a quote on my bathroom mirror that says almost the same thing as you said in your essay: “Mostly what I’m shedding is an old image of myself, as the girl who was never quite right no matter what she did, the girl who always wanted to hide. Or rather, I’m learning to embrace and love that girl, to hold her gently within me. She is me. I’m no longer ashamed of her, ashamed of myself.” My quote phrases this change not as a shedding, but as a becoming: “She knew this transition was not about becoming someone better, but about finally allowing herself to become who she had always been.” Happy New Year! Happy New/Old You!


    • Lovely, Nancy! Thanks for sharing your own experience/words and relating to mine. And that book by Brene Brown sounds like something I need to read! Happy Us!


  7. As I was “skinny minnie” and “long tall sallie” I was never fat shamed as a kid. I was rather shamed for being too tall. As there was no diet to help you loose inches, I criticized the world and bemoaned my “fate” and developed the view that the world is not fair and there is/was simply nothing I could do about my own situation of being too tall for boys who were even only a few inches shorter to like me or even if they liked me to date me. Now in my “old age” I have a boyfriend who is shorter than I am and thinks I am perfect just as I am. I cry as I write that. So there world!!!


  8. Memories of my aunt Helen! I was fat, I walked like a football player instead of like a lady, etc., etc., etc. Being me, I then did the things she complained about more, just to rebel! To reclaim my self.
    We women seem to get this body “shaming” more than men do. With men, it seems the “shaming” is about “acting like a girl”. Either way, it’s about trying to control people instead of appreciating who we each are. “Sovereignty” is a great description.


    • Your comment reminds me of my own behavior. I too rebelled, overeating and gaining weight in defiance of my family: “I’ll show you,” I seemed to say, making an effort to “reclaim my self” but at the same time hurting it. What a terrible cycle.

      I agree with you that women seem to get more body shaming than men, though in both cases, it seems to be about gender conformity, no?

      Time to let it all go. Happy New Year!


  9. You are what you WRITE, and this is good stuff! Happy New Year, dear Joyce. I’ve always thought you were one of the coolest cats around!


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