When Hungry, Eat is hard to categorise. It is a sort of diet, spiritual, memoir book, which makes for easy reading but insightful thought.
When Joanne Fedler reached 40, she realised that she was overweight and could ‘barely look at her own body without cringing’. This coming from a woman who woman who studied law at Yale, was a strident women’s rights advocate and counsellor of abused women when she lived in South Africa.
I met Joanne about six months before she emigrated and we were on our way to becoming friends when she announced she was moving to Australia with her family. At that time, Joanne was one of the most powerful, confident women I had ever met , who scoffed at me when I refused a muffin with coffee and told me to enjoy life a bit more (she was right). She once told me that she could attract anyone in the room to sleep with her, black or white, male or female. I could only look at her with intense admiration.
So when I heard that Joanne had brought out a book on food, I knew I had to read it as I couldn’t imagine her having a food issue. Well, it just shows you what grief and despair can do to a good woman. Once she had decided that she was overweight and had to do something about it, Joanne went to a skinny ‘food fascist’ dietician who told her she was obese and put her on a strict eating plan.
Once faced with the restrictions of the diet and having to learn to identify real hunger, Joanne realised that there was much more behind her fat than overeating. She had been carrying sorrow, guilt, fear and anxiety around with her for years and had never acknowledged it.
And so Joanne skillfully intersperses her daily dieting life in Australia with flashbacks to growing up in, and then emigrating from, South Africa. It is an incredibly poignant book, in which she depicts grief in such a powerful way that I sometimes felt she was describing my sadness and despair over my divorce.
She describes the bewilderment and loneliness of moving to a new country and the emptiness of going from being a successful working woman to a stay-at-home mother with little money. She describes the pain of being separated from her family in South Africa and the sorrow of not being able to join in significant events with them. She looks back to her sense of helplessness when trying to help abused women, where in the end she realised that all she could really offer them was a sympathetic ear, a cup of tea and a biscuit.
She learns to listen to her body and identify when it is really hungry, and she learns to listen to her heart and soul and face all the emotions she has bottled up over the years.
By the end of the book, Joanne has lost 16 kilograms and acknowledges that the Food Fascist gave her a kick up the bum when she needed it. Joanne writes, “She taught me to slow down, to take every experience one bite at a time, moment by moment. I learned to pause and in those pauses to understand that I’m free to choose what to do next. I’ve learned to disentangle myself from my fear, my guilt and my nostalgia…”
I found the book to be so much deeper than I expected. It’s funny and lightly written, but it puts out a powerful message of how we all learn to slow down, recognise our own hungers and be guided by our needs.
My respect for Joanne has increased, yet again.