The Chocolate Cabinet by Geneen Roth

The Chocolate Cabinet
by Geneen Roth

A mother of an 8-year-old was desperate. “My daughter is gaining weight by the second,” she told me. “I am so afraid that I have passed on my troubles with food to her, and I don’t know whether to remove all candy from the house, take her to a doctor, or put her on a strict diet. Help!”

“What is your daughter’s favorite food?” I asked.

“Chocolate,” she said.

“Does high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes run in your family?”

“No,” she said.

“Is your daughter’s health good?”


Desperation calls for radical measures, so I said, “On your way home, stop at the store and buy enough chocolate to fill an entire kitchen cabinet. In your kitchen, designate one cabinet The Chocolate Cabinet and fill it to overflowing with the chocolate you bought. Now, tell your daughter that this is hers and hers alone. Tell her that she can eat as much of it as she wants and that you will fill it back up when the cabinet gets even a tiny bit empty. Do not criticize her. Do not watch her with hawk eyes. And make sure that cabinet is brimming with chocolate. Wait three weeks, and then let me know what happens.”

She looked at me in disbelief. “Have you lost your mind? If I give Gracie free rein over chocolate, she will devour every single piece before I can get to the store and buy more. She will gain a million pounds. I will create a monster!”

“Try it,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”

Fast-forward three weeks. The desperate mother says, “When I first told Gracie about the new plan, she didn’t believe me. She waited until I left the kitchen, and then she plowed through the contents of her cabinet before I could change my mind. I filled up that cabinet four times that first week (with gritted teeth, I admit). But when Gracie realized I was not going to criticize her and that I was absolutely serious about letting her have as much as she wanted, she ate less and less. By the second week, I only had to buy a little chocolate, and by the third week, none at all. She is more relaxed around food. She is losing weight. I am a chocolate-cabinet convert!”

Does this story (it’s true, by the way) make you excited? Slightly hysterical? Have you come up with 25 reasons why this wouldn’t work at your house? You are not alone.

However, while some of your reasons may be based on fact, most of them are about your own relationship to food and hunger and abundance, not your children’s. And here’s the litmus test: Ask yourself what would happen if you filled one cabinet with food you wanted but believed you’re not supposed to have. What would happen if you let yourself eat it without criticizing yourself? I can’t swear to this, but I bet you have (at least) 25 reasons why that wouldn’t work.

It’s not about the food. Although the chocolate-cabinet idea was radical, I was almost positive that what Gracie wanted wasn’t candy. She wanted her mother’s (positive) attention. She wanted her mother to trust her. But mostly, she wanted to believe in and trust herself, and only way she could do that was by first learning those skills from her mother. The drama around food and weight gain was the language that Gracie was using to communicate with her mother. The real issue is never the food.

My mother was a fat kid whose own mother took her shopping in the Chubby section of Macy’s. Growing up, my mother felt self-conscious, ashamed of her body around boys, clothes, socializing. Because she loved me and didn’t want me to suffer the way she had, when I was a kid she began watching what I ate, restricting certain foods from my diet, telling me I was getting fat.

How did the hawk-eye, restrictive approach work?

Not so well. In response, I began hiding frozen Milky Ways in my pajama pants, sprinting past my parents’ room and sitting over the trash can in my room eating the candy bars as fast as I could, ready to spit them out if my mother opened the door and caught me. I began feeling as if I needed to look a certain way for her to love me, eat certain foods for her to approve of me. And so I began living (and eating) a double life: When I was in front of her, I’d eat cottage cheese and chicken without skin. When I was out of her sight, I’d stuff myself with everything I wasn’t allowed to eat in her presence. Food became the language of our relationship. And although, as my brother often points out, I’ve made a career from the dysfunction that resulted, I would not recommend this path to anyone.

When I hold my online workshops, mothers from all over the world ask me questions about food and their children. Mothers from Montana and New Jersey, Thailand and Brazil all have the same concerns. They all love their children and don’t want to pass on their pain to their daughters (or sons); some of them have children who are already showing signs of starving themselves or stuffing themselves. They all want to know: How do I best love my child when it comes to food? What will help her the most? 

I tell them, “Attend to your own relationship with food first.” Be honest with yourself about what you actually believe. Do you believe you can’t trust your hunger? That if you really let yourself eat what you want, you’d start at one end of your kitchen and chomp your way across the country? Do you believe there is an abundance of what you need, want, love? 

After you begin exploring your own relationship with food, be mindful about what you communicate to your children. Deprivation, force, and shame do not ever, under any circumstances, lead to positive change. If you judge your children, if you create a moral standard about body size, if you withhold approval based on what they weigh, nothing good will come of it. They will begin judging their bodies, hiding their food, and defining their worth by what they weigh. 

And ask yourself this question: If you could fill a cabinet with anything — food, attention, time — what would it be? Chances are, it won’t be chocolate. Commit to being lavish with yourself with what you really need. As you do that, you will become a living example of self-care and trust and love. You will be who you want your children to become. Believe me, they’ll notice.

Geneen Roth has authored many books:

Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money

Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything

When Food Is Love

The Craggy Hole in My Heart and the Cat Who Fixed It

Breaking Free from Emotional Eating

Feeding the Hungry Heart

When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair

Appetites — On the Search for True Nourishment

Why Weight? A Guide to Ending Compulsive Eating

Mojo Monday ~ Body Talk

woman 11 from When de Body Talk Collection by fine artist Son of the Moon

“Harsh judgments about body acceptability create a nation of hunched-over tall girls,
short women on stilts, women of size dressed as though in mourning,
very slender women trying to puff themselves out like adders, and various other women in hiding. 
Destroying a woman’s instinctive affiliation with her natural body cheats her of confidence. 
It causes her to perseverate about whether she is a good person or not, and bases her self-worth
on how she looks instead of who she is.  It pressures her to use up her energy worrying
about how much food she consumes or the readings on the scale and tape measure. 
It keeps her preoccupied , colors everything she does, plans, and anticipates. 
It is unthinkable in the instinctive world that a woman should live preoccupied by appearance this way.”

~ From Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD

When I read the book The Diary of Anne Frank as a 13 year old girl, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t Jewish and living in Nazi occupied Amsterdam in the Netherlands, I could still relate to that girl of a different era and her true story captivated me.  When I read the memoir Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beales, which told her story of being one of the nine black students who participated in the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, for a time I too was immersed in the unbelievable and horrible racism that those students experienced.

So when I watched a trailer for an upcoming documentary called Dark Girls my heart was breaking for the women who shared their painful stories.  The tears flowed when a young child was asked to identify from a cartoon drawing of children the smart, stupid, pretty and ugly child and all of her answers were based on the color of the child.  I personally wanted to take that young girl in my arms and tell her that she is amazing, smart, beautiful and also so much more than just her physical being. 

Here is the trailer for the film Dark Girls:

Dark Girls: Preview from Bradinn French on Vimeo.

I have never understood racism or how anyone can treat another person as if they are less than because of their appearance, their ethnicity or their nationality.  In college one of my majors was history and my areas of concentration were African American History, Latin American History and Native American History.  Some of the research and reading I did for my classes and for papers I wrote was sad and disturbing.  There were articles and books written years ago, as if they were from real research and scientific studies, that set out to prove the superiority of the white race.  Someone walking by in the library would have heard me gagging.
One would think things like this would be archaic and yet just this year a reputable publication called Psychology Today used very poor taste, judgment and what all to give the time of day to a “researcher” who wrote an article entitled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women.”   Psychology Today removed the on-line link after the thousands of letters and comments poured in, but that they allowed this schmuck to have a forum to share this garbage in the first place is disturbing. 
A writer named Denene Miller, creator of a blog called My Brown Baby saw the aforementioned article and had a few things to say in response in her own article called The Attack Against Black Girl Beauty.  Here is an excerpt as well as a link if you would like to read the entire piece.
“And like any mother who tucks her new baby girl into her first lovely dress, I looked at Mari’s face and stared into her eyes and pulled her chubby little cheeks to mine and marveled at how striking she was.
And every morning, still, I do the same with both my girls. Some days, they’ll just be talking to me about nothing in particular and I’ll look up and catch a glimpse of Lila’s big ol’ almond eyes and that Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate-colored skin of hers, or Mari’s perfect apple face and that ancient Egyptian nose, looking like it was carved to match the Sphinx, and it literally takes my breath away.
They are, simply, beautiful girls.
I tell them this often.
Not just because I believe it to the core, but because the world conspires to tell my babies different—to ingrain in their brains that something is wrong with their kinky hair and their juicy lips and their dark skin and their piercing brown eyes and their bubble butts and thick thighs and black girl goodness. I promise you, it feels like I’m guarding them from a tsunami of “you’re ugly” pronouncements; magazines and TV shows and popular radio and movies and all of the rest of pop culture insist on squeezing all of us women into a ridiculously Eurocentric, blonde-haired, light-eyed standard of beauty, but good God, unless you’re parenting a little black girl, you have absolutely no earthly idea how exhausting it is to be media whipped for not being a white girl…
But I am trying desperately to save my little girls. From the magazine editors who refuse to put brown-skinned girls on their covers and in their pages. From the TV show producers who shovel shows on Disney and Nickelodeon without a care in the world that my brown babies go, literally, for hours without seeing one character who looks like them. From the music and movie industries, which, even when brown girls are involved, puts greater stock in light skin and long, flowing weaves. From the book industry, which seems like it’ll suck blood from a stone before it backs books featuring black children like it does books featuring white ones.
And I’m trying to save my girls from celebrities and singers and pro ballers and anyone else who has a microphone and especially researchers who will, by any means necessary, tell them that their brown skin and thick lips and pudgy noses and kinky hair make them ugly and manly and unattractive and undesireable.
But you know what? That’s a whole lot of fighting. A whole lot of guarding. A whole lot of explaining. A whole lot of counterbalancing.
And on days like these, I get tired, y’all.
And wish that we—me and my beautiful black girls—could just… be.”
It is hearing such things that brings me full circle back to the quote Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD
“Destroying a woman’s instinctive affiliation with her natural body cheats her of confidence.  It causes her to perseverate about whether she is a good person or not, and bases her self-worth on how she looks instead of who she is.  It keeps her preoccupied , colors everything she does, plans, and anticipates.  It is unthinkable in the instinctive world that a woman should live preoccupied by appearance this way.” 
What do you think we can do to change such harsh judgments about people’s physical appearances?  Do you even think it is possible?
What was your response to the Dark Girls trailer?
Do you think that women are overly concerned with appearances?

If yes, do you think that these preoccupations take away from time that could be better spent creating, inventing, painting, writing, dancing, adventuring, living and loving?
Here are some eye-popping facts and figures that demonstrate how deeply women desire to meet some ideal standard of beauty.  Don’t miss the fact that out of the 10.7 million cosmetic procedures being performed 90% are for women. 

·        Since 1997 there as been a 465% increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures.
·        Women had nearly 10.7 million cosmetic procedures, ninety percent of the total.
·        The top five surgical procedures for women were liposuction, breast augmentation, eyelid surgery, tummy tuck and facelift.  And yet an increase in breast augmentations has made it the most popular cosmetic surgery procedure since 2008.
·        Americans spent just under $12.5 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2004.
·        In 2010, Americans spent $845 million on facelifts.
·        Americans spent nearly $1.2 billion on breast augmentation in 2010, more than any other procedure. 
·        Americans spend more each year on beauty than we do on education.
·        A research survey found that the single largest group of high-school students considering or attempting suicide are girls who feel they are overweight.