As a physical education and health teacher in St. Louis Park in the 1970s, Shirley Billigmeier became concerned about girls’ preoccupation with their body weights. She learned that eating issues originated in the minds of her students, not their stomachs.
What created magnetism to food? As infants, Billigmeier notes, people know when they are hungry and when to start and stop eating.
“That ‘start-and-stop’ was the key for understanding the eating issue,” she says. “We are always looking for boundaries, and these boundaries are really in the body—we are born with it.”
Billigmeier believes that choosing what to eat is the most important step in becoming healthy. Her challenge was to help individuals create boundaries but not interfere with their choices.
“Choice is huge,” she says. “The driving force behind my research was allowing people to choose what they want to eat, what tastes good, and something that feels good after they eat it, too.”
Using her findings, Billigmeier developed a process to help people re-create their own boundaries using hunger and taste as cornerstones. She designed Innergetics, an approach to recapturing the forgotten joy of eating and movement.
She also wrote a book. Inner Eating was based on the principle that choice and taste are essential to a core connection with one’s own body.
“People need to be in the body they feel joyful in but also have the joy of eating,” she says.
Billigmeier has integrated the choice of eating in her health-and-wellness consulting. Through personal conversations, she is able to help women with eating problems find healing without having to disconnect from society. She uses the term “disordered eating” instead of “eating disorder.”
“It’s just eating out of order,” she says. “I don’t look at it as a disease. I look at it and see that eating has gotten out of order, so I work to put it back in order.”
At the time that Billigmeier published Inner Eating in 1991, there was no word for the enteric brain—the intuition of the gut. Now Billigmeier is using new scientific information to write a book that supports her research carried out for Inner Eating.
The Rapunzel Project
Billigmeier had accomplished enough for one lifetime when a breast cancer diagnosis led her onto a new path in 2009.
She agreed to treatment options that she expected would result in losing her hair. But talking with a friend and dermatologist, Billigmeier learned about a woman who had used “cold caps” during chemotherapy and kept her hair. She pursued more information and spoke with the London inventor, who shared the science behind cold caps and the names of women in the United States who had used them. Despite others’ skepticism, Billigmeier decided to save her hair.
“In my mind, it would work,” she remembers. “It wasn’t even a question.”
With support from family and friends, Billigmeier began putting the caps on her head before, during, and after each treatment. She used a laser thermometer to ensure that the caps’ temperature was kept at -30 degrees Celsius, cold enough to prevent hair loss. That proved difficult in her hospital room. But by her second round of chemotherapy, Billigmeier and a network of supporters had gone through the complicated process of bringing a freezer into the hospital.
After her third round of chemo, Billigmeier walked into the hospital to the sound of cheers from the nurses. She had kept her hair.
“We decided that we needed to tell other women about this,” she says.
In 2010, Billigmeier and her friend Nancy Marshall created the Rapunzel Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women keep their hair during chemotherapy. With funding from a vast array of sources, the project has been able to donate more than 70 freezers to hospitals across the nation to make it easier for women who want to use cold caps to save their hair.
In 2013, Billigmeier was named a recipient of the College of Education and Human Development Distinguished Alumni Award. Since completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education in the 1970s, she has dedicated her life to cultivating healthy lifestyles through choice and taste. Whether she is working on a book, researching, consulting, managing her non-profit, cooking, playing competitive bridge, or serving on the tennis court, Billigmeier clearly has an appetite for leading others to a place of choice and self-realization.
“Choice has been my driving force, whether it’s the choice of eating or the choice to save your hair,” Billigmeier says. “When that door of choice opens up, a person feels stronger, because that’s their identity—what they choose to do. That’s who you are: your choices, your decisions.”
Story by Ali Lacey | Photo by Dawn Villella | June 2014