(Trigger warning for anorexia and diet talk.)
Amazing what a little teasing can do.
When I was fourteen I had a friend in my Girl Scout troop who was a vegetarian. For months she responded to my affectionate teasing with more rational teasing comebacks for which I had no response (“I didn’t climb my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian!” I’d shout, and she’d respond, “Oh, so you did all that climbing yourself, huh? Did the human race thank you?”) until I eventually told her I was out of excuses and I decided I wanted to be a vegetarian too. She recommended a great book for me, Vegetables Rock!, and my mom told me I should probably learn to cook (with her help). I had a lot of fun. I felt good about not eating animals, as I’d always been an animal lover, and I took to meatless cooking like a fish to water.
Then, a few months later, a guy in my class at school grabbed a hunk of the pubescent jiggle on my hips and laughed, “Still got that baby fat!” I was furious, and decided it was time to take action and lose some weight. I became a vegan.
It wasn’t hard. I knew that veganism was, for a select few, a natural progression from vegetarianism, and I’ve never been one to half-ass things––after all, this was the same line of thinking that would one day lead me to say, “I can run 6 miles. Why don’t I sign up for a marathon?”. I knew that being a vegan would force me to skip most cookies, desserts, baked goods, and restaurant meals (this was Buffalo, New York, of chicken wings and beef on weck fame). I knew from my reading that teenage vegans had to worry about getting enough calories. So I knew I’d lose weight––and I suspect I knew, deep down, that while my family and friends might challenge me if I announced I was going on a “diet,” they wouldn’t be able to argue with the ethical reasons for veganism.
And I knew those arguments backwards and forwards. If anyone asked––and they did––I could talk about how poorly animals in egg and dairy farms are treated. I could talk about the environmental impacts of both industries and the fact that most people in the world have difficulty digesting milk, yet the dairy lobby in America has made it out to be nutritionally imperative. I could make case after case for a plant-based diet. And I had to, all the time, and with every argument I uttered I became more and more convinced of the importance of what I was doing.
I lost weight. First, ten pounds, My then-boyfriend said I looked amazing. I got to buy smaller clothes. I was doing karate and running every day, too, and I was excited to get in better shape for both sports.
Fifteen pounds. Twenty. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. When I got together with friends for a party or social gathering, I either didn’t eat or requested steamed vegetables. When there was a vegan option, I ate it, but usually there wasn’t. My friends must’ve thought vegans were pretty sad people; however, despite being hungry all the time, I took a little personal pride in being able to say no to things they couldn’t. Like the stereotypical frog in a slowly heating-up pot of water, before I realized what was happening, a voice that wasn’t mine had formed in my brain and taken charge of my thoughts. And the voice didn’t honestly give a damn about vegan principles or ethics or a better world, but saw the lifestyle as a perfect means to an end. Because I seemed so firm in my convictions, and because most people can’t actually argue with the cruelty or negative impact of factory farming, I was getting away with what could have ended up being my own murder.
Forty pounds later, in outpatient treatment from three different doctors for anorexia, I was told that veganism wasn’t good for me. As I slowly started to get better, with the help of antidepressants and phenomenal nutritionists, psychologists, and therapists, I came to understand that the boundaries I’d set for myself were like a hamster wheel (thanks to author Geneen Roth for this perfect analogy, by the way) that my obsessive brain had become convinced was necessary in order to be in control, and I’d been running in the same circle for two years. Now the wheel was gone and I could run anywhere; I could eat whatever I wanted. It was terrifying. Anorexia is primarily about control, not necessarily thinness, at a certain point, and I had no confidence in my ability to control my weight without the constraints of veganism.
After a tenuous stabilizing period in college, I spent the next several years trying to reward myself for the two years of hell I’d been through. I started eating lots of meat and drinking a lot. I started writing about food. I made fun of vegans. My chef friends, hearing that I’d once been a vegan, joked, “I’m so glad you got over it.” (Anthony Bourdain, foodie icon and hero of food writers and chefs everywhere, famously wrote, “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”) Friends I hadn’t seen in ages were thrilled to see me eat charcuterie, ice cream from the carton, cheese. The message I heard from my social circles was clear: I was a lot more fun than I used to be. And whether that came from them or from me, or a little of both, I’ll never know.
I felt good about my weight on two occasions. Both were brief periods of time when I went vegan: one, for a month in early 2011, and the other, this fall when I moved to Madison. I immediately lost weight and felt wonderful. Then, both times, I ended up with a stress fracture, which my doctors chalked up to calcium and vitamin D deficiency. They scolded me for not taking better care of myself while I cried in their offices and agreed to months of rest from training. I had to miss a marathon this fall. Veganism failed me again.
When I read articles like this recent Rolling Stone piece, I’m not hearing anything new. I know how bad the world is for animals. I believe in veganism. I love animals and feel compelled by the many reasons not to eat them. I tell people I’ve tried to be vegan and it didn’t work out for my health; if they’re close friends, I might mention that weighing 90 pounds and having absolutely no memory of an entire year of my life wasn’t something I want to repeat. And they get it. No one asks questions after hearing that.
But here’s the thing I need to get off my chest: it’s all bullshit.
My eating disorder was an eating disorder, not a failing of veganism. My stress fractures were a failure on my part to get adequate nutrition during marathon training, not a failing of veganism. Veganism didn’t force me to have a bottle of wine and some crackers for dinner many nights, or restrict my calories, or even become calcium deficient––plant-based sources of calcium include orange juice, leafy greens, fortified soy and almond milk, and tofu, all things I can eat, afford, and even enjoy. My vegan friends are by and large healthy, well fed, and happy with their diets. The existence of vegan athletes across the board of professional sports is evidence that veganism isn’t inherently detrimental to physical health.
I’m not a vegan because I’m scared. I don’t know how to do it in a healthy way––I fall into my old patterns of restriction and deliberate lack of self-care immediately. And because my loved ones have been through this with me, repeatedly, I’m scared of being “less fun,” causing “drama,” and, ultimately, losing their love. And I’ve never admitted that to anyone before. Is it rational? Probably not. But that doesn’t make it easier.
Food justice is complicated, and we live in a world in which the use of animals for human profit is taken for granted, often invisible, and ingrained culturally (I just realized there are at least three animal-marginalizing expressions in this post that I wouldn’t have used when I was a vegan). I don’t begrudge anyone what they choose to eat, or not eat, anymore. I respect vegans and I will continue to try to find a place where my values and my health are both satisfied. But I’ve learned that food is so much more than just food––for some, due to health concerns, it’s an enemy. For others, it’s love. For still others, it’s power and control. And for far too many people, it’s an unmet need.
So that’s what’s going through my head when I talk about veganism. It’s not a punchline and it’s not a higher moral plane, for me. In some ways the vegan diet is like an abusive ex with whom I still have to work or co-parent children. Sometimes it’s like a safe haven from the demons in my head. Sometimes it’s like a little bit like a drug, or maybe a security blanket. I don’t feel entirely right about jumping into it again, given my history, and I don’t feel entirely justified leaving the principles it espouses behind. But I don’t tease anyone about the way they eat these days. And if you’re a food writer or a chef or a PETA copywriter or anyone who likes to make jokes at the expense of people who don’t eat the way you do, please remember that food doesn’t exist in a vacuum in this world, and we all have a story behind our choices.