Hugo Schwyzer wrote a post about veganism and feminism that I found really frustrating. The point he is exploring is an interesting one - as a vegan who once had an eating disorder he is noting the similarities between the two:
The funny thing is that being strictly vegan (off honey entirely) means that I am more attentive to what I eat than at any time in my life since I was crash dieting fifteen years ago.But, his perspective is extremely limited as he seems to see eating disorders primarily in terms of body image:
Back then, I counted calories and fat grams obsessively. Today, I largely ignore fat and calorie information and read to make sure that what I’m eating is entirely plant-based and devoid of hidden dairy or egg traces. (Damn that sneaky caseinate!) I’m once again radically concerned with everything that goes into my mouth — but for a radically different reason.Eating disorders are not just about reasons, they're not just about appearances, they're often also about morality and control. Hugo doesn't acknowledge that veganism can feed the food/control/morality connection, which is central to an eating disordered mindset. For someone with a tendency to trying to exert control through self-denial of food (which is rarely a small percentage of a female population), any language around veganism which emphasises self-control and morality is going to make things worse. I guess I've more experience of this than most; I've spent a lot of time in a scene where there are quite a few vegans and lots of young women. I've despaired every which way at the policing and limiting which young women do to each other can happen take on a radical hue, and still be just as damaging.
I don't know if Hugo has tried to think about veganism in a different way (Stetnor suggests one). But I know that a restricted diet doesn't mean that you have to control what you eat. I realised a couple of years ago that I was severely allergic to dairy products. I have to read the label. There are dairy products in most brands of some really basic products (bread and margarine, for example). If someone offers me food, then I don't eat it unless I know it's dairy free.
I don't talk about, think about, or experience this as controlling what I eat. I didn't know that I'd be able to avoid this dangerous thought pattern; I wasn't even sure I could cut dairy out entirely. I was surprised at how easy as it was. Dairy products are not an option, in the same way foods I don't like are not an option. Sure I miss them - other people's cheesy food smells divine, but it's not self-control that stops me from eating them. Avoiding dairy products is a choice I've made.
I've had to be incredibly protective of myself in all this: I've corrected people who say I'm not 'allowed' something, when people describe dairy products as if they were disgusting I'm likely to sing their praises. In order to maintain this as a choice, I have to avoid anything that sounds like moralism.
I'm sure it's much easier for me than people with other food restrictions. My symptoms mean that I have every reason to avoid dairy products. But I don't actually need the threat. Most of the time I don't think "Wow that cheese looks yummy, but if I eat it I'll feel ill and end the night crying on Betsy's couch about much I hate my life."* I think "What shall I eat?"
Even if I experienced every piece of cheese I didn't eat as a massive battle for control, I'd be very careful never to talk about food and control. As a feminist, in the society I live in, my first goal when talking about food with people I know has to be to avoid reinforcing or triggering eating disordered thought patterns. I can have all sorts of conversations about food, but I need to have them in ways that won't make other women's eating disorders worse.
I think the way Hugo talks about veganism fails that basic test.
* Then after about half an hour of my whining at her she'd say "Could this be because you ate dairy products?"