Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Eating disorders are about more than hating your appearance

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?"


  1. Anonymous9:58 am

    Thank you; I know exactly what you're talking about. I suffered from eating disorders for quite a time, and though they're no longer a significant problem, I know that any attempt to significantly restrict my diet is the best way of putting me back on that downward spiral.
    I rarely eat meat, largely for ethical reasons, but the couple of times a month or so I particularly want chicken, I eat it. It may not be morally right, but I feel I've got the right to make that decision for my health. Unfortunately I have got a lot of criticism/moralising from the people you refer to in your post for doing so*.

    (I've also noticed a number of people who are obsessional on ethical eating and less so on clothing, and though I've heard some worthwhile arguments (particularly from people who find it very hard to find fitting non leather shoes but not hard to be control their eating) I still think there's a lot in it - I have a friend who regularly turned up for meetings in a leather jacket, which was not commented on, when people's eating was).

    *I probably don't need to add that I have also had brilliant support from non-meat eaters.

  2. "veganism can feed the food/control/morality connection, which is central to an eating disordered mindset."

    Well, maybe. But it depends on why you're doing it. Sure, as someone who's a vegan and used to have an eating disorder, veganism in some ways gives me a useful excuse for being picky about eating and not eating when I want (because people get upset if you don't want to eat, but if you say you're a vegan they usually give you less of a hard time) without actually relapsing into a serious eating disorder. But I think it's a bit more complicated than that. I realized after reading John Robbins' The Food Revolution that I could never eat animal products again, and that has absolutely nothing to do with my adolescent battle with eating.

  3. Anonymous5:32 pm

    like sofiya said about veganism. well maybe.
    I did like your point about peopel who say "oh you are not alowed dairy"
    Im a vegan and I choose to be vegan cos its the right thing to do, not because "Im not allowed" to eat animals. food is great, I eat lots of it all the time and I recommend everyone eats for fun as much as possible.Mr G
    (a tubby vegan)

  4. Anonymous8:28 pm

    Vegan or true vegetarianism actually can increase your range of food, I would argue that 'mainstream' western diets are just as restrictive and/or more restrictive in that they don't contain a full range of nuts, seeds, grains and even fruit and veges often. Being vegetarian actually made my diet broader, healthier and more interesting. (but then I like my veges a), not like our tubby Mr Grumpy!

  5. Anonymous8:29 pm

    and we mustn't forget the musical bean!