TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains references to behaviours linked to eating disorders
In today’s harsh climate of impossible beauty standards, it’s refreshing to see the body-positive community get more space and more of a voice in the media – from plus-size models to conventionally beautiful actresses such as Jameela Jamil, women everywhere are speaking out against harmful diet culture. And it’s truly empowering to see magazines making space for a more diverse range of models and fashion brands catering to a more vast variety of sizes.
But one thing that occasionally makes me distance myself from this movement is that sometimes it tends to throw veganism in with dieting – lumping an ethical philosophy in with the myriads of restricting, limiting and potentially dangerous diets that populate our culture, such as Atkins or 5:2 – diets that have nothing to do with an ethical life choice whatsoever. Bloggers, journalists and YouTubers speak out about how going plant-based made them sick – when in reality, what was making them sick was their own disordered approach to food, without a doubt marred by the contagious and toxic ideals constanly perpetuated by society. I am far from a health expert, but when I read the words “that raw, gluten-free, vegan cake will never taste as good” in a body-positive blog, I knew I had to share a perspective that I know I am not the only one having – that nothing tastes as good as cruelty-free feels.
I have always been conscious of what I eat. Growing up, women around me were always dieting (while the men were mostly pouring themselves a third beer). My best friend was a naturally super-slim ballet dancer and I remember wanting to look exactly like her. At eight years old, I looked at my Barbie doll and thought, “I want to be this thin”. That night I did so many push-ups that I threw up. All I wanted was to be perfect. Nothing less than perfect would do.
In my teens, I wanted to be an actress, and every time I watched an audition tape of myself I agonised for days over everything I found wrong with myself: my face, my hair, my body, my posture, my clothes. Perfection was still my goal, and what I saw in those tapes felt like the opposite of that. Around this time, I began having anxiety attacks – an even more terrifying experience if you don’t know what anxiety attacks are and are thus completely clueless as to what the hell is happening to you. In an attempt to control my emotions the only way I knew how, I alternated periods of not eating with periods of extreme bingeing – slowly venturing into the territory of making myself throw up, and by age 18 blossoming into a fully fledged bulimic.
At 19, I moved to Los Angeles to study theatre and go on auditions. When I confided in a classmate that I sometimes threw up after meals, her reaction was, “so? Who doesn’t?”. I came to have a normalised view of my own disorder with the explanation that everyone else was doing it too. Another girl from my acting class taught me vomiting “techniques” and how to make sure I managed to throw up as much of my meal as possible.
When I returned to Stockholm, I finally got treatment. With the help of doctors and an amazing therapist, I finally started to learn how to think differently about food, my life and my body. I found the underlying reason for my illness: my perfectionism had driven me to depression. I had to re-teach myself how to perceive my own emotions in order to feel better.
I had been a pescatarian since the age of 11, but I never connected my refusal of meat to anything other than ethics. I didn’t view meat as unhealthy or fattening and never connected my decision to remove it from my diet to my body image or anything in that realm. I didn’t want to eat animals and that was that – but once I learned more about fish and their ability to feel pain, as well as what truly goes on in the dairy and egg industries, I felt inspired to make the (slow, very slow) transition to veganism.
As I educated myself more and more on veganism, my whole view of food changed. Every meal I made felt meaningful and inspired, like I was taking a stand against cruelty every time I ate something (which is what actually happens when you choose vegan meals). I experimented with new ingredients – to think that I had never even considered beans or lentils while pescatarian! Fun fact: for some reason, I believed that vegan desserts only were a thing in the US – before moving to London, I was under the impression that if you wanted a vegan cake, you would have to bake it yourself. When I bumped into a Ruby’s Of London vegan cupcake stall on my third day in the UK, I was overcome with joy!
I understand that these things differ for different people, but for me, the health benefits of veganism have been vast and long-lasting: that sluggish tiredness that I have carried with me for so long has lifted and my skin finally has some colour, as opposed to dull grey. And my stomach is another success story. From 2009 on, I have suffered from bloating, horrible stomach burns and aches. I could wake up in the middle of the night feeling like someone had stabbed me in the stomach. Doctors told me to take pills and supplements, to eat more this and less that. No one told me to simply cut out milk and eggs. As soon as I did that, my tummy found its natural health and the pain lifted.
I’ve had questions about how this kind of “controlled” eating can actually do me good as an eating disorders survivor, as being too controlling with my diet is what made me ill in the first place. I explain that now I eat to live, to nurture myself and to enjoy my food – and I have the feeling of being good to my body every time I feed it. No food I eat is “bad” or “naughty” – all foods I eat are good for the animals I am saving – and I’m doing my best to disconnect my food from my emotions. Once in a former job, a colleague asked if I wouldn’t like to have one day a year when I “ate whatever I wanted.” I explained that I already eat whatever I want – every day.
And speaking of what I want, going vegan has also helped me learn to listen more to my body, and helped me realise that often I don’t really want the junk food I end up eating because of societal pressure. Before my vegan transition, I would keep drinking on a night out despite the creeping onset of heartburn (which always comes knocking on my door after two glasses) because IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT! and unless you get absolutely wasted you will get questioned about why you are being so “boring” (pro tip: sip sloooowly. That way you will always “still” have a drink in your hand without having to actually drink more alcohol), or have brownies for breakfast just so I could Instagram about how indulgent and luxurious I was being – when in reality those brownies were making me bloated and causing my dentist bills to soar from all the sugar-induced cavities. There is a strong standard in our society that ties food to social life and even identity. If you don’t eat or drink this or that, you are viewed as boring, sanctimonious and prissy, even if the truth is that your body simply doesn’t take well to it. Mindful eating to me means listening to yourself and learning more about what works.
Choosing a vegan lifestyle has aided me in un-coupling food from body image and opened up a newer, deeper meaning to eating: choosing meals free from cruelty helps me view my food choices as the social justice issues they are rather than a mere tool to make my body conform to a certain type of look that society imposes on all of us. And I am not the only one: in her VICE piece “I Stopped Bingeing and Purging When I Became A Vegan“, Melissa Meinzer confirms exactly what I felt: “I didn’t go vegan to lose weight or control what I ate. For me, veganism turned out to be more important than my bulimia. I was taking a stand and eating my politics in a way that felt unassailably correct. It was an adventure, and it came with a profound and unexpected benefit: It gave me relief from my bingeing and purging.”
It’s for these reasons that many survivors of eating disorders are finding that veganism makes your meals go from “diet” to “ethical choice”, which takes away a large part of the power that the dieting industry holds over us. Case in point: Jordan Younger, known as The Balanced Blonde, who went vegan, then famously went non-vegan in connection to her orthorexia…before realising that her disorder had very little to do with eschewing eggs and butter, and returning to the vegan path as a healthy, happy human.
I’m not claiming that my lifestyle change is the solution to eating disorders, and I do need to stress that I had already received treatment before going vegan. But it’s important to remember that when we are speaking about a lifestyle choice such as veganism, it’s reductive and incorrect to lump it in with diets that mostly aim to alter women’s bodies and make money off it. Staying committed to the ethical philosophy of veganism is what will help pull some eating disorders sufferers out of the harmful thinking that surrounds everything related to food and eating for them, and help them to see their food differently. Like it did for me.
This month I am reading…Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life by Katherine Ormerod
This month I am listening to…this, over and over again
This month I am watching…You on Netflix, as is everyone else.
This month I am planning...to hold talks about vegan fashion at Salford and Portsmouth universities in the UK
Header photo by Rawpixels