Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Eating to camouflage

(CW: eating disorders)

Sometimes, it feels miraculous that I've never been so unhappy with my body that it has adversely affected my mental health (plenty of other factors have, though, don't worry!).
As such, I've never been one to follow a diet. I went vegan in 2011, after being vegetarian almost my whole life. But I've never thought of these as diets; to me, a diet is something where you're consciously trying to lose weight or achieve some other cosmetic goal, punishing yourself in the process. They're just ways of eating or living.

At its most "dangerous", going vegan was a good excuse not to eat even more foods I had previously been picky about. For example, I liked soft-boiled and fried eggs, but the idea of eating any type of cold egg in salad or sandwiches was too repulsive for words. And there were a lot of varieties of cheese out there that just didn't appeal to me at all.
I was tipped into veganism while on Erasmus in francophone Belgium at the time (not the most vegan-friendly place, let me tell you). I'd long suspected that it was dairy that was making me feel mucussy and unwell. I was also exposed to lot of content from stereotypical angry Tumblr vegans on why the dairy and egg industries were evil and how if you were a vegetarian, you weren't "doing enough". At first I found it obnoxious and self-righteous, of course. But I resolved to do my own research from neutral sources that weren't trying to bully me, and concluded that I had no justification to continue consuming dairy and eggs, at least not for the time being; I needed to at least be able to say I had tried to cause less suffering to animals. I didn't watch Earthlings, and still haven't, actually. There was quite enough evidence for me to go by in other places.
I found some Alpro soya milk and soya desserts in the supermarket the next day, stocked up on spinach and chickpeas, and that was it. I was a source of amusement and ridicule to the people I shared a kitchen with. Still, I didn't find veganism restrictive, as everyone around me claimed it was (without ever having tried it, of course). I settled into it quite well. It became my norm.

Back in 2011, and for many years, in fact, I was the only vegan I knew. I'm still sort of astonished at how long I spent being laughed at and interrogated about my choices and called "extreme", yet these days veganism is this massive trend. Which is great, obviously! And I'm incredibly fortunate to live in Berlin, where even the discount supermarkets sell tofu and non-dairy yoghurt, and I can go eat a delicious, affordable meal at one of countless vegan restaurants.

What does worry me, though, is how veganism, or "plant-based eating", is commonly presented as inherent healthiness. "Clean eating" is a concept that has grossed me out right from the start. At its most malignant, it is a disease; it is orthorexia. Otherwise... well, just, fuck! Certain foods are not dirty or sinful! All of this has the potential to cause lasting damage, especially if these diets or this approach to food is tied in with being skinnier or more conventionally beautiful. It's part of this widespread perception that if a certain number flashes up when you stand on the scales, or you've overstepped your calorie allowance for that day, you've crossed a most perilous line — you're lazy, stupid, and unattractive.

Ruby Tandoh is a public figure whom I admire very much. As a queer British woman of Ghanaian heritage, who lived with an eating disorder for many years, her tweets, articles, and books disrupt diet culture and the traditionality of the food world. She wants people to enjoy eating, to ditch restriction, to embrace the fact that 'food is about culture, appetite, bodies, politics, sex, home, taste, memory, celebration, and revolution ... food is the whole damn world'.

A recent tweet of hers confirms that my initial, unflattering impression of vegans has indeed stuck with a lot of people (Ruby has since deleted her Twitter so this is in text format, not embedded — sorry!):

We might eat a certain way to establish our place in a group/family/society. This is the exact reason I got a little bit flexible with my veganism back in 2013, when I lived in a population 50,000 town in Bas-St-Laurent, Quebec, four hours' drive from the nearest metropolitan area.

I was still able to do my regular vegan grocery shop for dinners at home and lunches at work. But then came a crushing isolation I hadn't anticipated. Yes, I had a nice little group centred around fellow English-speakers in the town, on the teaching programme just like I was. But stepping out of that comfortable, fun-loving nest of comparing Anglo-Canadianisms and Britishisms, and navigating a new social realm in a second language — in a part of Canada that is not on the radar of most Canadians, at that — was something else.

In striving to achieve the elusive concept of "integration", I lost my mind. I was already different enough, what with the difficulty of keeping up with my colleagues' anecdotes held in rapid-fire Québécois vernacular, the tricky subject of my monarch's face on their banknotes, and my lack of a driving licence in an area that's not big on public transport. I didn't need to amplify my difference by being the awkward one when it came to food.
So if I was invited to go get poutine, I always went. Vegetable gravy was available, but vegan cheese wasn't. But the whole fun of poutine is the squeaky cheese curds anyway, so I went with it. And when I travelled to Vermont, it was beautiful early October weather and the Ben & Jerry's flagship store was in Burlington, so I didn't think twice about trying exclusive American flavours of my erstwhile favourite ice cream.

I was having such a shitty time inside my head that in those moments, I conveniently forgot all the horrible things about the dairy industry that I'd read a couple of years before. Food became a way to simultaneously blend in and paint over my pain.

We language assistants were instructed to follow one mantra in this foreign environment: say yes to everything. (I mean, goodness me, I live in Berlin now, where there's a million things to do and not one of them requires a car or shovelling three feet of snow, and I still discourage you from following this advice.) If you didn't say yes to everything, then it was your own fault you were miserable.
I couldn't put a foot right. I was gawky in social situations with locals, yet guilty whenever I stayed home watching Buffy on Netflix on -30°C nights. There a few different factors being thrown into it, but in short, my anxiety took a very bizarre turn, and I found myself basically unable to go anywhere without it being triggered. I ended up falling into the darkest depressive episode of my life and left the programme early to return to the UK, which was a financial and emotional challenge.

This is not to say that I would have had a much better time there if I'd gorged on hams every day and pretended to be an extreme sports fan, i.e. somebody I'm not. But I'm demonstrating an example of eating a certain way, for a little while, to keep yourself safe. Using food to cope with mental and emotional turmoil isn't an ideal long-term solution, but I do believe I would have been even worse off if I hadn't temporarily expanded the scope of what I would eat.

From time to time, I wonder if things could have been different for me in rural Quebec if there'd been no limits. I could have learned to drive, talked to people without the pressure of making friends to show off as trophies in my quest for Integration, worked from home, perhaps taken a French course to rejuvenate my confidence in speaking it — basically, just treat it as a fairly ordinary experience. I have been back to that town since, and I refuse to believe it is rotten, as I have some lovely memories, too. Those particular circumstances just weren't a great fit for me and my low self-esteem.

Maybe it is easy to conflate liking bacon too much with actually not caring that much about the colossal animal cruelty and environmental damage that is taking place every day just to get it to your plate. Maybe you can be faced with the statistics and facts, but still not feel moved to do anything about it. These aren't mindsets I can personally identify with, but still, they are out there and as such, they are somewhat valid because they come about through social conditioning and our education systems, which clearly need an overhaul haul.
Earthlings, Cowspiracy, all those other documentaries... they're an important part of the story, but they're not the whole story. I read today that the Trump administration plans not to grant food stamp recipients access to fresh fruit and vegetables. In parts of the UK, too, food deserts exist, with people in certain inner-city areas unable to eat well at all. Sure, tinned fruit and veg is a thing, but I don't think it's right for people who can afford to eat bountifully to exhort eating stuff they wouldn't touch to those on the edges of our consumer-driven society, if a pack of cheap (dairy) chocolate biscuits would make them happier. And if you put yourself down for eating a particular thing, that is not exactly healthy.

In the end, I make no secret of being vegan, but I'm not an evangelist. If I can get my omnivore friends to a veggie restaurant, that's fantastic, but I'm also happy if we can go to a general one that's mindful of vegans.

A lot of replies from vegans to Ruby's tweet were pretty embarrassing. Just do this. Just do that. Oh, I forgot fruit and vegetables didn't exist! I mean, come on. It is pretty self-evident that radically changing your diet isn't something you can do overnight and without any idea what you're doing, let alone obstacles like food deserts. And yes, you do have to attune your body to changes; I know that for me there's been a lot of trial and error.
No, you don't have to replace every meat burger or sausage with a fancy vegan version — but we need to ask ourselves why people tend to believe this is the case. We need to examine the fact that saying Get protein through [obscure grain you'd never heard of until now]! or Drink soya milk! are not solutions in themselves.

To me, veganism isn't about flipping a switch. If you want to do it but don't feel like you can go 100%, it's okay to make small changes. I had to make some adjustments back in Quebec to hold onto the sanity I had left. Every day, I feel blessed that I now get to live vegan fairly comfortably. I hope I am filling the gaps for those who can't.