Recently, I was interviewed for an academic publication that sought to debunk the myth that veganism constitutes a form of disordered eating. Having lived in a state of ongoing ED recovery for the past five years now — and having experienced veganism as a profound mechanism of healing — I emphatically support the work my interviewer was attempting to do. Indeed, as a proponent of veganism, I no longer understand animal flesh and secretions as food, so likening my veganism to an eating disorder would parallel someone being concerned about my eating habits because I wasn’t chowing down on my carpet.
During the interview, my interviewer asked whether or not I felt anger toward folks who mask eating disorders with vegan consumption habits, only to subsequently speak out against veganism for the struggles it caused them. The question stopped me. Of course I wasn’t angry at such folks — I was one of them, after all, and I couldn’t possibly feel animosity toward someone solely for their destructive internalization of Western false ideals of beauty and body. But I understood where the question was coming from: there has been much backlash in the vegan community against ED-provoked former vegans — a backlash that I believe targets the wrong entities.
Instead of blaming people who hide eating disorders behind vegan consumption habits for giving veganism a bad name, perhaps we should engage in a critical analysis of how we who support vegan consumption habits tend to construct veganism in discourse and practice in such a way as to prompt folks to use vegan eating as a mask for deeper destructive dynamics.
While as I mentioned above I completely support efforts to de-link veganism from eating disorders, I can totally grasp the tendency to connect the two, since for many — including myself while in the depths of my ED — vegan consumption habits can serve as a method of justification for refusing certain calorie-dense foods (even though there’s an animal-free version of basically any dish these days) or loading up one’s plate with veggies. This linkage, however, depends at least in part upon constructions of vegan consumption as “the healthiest diet,” which serves as one of the main arguments for adopting vegan eating habits among vegan activists.
In vegan health arguments, I can identify a number of problems that serve to lend vegan consumption to a masking of eating disorders.
For starters, vegan health arguments construe veganism as primarily a matter of food choice. They thus equate eating with morality–an equation that has played a large role in my own struggles with disordered eating. For example, if I ate something I perceived as unhealthy, failed to include a leafy green vegetable in one of my meals, or ate more than my body needed at any given moment, I would feel a profound sense of guilt and disgust with myself. I based my self-worth primarily on how, when, and what I ate, so eating became a major marker of how I perceived my morality.
I can also see this dynamic play out in health-oriented vegan circles, which tend to lean toward no-oil/soy-free/grain-free/low-fat/etc. diets and equate such supposedly “healthy” eating styles with morality. Indeed, a number of my colleagues have experienced backlash from such circles for publishing recipes perceived as “unhealthy,” receiving such ludicrous comments as “you’re not really vegan if you cook in such-and-such a way” (which is totally false unless that way in which you cook involves animal products). Veganism thus becomes a path by which to achieve the “purest” form of eating, which many forms of disordered eating also seek to do.
However, if we understand veganism as one among many attempts to question the default ideologies – in this case, speciesism – that infringe upon our ability to coexist with others, practicing vegan consumption habits becomes but one action taken in accordance with a larger political orientation. Emphasizing vegan eating as one of many means rather than the end can help to cultivate an understanding of veganism as much more than just one’s eating habits, which can in turn promote a de-linking of veganism and eating disorders.
Additionally, vegan health arguments work to uphold capitalist, statist ideologies that delineate what count as “normal” (and thus acceptable) bodies–exactly the ideologies that help to foster a proliferation of eating disorders in the first place. I think that our conceptions of what counts as a “healthy body” are largely constructed by the capitalist economic system in which we live, which seeks to constantly accumulate more and more wealth. In order to achieve that constant accumulation, capitalism needs to employ as many people as possible in the service of profit-making. Since profit-making depends upon maximized productivity, the capitalist state can only thrive if it creates maximally productive (i.e., “healthy”) bodies — i.e., “healthy” bodies. Virtually all of us internalized a capitalist ideology that conditions us to see productive/”healthy” bodies as normal and superior to all others, so I understand what we tend to perceive as self-betterment as actually in service of the capitalist state.
This construction of “healthy” bodies is also profoundly ableist — if we understand ableism as a set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value to people who live with developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities — since they imply that thin, fully mobile, muscular bodies are the “best bodies.”
I’m not saying here that we shouldn’t strive to feel good in our bodies, but I am saying that we should strive to dissociate what feeling good means to ourselves from what constructions of a capitalist, statist society tell us our body should look and feel like. For example, currently and for a long time now, I’ve only been able to “feel good” in my body if I can perceive it as thin, thanks to Western societal ideals of body size. So, for me, dissociating feeling good from societal constructions would mean assessing my body on how well it can support me in everything I need and love to do, rather than on its size.
So yes, it’s very disappointing to see veganism employed as a front for eating disorders. But I think that instead of getting angry with individual former vegans for having internalized Western societal conceptions of “the ideal body” and grasping onto what is presented as a food-centric, “health”-related philosophy, we as proponents of veganism should work to challenge these capitalist/statist conceptions of “healthy” bodies by emphasizing eating as but one of many political actions in the service of anti-speciesism.
In solidarity, Ali.