TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains descriptions of behaviours linked to eating disorders.
I remember being eight years old and holding my Barbie doll in my hands, admiring her endlessly long legs, wasp-like waist and unrealistically slender limbs. “I want to be this thin”, I recall thinking.
Two years later, when I was 10, my teacher at school showed the class a photo of twin sisters who both had anorexia nervosa. My teacher’s aim was to scare us off from falling into the trap of the illness ourselves, but while most other students turned up their nose in disgust at the sisters’ disease-ravaged bodies, I found myself consumed with envy. “Imagine being that thin,” a voice whispered in my head. “Imagine people looking at you because you’re so thin. That’s perfection.”
“Perfection” became my key word for growing up. I wanted my grades to be perfect, my after-school activities to go perfectly, and later on, as I shed my glasses in favour of contact lenses in my mid-teens, I accepted nothing less than perfection when it came to my appearance. Only that was one area where I always fell short – at least in my own mind. One of my shortcomings, according to myself, was that I could never master anorexia. I didn’t have the willpower for it, and often ended up bingeing on food after a period of attempted fasting. To punish myself for the binge, for not being “strong” enough to carry on fasting, I violated my own body by forcing it to get rid of the food I had ingested in desperate fits of emotional eating.
By my late teens, I was bulimic, although I would never use that word to describe myself. No way. Bulimics binged and purged every day, didn’t they? I did it only occasionally, so I wasn’t really sick. I could stop whenever I wanted, I kept telling myself, sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by bags of crisps and chocolate wrappers. In those tear-stained, anxiety-soaked moments of bingeing, I would eat anything – except meat.
I had become pescatarian at 11, when I realised that actually, human beings could live without eating meat. I had felt conflicted about the idea of eating animals ever since I realised what meat was. I instinctively felt that I want nothing to do with the act of eating an animal’s body, but I also believed that humans had to eat meat to survive. It wasn’t until I met vegetarians and pescatarians and realised that this wasn’t the case that I took the step myself. I never felt the urge to eat meat again, including during my binges – gradually, I had stopped seeing it as food.
After struggling with bulimia, panic attacks and a crippling sense of anxiety for years, I got help. At 21, I stumbled into a therapist’s warm, welcoming office. I remember not being sure where to look, what to do with my gaze as the words came tumbling out: “I eat and then throw up, and I can’t sleep because I’m constantly terrified, and I worry that my head will never stop spinning.” The therapist asked questions. I answered. And I kept coming back, sitting down, and answering questions for years. I also remember my first time taking antidepressants. One of the side effects was fainting, and I worried that I would faint alone in my apartment and no one would find me. Antidepressants affect different people differently, but in my case, the medication combined with therapy slowly brought me out of the darkness, step by trembling, shaking step.
Years after that first afternoon in my therapist’s office, I found myself gravitating towards veganism. Ever since I met a vegan for the first time, I had been interested in this lifestyle, but didn’t take the step until I was 29, with much help from the chilling, unforgettable book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. After reading that book and connecting with vegans online, I realised that living a vegan lifestyle could not only be possible for me – it could also be easy and enjoyable.
And I was right on more than one level. Aside from the myriad of health benefits, veganism also brought a whole new meaning to food. It was no longer a crutch to lean on for emotional support, or something to be withdrawn for punishment. Instead, what I ate became a way to vote for change. Every time I made a food choice, I made a tiny yet significant step towards the world I wanted: one where animals were no longer objectified and commodified.
I am far from the only bulimia survivor who feels this way. In her Vice article “I Stopped Bingeing and Purging When I Became a Vegan“, Melissa Meinzer describes a similar epiphany to the one I had. “For me, veganism turned out to be more important than my bulimia,” Meinzer writes.” 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.”
Other survivors are also choosing to shift their mindset towards food by choosing veganism. “Being vegan is not about a diet,” says blogger Henya Perez. “It is a lifestyle I follow because animals are being exploited, tortured, raped and murdered in factory farms, and I will never take part in that.” Metro UK reports that Perez had become orthorexic after following a raw-food diet, and only allowed herself to eat salt and sugar again as she returned to a ‘non-restrictive’ vegan way of eating.
Of course, veganism is far from being a blanket cure-all, and some people, including eating disorder survivors, might not be able to embark on this lifestyle for a variety of reasons. I also understand that some eating-disorder patients’ experiences with veganism differ from my own, and support everyone choosing what is right for them. The key to my recovery was my treatment – my therapist, my doctor and my medication. Veganism did not magically make my bulimia disappear. But it did play a huge part in the change in mindset that was necessary for me to escape relapse and stay on a healthy path.
I no longer view food as related to my appearance or my emotions. Struggles still exist of course – you’re never completely free from the mind games of an eating disorder – but it’s safe to say that my life and my health have been transformed by my changed views on food. My diet is the least restrictive it’s ever been, because I finally listen to my body. I am more attuned to what my body wants and needs than I’ve ever been before, and I believe that stems from a deeper connection with myself and my values, including my desire to cause as little harm to animals as I possibly can. A few years ago, a non-vegan colleague told me that I should have one day every year when I could eat whatever I wanted. I replied that I already eat whatever I want – every day. That was never true before veganism, but it’s very much my truth today.
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Cover image via VGstockstudio.