I mentioned this morning that I am reading Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. I’ll try and say more about it once I’m finished, as I’m only through the first couple of chapters. It’s a grim go, early on — story after story of the bright, the beautiful, the dazzling consumed with self-loathing and tortured by body dysmorphia. It’s not a new story, but for those of us who have been dealing with this sort of thing for a while, it’s always a bit disheartening to realize that things aren’t getting any better. Still, a fuller review coming next week.
I was thinking about Courtney’s book a few minutes ago. Mondays are my long days here at the college; I teach four classes, and in order to fit those in as well as office hours, I get here around 8:00AM and won’t leave until close to 9:00PM tonight. Mondays, it goes without saying, are hard days to be a vegan. When I run in the mornings I rev up my appetite for the entire day, and though I try and pack a lot of food (nuts, fruits, veggies, tofu, juice) it only gets me so far sometimes. In the old days, I would go and grab a burrito or a chicken bowl at the “El Pollo Loco” franchise across the street. It filled me up if nothing else.
Half an hour ago, feeling peckish, I wandered into the little student cafe by my building. Tons of things to eat, but so few completely vegan choices. I settled for a little pre-packed bowl of melon and papaya (I’ll try and recycle the plastic container) and another banana. I thought about the slice of greasy, cheesy sausage pizza, and for a moment, I really wanted it.
There’s a trick to living a strictly vegan life. First off, as reading a book about eating disorders reminds me, I have to draw a bright and clear line between self-denial for the sake of self and self-denial for the sake of justice for my fellow creatures. I tell myself — and everyone else who will listen — I am NOT on a diet. This is not a temporary plan to lose weight, or something I’ll give up once marathon season comes to an end. This is a lifestyle choice — not to take into my body any animal products at all, to eat “raw” as much as possible, to avoid preservatives and high fructose corn syrup and all the rest of it. Whether it makes me thinner or fatter, makes me more pudgy or more defined, it can’t be about me anymore.
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. Back in 1992, I dropped from 175-145 the summer and fall after a divorce; on my 6’1″ frame, the 145 looked awful. I lived on small portions of junk food, and had no consciousness at all about whether or not animals were involved in producing what I was eating. I just wanted to have a body devoid of fat. 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.
But it’s hard not to focus on diet so much and not also think about how eating vegan (and doing a whole mess of runnin’) affects my physique and my overall appearance. The “is this about my ego, or is it really about the animals” question pops into my head almost every day, reminding me, as they told me in AA, to always “check my motives.” For anyone who has had an eating disorder, which I have certainly had, to move from casual vegetarianism to strict veganism is an experience that requires some regular self-examination.
It’s also hard to fight the urge to judge what other people put in their mouths. When I was exhibiting anorectic behavior, I got high as a kite on the bittersweet drug of self-denial. I did judge folks who ate a lot and didn’t work out. I spent years unlearning all that judgment, especially for my role as a feminist professor and youth mentor. I didn’t want the young people I worked with to torture themselves, to feel that overwhelming guilt over what they put in their mouths. I’ve wanted them to understand that they have a God-given right to joy, to delight in their own flesh. I’ve been adamant that feminism, food, and pleasure are all linked.
My feminism and my veganism, therefore, are in an uneasy alliance. On the one hand, they are natural allies. As many others have pointed out, there’s a link between patriarchal exploitation of women and human exploitation of animals. Men have used women to do unpaid work for millenia, and humans have used animals in the same fashion. The bodies of women are seen as “fair game” (a hunting reference) for predatory men, and pornography celebrates the idea that men are entitled to take delight (visual or otherwise) in the flesh of women who have little or no say in the matter. The meat industry teaches us that cows and pigs and fish exist solely to bring delight to our taste buds and satisfaction to our bellies. In patriarchal culture, the bodies of women and the bodies of animals exist to be consumed. Feminist veganism rejects the exploitation and abuse of living things; it counsels radical self-denial on the part of the consumer as a tool for liberating the consumed.
But women, particularly first-world women, eat plenty of meat. They also feel guilty about it, as Courtney Martin reminds us. The feminist in me wants the young women in my life to enjoy food, to reject the destructive cult of thinness. The vegan in me wants to curb and redirect the appetites of these very same young women. I don’t want them to have the pizza, the burger, the Milky Way bar, the mahi-mahi — not because I don’t want them to have pleasure but because that pleasure comes at the expense of a confined and tortured dairy cow, or a fish who died a slow, gasping death.
While historically meat and fish consumption might have been essential for survival, few Americans today would drop dead if they were forced to go vegan. They’d find life rigorously hard, at least many of them would. Hard, perhaps, in a way not dissimilar from the way a compulsive dieter finds her life hard. But the difference would be in the purpose of the self-denial.
So many feminist voices want our daughters and our little sisters to be less obsessed with calories and fat grams. We want our daughters to love their bodies, to delight in their flesh. We want them to stop readiing labels, and just eat what they want to satiety. But for me — and for other vegan feminist voices — that delight in guilt-free eating is highly problematic when it involves the exploitation of the victims of factory farming. Pleasure is a good. Overcoming crushing, unnecessary guilt is a good. But living, eating, and buying cruelty-free is also a powerful good.
There’s a book to be written here, or at least a longer article. I’ll muse on it some more. But I’m thinking that the phrase radical self-denial on the part of the consumer as a tool for liberating the consumed pretty much sums up my position on meat, dairy, and porn.
UPDATE: Stentor, who shares many of my concerns, has an interesting take here.