The Dark Underbelly of Veganism
This morning I watched the story on ABC about blogger Jordan Younger and her battle with orthorexia. It could have been a great story about self-acceptance and overcoming a physiological disorder. Instead, it’s a blatant bashing of veganism. Though disappointing, I’m not writing to debate Jordan’s choice to give up on veganism; that’s another topic for discussion. I’m writing because I’m angry – really angry – about how the media continues to portray our vegan lifestyle choice as the reason for people’s suffering.
I, too, had an eating disorder. In my senior year of high school, I struggled with anorexia. My weight dropped from 135 pounds down to 86 pounds, and I’m 5’7”. I remember clearly when the switch flipped on and when it flipped off for me so I could heal. I grew up eating the standard American diet. It wasn’t the diet; it was me and my brain.
NationalEatingDisorders.org defines orthorexia as: Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia is not an official eating disorder. The site shares that orthorexia appears to be motivated by health. Still, there are underlying motivations, including safety from poor health, the compulsion for complete control, escape from fears, wanting to be thin, improving self-esteem, searching for spirituality through food, and using food to create an identity. The site makes no mention of a vegan diet being the culprit. And that’s because it’s not the culprit.
I hadn’t even heard of orthorexia until this morning, but if I had to make a guess, I would think it could affect people on paleo diets, unprocessed diets, raw (not necessarily vegan diets), low fat, low carb diets, and anyone who becomes so concerned about what they eat, they end up reeling out of control from an overly controlled state.
I know this feeling from my anorexic days. I could count every calorie on my plate. I knew the fat content of what I ate. I added numbers in my head, and if something didn’t fit into my mindset, I literally couldn’t pick up my fork and put it into my mouth. And I couldn’t just enjoy a meal without thinking obsessively about what I was eating. It’s an odd feeling, and it’s a psychological disorder unrelated to any specific diet. It’s about control, acceptance, self-esteem, and so many issues young people and a few older people, mostly women, experience.
While I wish Jordan a healthy and happy life (and shame on those who made death threats at her because of her decision), I am disappointed she chose to give up her vegan lifestyle since healing is not about what you do or don’t put on your plate, but about what goes on in your mind. And as a vegan, I still believe it’s the best way to eat for animals (there’s no such thing as “humane” slaughter), the environment, and yes, health.
What disappoints me even more is the attitude and comments from the media, starting with JuJu Chang. When Chang uttered, “You basically exposed the dark underbelly of veganism.” I shuddered. When Younger replied, “Exactly,” I knew I had to speak out because I vehemently disagree.
A few weeks earlier, the news reported about a young mother who refused to get medical treatment for her dehydrated baby, locked herself and her baby in her home until social services had to intercede and get help for the baby. They took the baby out of the mother’s custody. And why did all this happen? If you watched the news story, it was because the mother was vegan, not that she perhaps had a mental illness, or maybe her doctor didn’t do an adequate job explaining how the hospital would help the baby. Was she suffering from postpartum depression? Who really knows what other factors might have contributed to her behavior. And sadly, we won’t ever know. According to the media, it all happened because she was vegan. Not due to any other reason.
Why must the media continue to portray veganism in such a horrible light? Having a mental illness is not related to a vegan diet any more than it’s related to an omnivorous diet or the Atkins diet. You never hear stories about omnivores who do something awful and blame their diet as the reason. In fact, any mention that meat, dairy, or eggs might not be all that good for you, or be harmful to you, gets shuffled swiftly under the rug. The evidence is out there; watch a few clips from Dr. Michael Greger at NutritionFacts.org, and you’ll get an earful. But this information rarely goes mainstream.
So, my vegan friends, I pose this question. How do we put veganism in a good light? How do we gain more acceptance with the mainstream media? How do we get them to stop linking our lifestyle to issues far beyond diet? What can we all do to move our lifestyle out of the “dark underbelly” of biased reporting?
For me, I’ll keep writing, creating recipes, and sharing the positive things I know about my lifestyle with as many people as will listen. And I’ll live by example. When people tell me I look great for my age, I’ll smile and let them know it’s at least due in part to my vegan diet. I’ll take care of myself. I’ll take care of my environment and make my footprint small as I can. I’ll care for the animals. I’ll be their voice too. I’ll support vegan causes I believe in with my time and my money.
And I’ll forgive myself for not being perfect. None of us are.
While I might feel discouraged when hearing stories like Jordan’s, I won’t stay discouraged, and I won’t give up on this lifestyle. It’s too important. I hope you won’t either.