Ivy Massey on ethical food anxieties.
Content warning: this article talks about disordered eating, anorexia, and pro-ana websites.
For as long as I can remember, I have been waging a war of attrition against my own body. I’m unsure of what exactly to call my issues with eating and my body image, whether they were even an eating disorder or simply a ‘bad patch’, since I never received an official diagnosis, but at the worst period of my teenage years I very solidly fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa.
My hair fell out, my periods briefly stopped, and I even began to develop a fine layer of white body hair, called lanugo, as my body attempted to insulate itself due to my lack of body fat. Teachers took me aside to express concern, and friends, unsure of how to broach the thorny topic of my sudden weight loss, teased me about how my prominent veins and knuckles gave me ‘old lady hands’. Despite previously being an awful liar, I began to tell hundreds of little lies each day, to my friends, my family, my teachers and myself. I was good at this process of weaving threads of untruth into truth, of holding onto each thread separately and making sure it was wrapped closely enough around the facts to give reasonable doubt to the fact that something was wrong. There was never an intervention, never a direct acknowledgment of my behaviour – only my mother once saying, as I told her I felt too ill to eat much dinner for the seventh day in a row; “You always feel sick now”. I think my symptoms and the distress I experienced were very mild compared to many who struggle with eating disorders and I was ultimately very lucky that I was able to recognise I had a problem and begin to tackle it before I had done any permanent damage to my body.
The most serious period of my eating disorder is now three years past and for a long time I deliberately avoided thinking about this period of my life. I have a bad memory at the best of times, and it seemed much easier, for a while, to let those experiences fade into the fog of my memory, and to deny that I had ever had any issues, or that they could still be affecting me. I still experienced feelings of loathing for my body at a higher level than I think is normal. I still checked my body in reflections, with my hands, or against the bodies of others, but the compulsions were much less intrusive. My relationship to food was still strange – I still felt guilt for eating more than anyone I was with, but I could file these thoughts away much more easily. In the past year, however, my anorexia – as I will call it for simplicity in this column, has been much more present in my mind. The first time I was able to recognise that this change in my thought patterns had the makings of a relapse, however, was during my brief attempt to go vegan last year.
For me, eating disorders are about control, perfection and morality. They have nothing to do with love or beauty, although both, in my experience, can make them worse. The Christianity of my early childhood may or may not have something to do with the self-punishing height of the standards I set for myself in all areas of my life. It sowed the seeds for thinking that asceticism is morally superior to hedonism, that fasts – from rest, sufficient breaks and pleasure as well as food – are virtuous. I realise, logically, that none of those ways of treating myself are healthy or even make much sense. One of my enduring frustrations with my eating problems has been that I feel as if I am much too sensible and clever to be listening to that part of myself – but it’s very difficult to ignore it completely. Recently, I began to direct my general moral code – to be kind, and to be as ethical as it is possible for me to be – towards the food I eat. I had been a vegetarian, on and off, for a little over two years, and was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my continued complicity in the dairy and egg industries. I didn’t think about how this might interact with the still-burning embers of my disordered thoughts, or how it could offer them new fuel, but soon I began to notice a difference. I found myself watching aspirational vegan ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos, ostensibly as research, but soon they began to take on a similar role to that food diaries and the thinspo on pro-ana websites had played during my worst periods of disordered eating.
Vegetarianism hadn’t felt like restriction to me, but veganism, with its language of ethical and moral purity and extremism, awakened very similar behaviours and feelings in me to anorexia. I kept an eye out during my month of veganism and was mostly fine, but several months later I am still noticing the way my increasing attempts to introduce morality into the way I eat is affecting my recovery and mental health. I now feel physically ill and notice severe dips in my mental health and self-image if I have to eat meat, which I occasionally still do, or drink ordinary milk rather than oat or rice milk. I feel a very familiar kind of intense guilt, disgust at myself and impulses towards restriction if I do not eat in a way I have deemed morally pure, and these intrusive and obsessive thoughts about food have been becoming more prevalent as I try to reduce my consumption of animal products.
This time does, however, feel different. I have been in therapy three times since the last time I was feeling this guilty about the way I eat, and am much better at recognising situations that could lead to downward spirals and avoiding them. I hope that I can continue to become a more ethical consumer while still being able to recognise that my complicated relationship with food and morality may mean that this happens at a much slower pace than I would like. The relationship between food and morality is not confined to eating disorder sufferers, however. It’s prevalent in mainstream media and discussions of food, most notably clean eating. Whether you have struggled with eating disorders or not, please be kind to yourself. Being a more ethical consumer is undoubtedly important, but your mental health must come first. Introduce changes to your diet and behaviour slowly, and assess how they are affecting you. Ultimately, it is important to remember that no one can be perfect, and to allow yourself to make mistakes.
Header image credit: Aike Jansen