Trigger warning: This article contains accounts of an eating disorder.
It all started in 2007. I was 19 years old, living in a dorm and experiencing all that college and living independently had to offer. After several semesters of eating everything available in the student food court, drinking to my heart’s content, and gaining well beyond the “freshman 15,” I found the dormitory gym. I started working out regularly and trying to watch what I ate. As the weight slowly started coming off, I got sucked in.
I needed to work out harder. I needed to lose more weight. I had to keep going. More, more, more. More water, more exercise, more restriction of my diet, more weight loss. Less me.
As I worked out harder and my body adjusted to my new lifestyle, my weight loss started plateauing. I needed a new plan, and in my search for a new weight loss strategy, I found myself at home with vegetarianism. Vegetarianism and veganism, while entirely ethical and healthy in the right hands, are an eating disorder’s best friend. It becomes you, and it defines you. You are not “anorexic,” you are a vegetarian. You love animals. You are doing it for the greater good.
You lie to yourself.
I became immersed in the vegetarian lifestyle. It became my identity, and I hardly went a meal without discussing it.
I am Emily, the vegetarian.
But this article isn’t meant for recollection of my eating disordered years. It isn’t meant to tell you why eating disorders are bad, or dangerous, or scary, or lonely. It isn’t meant to discuss the lack of help and support available to those with eating disorders. Because, like most mental illnesses (especially addiction), those who are not disordered do not understand. “Just eat more!” they say. “Just stop restricting. Stop purging. WHY WOULD YOU PURGE? That’s disgusting. Who does that to themselves? How do you go without eating? Aren’t you hungry?”
Maybe that’s meant for another article. But this article is about my recent journey back to eating meat, and what I learned in the process.
After a seven year journey with vegetarianism (which I maintained even through eating disorder recovery), with a year of veganism sprinkled in, I had an insatiable craving for shrimp about four years ago. It went on for days, until finally I caved in. I ate shrimp that night. And again the next night. And for a good five to seven nights after that. I quickly realized that the shrimp didn’t harm me. It didn’t change my life, and it didn’t make me heavier. Nothing really changed, but something inside me said I couldn’t just put all food back on the table. I couldn’t allow myself to open up my world that much, because that much freedom was scary and overwhelming, even years after reaching my lowest weight and the peak of my eating disorder. So I became a pescetarian. It felt safe.
I’m Emily, the pescetarian.
And it stuck, for several years. Until a few weeks ago.
“I’m craving steak,” I told my husband. He told me to eat some steak. “I can’t just eat steak, I don’t eat meat,” I told him. A few days later, I had the same craving. I was dying for steak. But why? I wondered whether my body was low in iron, or whether I had some sort of nutritional deficiency that I didn’t know about. I knew I wasn’t pregnant. So when the same craving snuck up again and I discussed it with my husband, he told me to buy steaks and propane…and I complied.
“We’re going to grill them tonight!” he said excitedly. It made me nervous. Would I be giving up my identity? Would I be letting down the animals? Would I be failing my body? Or showing our kids that giving up a former “passion” was that easy? Was I neglecting some greater purpose in life by agreeing to eat a thick piece of red meat of all things? Who would I be if I started eating meat again?
I chewed up the steak and felt it swirl around in my mouth. I noticed the flavor, the taste, the texture, all of it. I tried to make myself feel bad, or maybe just guilty. I searched for The Guilt, expected it even. The flavor was good but the texture was odd. It was a new experience and I savored each moment. I sat and thought about what would be different once I ate the steak. What would I lose?
It turned out, nothing changed (“duh!” you might think). That may mean nothing to many, but to me, it opened up a world of possibilities. The one string that still tied me to my eating disordered past was finally broken, after 12 years. It took me 12 years to finally realize that what I eat cannot and will not ever define me. It took me 12 years to let go of an identity that I only took on in an effort to restrict my eating, to control every bit of my diet and lose weight under the guise of martyrdom for animals and an illusion of activism. I finally realized that although my heart deeply understood the ethical benefits of avoiding meat, I personally hung on so long because it was the one aspect of my life I still had ultimate control over. The eating disorder still spoke. It still had a voice.
I absolutely still support vegetarianism, veganism, anything-ism, as long as it’s done for the right reasons and that you are able to remain healthy and happy doing so. I will never support factory farming and unethical farming practices, and I will always do my best to ensure any meat I eat is antibiotic-free and farm raised. I will always support local farmers. I can’t say I’ll stuff myself full of animal protein each and every meal, and the transition may be slow and steady but for now…I’m a happy, healthy, omnivore again. I’m Emily. And that’s just how I like it.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, call the NEDA hotline at (800) 931-2237.