Archives – The Link Between Eating Disorders and Vegetarianism

A new study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicates adolescent vegetarians are more likely to have an eating disorder than their peers.

The study was designed to investigate the relationships between vegetarianism, weight and dieting behaviors in teenagers and young adults. Researchers found that 15 to 23-year-old vegetarians had healthier dietary intakes and were less likely to be overweight. The active vegetarians also displayed a higher incidence of disordered eating behaviors, including restriction, binging and purging. The highest risk group was young adults who’d formerly been vegetarians, with 27 percent displaying symptoms of an eating disorder.

The popular interpretation of this study has been an attack on adolescent vegetarianism. Admittedly any diet that allows you to reject an entire food group can be manipulated to benefit an eating disorder. Vegetarianism can also be a convenient excuse for someone looking to minimize or skip meals. In these instances, refusing meat is used as a method of restriction, which is distinctly different from vegetarianism motivated by morality or health concerns.

So I feel compelled to state the obvious – just because an eating disordered person is a vegetarian, it doesn’t mean they follow a vegetarian diet because of their eating disorder. Yes, I am a vegetarian, and yes, I am a recovering bulimic and anorexic. I began cutting meat out of my diet when I was 11 years old, before I had an eating disorder. My vegetarianism continues to be an ethical choice and has nothing to do with weight loss.

However I do think my vegetarianism and eating disorder share a common trait – thinking beyond the plate. In a society that encourages inhaling mass-produced junk food on a daily basis, conscious eating is a rarity. Very few people actually contemplate what they put in their mouth or how it will affect their body. Such blind consumption contributes to a slew of health issues, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To be aware of where your food came from, to consider the impact it will have on your body, is exceptional. At its best, this attitude leads people to adopt a vegetarian diet. At its worst, this awareness contributes to a destructive mental illness.

It makes sense that people with eating disorders would also have moral opinions about where their food comes from. When you spend hours and days and years obsessing about the effect food has on your body, you are going to think about the food itself. You consider the ingredients, the processing and ultimately the origin. Spend enough time pondering these answers and vegetarianism is practically inevitable. But that does not mean the vegetarianism is disordered, it merely means the disorder helped bring you to vegetarianism.

Even when they coexist, a vegetarian diet and an eating disorder do not need to be codependent. You can recover from an eating disorder without consuming meat. My treatment team was very respectful of my beliefs. They helped me setup a meal plan that incorporated alternative sources of protein. One staff member even made special trips to the natural food store and brought me black bean burgers every week. They proved it was possible to refrain from meat while learning to eat again.

If you are a concerned parent, please realize that adolescent vegetarianism is not an eating disorder. It can be a very healthy and responsible diet. If your child decides to become a vegetarian, try to actively support that choice. Engage them in a conversation. Discuss their motivations and highlight the beneficial impact this can have on society and their long-term health. Then help your child eat a balanced diet. That may mean cooking special meals, or better yet teaching them to cook meatless dishes themselves. But don’t make them feel guilty about their choice. Mixing food with shame is a guaranteed recipe for an eating disorder. Support their decision now and you’ll build the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Archives – Verses of Forgiveness

This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Beneath the salt of everyday life, there was a bitter taste to my skin. I could feel it on my tongue, intensifying after days of not eating, when the fat burned away and my essence rose to the surface. I was a sour girl. I was an angry girl. I was a girl who lived the opening lines of “Stay Golden” by Au Revoir Simone. “I saw it coming/ I just thought that you should know.”

What I saw coming this time was the inevitable break up of yet another unhealthy relationship. My boyfriend told me he was moving to LA in the middle of a rock concert. He handed me a drink, leaned close so I could hear him through the whining electric guitar and sharp popping of drums, and said he was leaving. The June night pressed into my skull, hot and pulsing, cauterizing the senses. By the time he said he didn’t want anything to change, he wanted to make it work, even over such a long distance, I had cut him away. He was already another ex-boyfriend.

“Stay Golden” is my anthem of forgiveness, fittingly off an album titled Verses of Comfort, Assurance and Salvation. Of all the things that weighed on me, that made my body feel fat and bloated, my latent resentments were the heaviest. I had never learned to forgive, probably because I can never forget. I remember every word, the clothes we were wearing, the books on the bed stand. The picture may fade with time, yet the negative is always there, smudged faces and ghost eyes burned into my brain.

Or perhaps it was just men. I could not forgive men. A man’s rough hands grabbed me and broke my trust long ago, and other men followed, snapping my instincts of worth and preservation, leaving only dry kindling behind. I tried to make my body perfect so a perfect man would love me. I merely succeeded at making my body sick so only sick men could love me.

So it is no surprise that my deepest grudges were with ex-boyfriends and former flings. “A careless word is complicated,” Au Revoir Simone sighs. “An emptiness still leaves a space.”

When I met Au Revoir Simone at SXSW, I had the uneasy feeling of looking in a mirror. They had the same dark hair and bangs, loose tops over skin-tight pants, an air of sweet sorrow even after a successful show. When I asked them about their fans, the singing keyboardists immediately acknowledged the dedicated young girls who grabbed onto their music with such force.

I smiled in recognition. Of course the lovesick band geeks and dark artists embraced Au Revoir Simone. These young women know what it is like to be a sour girl. I can hear the acid lingering in their lyrics. “So don’t feel bad,” they reassure the clumsy man who held a delicate heart. “Realize all your emotion/ And may you find all your relations/ Will keep you free.”

But in “Stay Golden,” Au Revoir Simone shows there is an aftermath to anger. The music is a fall day in Brooklyn, sitting alone at a coffee shop, the terrible memories buffered in a Prozac dream. It is a muted script, a close-up of a girl staring out the window, pale sunshine and poplars reflected on her cheeks, thinking, but not too deep, not so deep that it hurts. The sharp edges and chords of dissonance are removed.

“I’m feeling better every day.” When they sing this line in their soft bird voices, I think of mercy. I think of moving on, of recognizing and making amends. I think of a beautiful view. It is always fresh, always pure, always on the horizon. There is a reason to drift forward. There is something beautiful over the next hill.

“I’m feeling better every day.” The most beautiful lyrics, repeated twice, more melodic than the rest, remind me where I am today. They remind me to turn these patterns of golden light into a new memory. They remind me to forgive.

I do not have to make myself anything. I let myself be happy, I let myself be kind, I let myself be at peace. And I am feeling better. Every single day.

Archives – This is the Simple Life?

This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

“Write yourself: your body must make itself heard.” – Helene Cixous

The thin body is made for consumption. Reduced to its essence, potent and pure, distilled on sleek magazine covers, we swallow it like a smooth pill. We stare hungrily at tabloids in the supermarket checkout line, rows of artistically angular women staring coldly back. The thin body itself does not consume. It transcends want and need. And Nicole Richie, a girl who is clearly needy, who so desperately wants to be wanted and has redesigned her body to attend those needs, rises above the rest.

In November 2005, the reality TV star graced the cover of cheeky Jane magazine. On The Simple Life, which debuted in 2003, Richie was the court jester to Paris Hilton’s princess routine. She had the foul mouth and dirty mind to pull it off, but she also looked the part. Hilton’s svelte body and carefully coifed appearance was the ultimate foil to Richie’s round, ratty, ridiculous look. So when she appeared in Jane, resplendent amongst a hazy field of summer flowers, she was barely recognizable. The rough-hewn recovering heroin addict suddenly possessed classic Audrey Hepburn grace. Richie had new clothes, new hair, new makeup, a new dog. But the most dramatic difference was her new body. The teaser on the cover read, “Nicole Richie on her drastic weight loss and that Paris catfight.” By dropping the pounds Richie shed her old image.

This is the slim-down dream: Leave your excess baggage behind, become light as a bird, and the sky is the limit. It is no surprise that her continuing weight loss was applauded as part of a stunning makeover. In Style dedicated their summer 2006 “Beauty Transformation” to Richie, displaying an initially unflattering timeline of pictures starting in November 2001 that culminated in her triumphant rebirth as “a modern Twiggy.”

Then the narrative became more sensational. On Nov.13, 2006, Richie was once again a cover girl. This time she was the lead story for celebrity magazines OK! and In Touch, and was prominently featured on the front of People, Life & Style and Us Weekly. She even got The National Enquirer. The headlines declared “Scary-Thin Nicole Seek Treatment” and “85 lb. Nicole’s Fight for Her Life.”

When her body continued to shrink, going from stunning to scary, Richie defined a new breed of skinny star. The tabloids anointed them the “pin-thins.” Teen idols like Lindsey Lohan, Mischa Barton and Richie passed their nights in the same clubs with the same men wearing the same designer clothes. Yet the common link in their narratives became self-destruction in all forms, especially those vices that could support their poignantly waifish appearance.

Eating disorders are conventionally interpreted as a way to take control, to reestablish personal power by seizing your own body. But control took on a different connotation with the pin-thins. These young women were referred to as “out of control.” Their alleged eating disorders looked more like a rebellious outburst or angry addiction than the passive submission of starvation. Each pound lost symbolized another screw falling from their unhinging lives. Ultimately, these freefalling party girls overindulged, even when it came to restrictive nature of extreme weight loss.

In a perverse inversion that confirms every little girl’s body image nightmares, the dangerously tiny stars become increasingly popular. Life & Style featured Richie in a September cover story called “Body Obsession: Extreme diets! Plastic surgery! Why gorgeous young stars are risking their lives for the perfect body.” The perfect body meaning extreme thinness, an aesthetic that physically and mentally weakens women. Losing significant amounts weight requires a caloric deficit through restriction or purging that leaves the body constantly lacking fuel. So the body begins to eat itself in an attempt to survive, burning both fat as well as muscle tissue, which includes vital organs like the heart. Maintaining an unnatural weight requires a similar physiological struggle. As the body attempts to reset its metabolism, everything slows to a sluggish pace, the brain fuzzy and the body weak, still consuming itself in an attempt to find enough energy for daily functions.

Richie adamantly denies her weight loss is due to an eating disorder, but do the semantics matter when her body so clearly plays the part of an anorexic? The drastic weight loss has stripped away her multi-dimensional personality and turned her into a commodity, something to buy and consume. And commodities do not get to speak. In lieu of quotes, the tabloids prefer to highlight photographic timelines of her figure. In Touch estimated Richie is 5’2″ and lost 35 pounds in 3 years, equal to 28 percent of bodyweight. Life & Style guessed 40 pounds, showing three pictures of Richie labeled with their assessment. “First she was plump” at 125 pounds in 2003. After dropping to 108, “she was just right” at the end of 2004. “But then she went too far” when she hit 85 pounds.

Richie’s thinness, initially praised, now suspicious, has become the only voice we listen to. In the startling pictures, beneath the layers of designer clothes and huge sunglasses, her bones are razor sharp, her joints luminous in the fluorescent lights. We see an empty body; we see an empty soul. An empty soul is a blank canvas; a blank canvas is endless with possibilities. This lost girl, searching for love, found it the dead space that now surrounds her. So we watch, stealthy as vultures, always wanting, ravenous for more.