A vegan diet is a healthy diet, right? Not always—one woman confesses how veganism really covered up her dangerous quest to be thin
Most vegans would never admit that their lifestyle is all a front to be thin. Of course, there are many reasons people choose the lifestyle: a stand against animal abuse, to support local farms, or to bring down big, bad corporate food overlords. But in reality, there is a whole subset of vegans who chose it simply to look good in a J. Crew bandeau bikini—myself included. For us, vanity trumps ethics. Changing the world is a nice residual effect.
I'd like to think the idea of going vegan occurred to me after watching some harrowing documentary or eating $10 worth of 25-cent chicken wings. In fact, it was moving across the country that inspired me. I'd recently transplanted from my lifelong preppy East Coast environment out to L.A. There, I soon became intrigued not just by the popularity of veganism on the West Coast, but by the trendiness of "No"—no meat, no dairy, no gluten, no refined sugars, maybe some air, if you're lucky.
I gladly joined the ranks of the no-animal-product eaters—all of whom were seemingly lithe, beautiful, and filled with ethereal energy. But what I didn't realize was that by becoming vegan, I was committing to more than just a dietary change. I was saying goodbye to my entire identity. Back home, I'd been the girl who'd break apart crab legs with ease, drench the meat in butter and Old Bay, wash it down with a cold Stella, and still look good in her Lilly Pulitzer seersucker dress. That's who I thought I was. Now, I was walking away from that girl to become a thinner one.
"You're so L.A.!" my East Coast comrades said when I told them about my new lifestyle. After the big announcement, they designated me a stereotypical West Coast hippie. I became paranoid around them, imagining that everything I did was being noted and picked apart, from turning down Chenin Blanc for a Matcha latte to trading my sensible chinos for Uggs with jean shorts (something I'm still not proud of). To them, being vegan meant I was losing my edge, my groundedness, and my drive. It meant I was living up in the clouds, one step away from quitting my stable job to go do yoga in Costa Rica. Little did they know, I was just as driven as ever. Now, it was the thought of looking like those perfect L.A. vegans shopping for sprouted grains next to me at Whole Foods that I was driving toward.
I dove head-first into the bottomless world of tempeh and pea protein. Being vegan justified me declining junk food (and unwanted calories) and eventually, turning down almost all food. Veganism was easy for someone like me, who craves control. It gave me strict parameters, and as the weight began to fall off, nobody questioned it. I was skinner than I'd ever been: chest bones popping out, birthing hips whittled away. Who cared what my old friends thought when I looked this good in a crop top?
The compliments poured in, and I was addicted. But once people got used to the new me, the praise began to wane. I, in turn, became more restrictive, to be more thin. First it was vegan, then gluten-free vegan, then raw vegan. I was obsessed with food, counting every calorie, even though I was eating like a baby rabbit. I planned my life around the gym, exercising up to three hours a day.
I distanced myself from situations that might involve food. I ate the same salad, alone in my office, each day. I declined birthday dinners. The thought of meeting a friend for a drink became an anxiety-ridden decision: That glass of wine might be a slippery slope toward eating everything in sight. It was exhausting. But instead of telling people I was going nuts, I told them I was "doing this whole raw, gluten-free, vegan thing." And because I offered that familiar dietary label, they accepted it.
But where was the vibrant energy? Where was that grace and peacefulness that supposedly came with vegan skinniness? All I felt was empty. I'd eradicated my body fat, social life, and personality; I was a starved shell of what I use to be. But rather than admit I might be spiraling into disordered eating, I hid it behind veganism.
I kept it up for a year before the comments slowly turned to concern. Old and new friends were worried—not just about how I looked, but about how I seemed devoid of so many things that made me me. Once, I'd been outgoing and charismatic, but in restricting food in such extremity, I'd restricted my whole self. I invested all my energy into living up to this thin, idealized "vegan persona" I had created. I wanted myself back.
One day, I found myself staring at a piece of sirloin steak at Whole Foods for 20 minutes. It was the perfect consistency: tender, juicy, pink in all the right places. It would melt in my mouth like a warm glob of butter. In my mind, that hunk of meat symbolized the old me: fun, outgoing, wine–drinking, and never afraid to carry an extra 10 pounds if it meant enjoying myself. On the other side of the plexiglass was the new me: introverted, lettuce-housing, and terrified to eat anything outside my "safe" list. The two were finally coming head-to-head with each other, a battle of Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant in Wrestlemania III proportions.
I didn't eat the steak that day. It would have been the easy way out. I didn't want to simply revert back to the old me and ignore what I'd experienced in the last year. I didn't need to scarf down a piece of meat to find myself. I needed to start a meaningful relationship with my body for the first time in my life, and quit jumping between extremes.
And how's that going? Okay. It's like being an awkward 14-year-old girl who just discovered she has boobs. It's terrifying and exciting at the same time. I'm still on the slow climb out, and that's a lot harder than it was to fall in. My metabolism is wrecked, my stomach (and mind) hurts after eating something as basic as cereal, and I've become the cheapest date in the world; two glasses of pinot, and I'm ready to take my top off. It's an odd feeling, realizing you have no idea what your body actually needs. I am still a vegan, if not a militant one. I'm following my body's lead—learning to trust it rather than fight against it.
Until now, I never understood how much my personality was tied up with the food I ate, whether it was crab or tempeh. Food wasn't just a jumbled mush of macro and micro nutrients; it was a major source of my identity. I gave it (and its ability to affect my weight) a lot of power. But now, I'm finally learning to separate the two, and trying to live devoid of labels. I'm allowing myself to be the boat-shoe-wearing, tempeh-crab-cake-eating, football-watching preppy vegan that I am. It's not about choosing one side or the other. It's about figuring out what the fuck makes you happy! It took me a lot of raw cashews to figure that out. I'll send Whole Foods my therapy bill.
This article originally appeared on Refinery29.