In fifth grade, I became a vegetarian—not because of animal welfare, the relative sustainability of a meat-free diet, or to save my mom money on steak.
No, my sister and I had decided to see who could last longer without our beloved BLTs, steak burritos, and mom’s meatloaf. We chose meat because we both liked it and consumed it often; the challenge could have just as easily been TV or Nutella.
She lasted three weeks. I lasted nine years. What can I say? I have a competitive streak.
After a while, being a vegetarian became a habit. Everywhere I went had a meat-free option, and I was eating tasty food, so it didn’t feel like I was denying myself at all.
But I almost certainly would have rejoined the omnivore ranks at some point—if I hadn’t developed anorexia nervosa my junior year of high school.
Not to make it sound like the flu, but I got seriously sick seriously quickly. One minute, I was a normal, healthy girl; the next I was working out all day and analyzing the nutritional content of every morsel that passed into my mouth.
And unfortunately, the length of my illness was definitely not flu-like: it went on for two years. Two years where the only person who didn’t want me to get better was me. Ironically, I was also the only person with the power to “cure” the sickness.
As an anorexic, I cut food groups from my diet left and right. Goodbye, fat! See ya never, sugar! I certainly wasn’t about to re-introduce anything back in.
Not eating meat gave me a socially acceptable way to say no to a plethora of dishes. People may look at you funny when you consistently turn down birthday cake, but no one bugs you when you don’t eat a hot dog.
People—mostly doctors—have told me there are only two options when you’re anorexic: recover, or die. I finally realized skinny didn’t equal happy. It just made me isolated, hungry, tired, selfish, insecure, and combative. So I chose to recover.
Finally, I was back to eating regularly. Still no meat (after all this time, the idea just seemed bizarre), but I definitely indulged in lots of ice cream, cookies, pizza, pasta, candy bars, Chinese food, and basically everything high-calorie that my brain had been stamping with a big fat “NO” for way too long.
Here’s where my journey into veganism most resembles the traditional one. See scary documentary, realize the horrors of the dairy industry, renounce all animal and animal by-products. In my case, it was actually a book: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer.
I was most impacted by Foer’s depictions of factory farming. Even though I wasn’t eating chicken, I was eating eggs, and those eggs came from chickens packed together with less space per bird than a sheet of printer paper. The hens can’t extend their wings or move, so by the time they’re taken from their cages, their skeletal systems are severely deteriorated. The ends of their beaks are cut or broken off, without painkillers, to prevent fighting, and when they stop laying eggs, they’re starved for two weeks to shock them into a final laying cycle.
I discovered similarly horrific facts about the cows producing the base for my Greek yogurt, milk, and ice cream.
Plus, being vegan is just plain better for the earth. It takes way more resources and produces way more waste and greenhouse gases to raise a cow than to raise a crop of green beans.
I was back to feeling guilty about the butter on my bagel, but this time for ethical reasons, not caloric ones.
At first, I just dropped cheese. That wasn’t so hard; after all, I had just forsaken it for two years. Then milk was replaced by almond milk, Greek yogurt turned into coconut yogurt, cream cheese turned into Tofutti, and butter became Earth Balance.
I felt amazing. After all, every time I ate I was helping the world! Dogs seemed to look at me with new friendliness, pictures of baby pigs filled me with pride, and PETA ads silently validated my diet. I was hyper-careful about not proselytizing, but secretly, I felt like my way was the best way. If I could give up a couple food groups to alleviate animal suffering and help the environment, why couldn’t everyone else?
Then I started noticing something alarming. Being vegan was incredibly helpful at pizza parties—I had a built-in excuse not to eat the (greasy, high-calorie) cheese pizza. Breakfast places were a breeze—oh shoot, I couldn’t have the (decadent, rich) chocolate croissant or the (oily, fatty) omelette, so I guess I’ll just have to order the (safe, plain) oatmeal.
If being vegetarian had let me get away with not consuming all sorts of “normal” foods, being vegan let me get away with not consuming, well, anything. My eating disorder came back in full force, but no one noticed. In fact, everyone was calling me dedicated and altruistic.
It felt like a win-win. I could eat an incredibly simple list of foods (mostly fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains) and placate my eating disorder, while simultaneously pleasing my conscience.
I carried on like this for a few months. There was a growing voice inside my head telling me I couldn’t keep it up—that I had worked too hard to exorcise my demons the first time around to let them return. Unfortunately, while fighting anorexia is hard enough on its own, this time I also had deep moral qualms about eating regular foods.
I told myself my personal health came first. I told myself I couldn’t be an advocate for veganism if my motivations weren’t 100 percent pure. I told myself that if I could ever get to a balanced lifestyle—where food and exercise weren’t on my mind 24/7—then I could return to the diet.
I fought my way through recovery once again, and this time, I didn’t only start re-eating ice cream and cake, I also introduced meat. I figured the only way I could bury my disorder was to live with no dietary restrictions whatsoever. There couldn’t be a single item on any menu that I could get away with not trying.
When I was in fifth grade, “doing the right thing” was a black-and-white concept. And at that age, one of the biggest sacrifices I could make was giving up meat.
Now I have much more at stake—like my health, sanity, and happiness. I still care deeply about the planet and the non-suffering of animals. But doing the right thing for myself actually means doing the “wrong” thing and eating meat.
I strive for balance, and I certainly can’t achieve balance while living with anorexia. The good news is that just because I’m no longer vegan or vegetarian doesn’t mean I can’t still make ethical choices. I can buy eggs from chickens that were raised in a pasture, not a cage. I can buy meat from producers certified as humane. I can buy ethically-made yogurt.
While these choices are certainly more expensive, that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make. There’s no such thing as a perfect consumer—so I’m just going to do what I can.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to Her Campus, The Prospect, and her college newspaper. Her work has been featured on xoJane and The Huffington Post. The only thing she loves more than writing is dessert. Follow her on Twitter @ajavuu.