I sort of went vegan again. I say sort of because it’s not strict at all, but it kind of is because I’m already a picky eater as it stands. Vegan-ish, maybe. I was thinking about not even telling people, because then it becomes a thing, and I already have too many things to deal with.
I grew up with a pretty unhealthy relationship with food. I was the very typical story you hear about low-income families who buy a lot of junk food and don’t spend a lot of time teaching their kids about fruits and vegetables and all of that. Really bad eating habits were ingrained/supported. I can remember a lot of times where my mom would make me eat a NutriGrain bar because that was all I could eat for breakfast. But then, I also remember a time where my family had Chinese takeout and Pizza Hut in the same damn day. Needless to say, there was a family history of health issues relating to diet, specifically diabetes and high blood cholesterol, which I was constantly told I would eventually inherit. I grew up afraid of my body and what I was eating, and as someone who was overweight as a kid (according to the doctor and my family at least), I spent time in middle school trying very hard to lose weight. I joined the track team, and that along with going through puberty meant that I finally became the skinniest one in my family. My eating didn’t change though, I would still eat lots of fast food in high quantities, it was just all excused because “I had a high metabolism.” Ugh.
Cut to high school, where I slowly and surely started making big changes. It was the summer before sophomore year where I decided to stop drinking soda, which was easy for me because I only drank lemon-lime sodas anyway. Then I was on the cross country team for a year and I was told to stop eating fried food, and I noticed a big difference in my health and energy. So my senior year, I decided to take it to the next level. I was gonna be a vegetarian.
Vegetarianism got a pretty bad rap in my family. Well, really, just my dad. In fact, the entire time I was vegetarian in high school (a total of three months), my dad consistently called it my “no meat thing.” It was a difficult time, not just because I was still dealing with my mom’s death and all of the drama around that, but because of how hard it was to maintain a healthy diet with no real food in the house. Plus, I was dealing with my dad’s lack of support. To this day, I wonder if me going vegetarian made my dad wonder if I was becoming “one of them.” “Them” would be the liberals or whatever. I already came out, now I’m a vegetarian. Next I was gonna grow out my hair? Well, I actually was trying to do that (it didn’t really go well).
I stopped after those three months because it was not working. Eating only prepackaged Alfredo noodles was not a healthy diet, even though I was grateful that my dad bought them thinking of me. Some of my friends made fun of me and taunted me with meat many times when we went out to eat. I decided that I was gonna try again at Oberlin, since that was gonna be such a vegetarian friendly school. In fact, my sophomore year of college, it was voted the top vegan college, with University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign being voted the top vegan university.
I didn’t start vegetarianism right away. But I definitely started and stopped my first semester of college. It wasn’t like the meat was so great at Oberlin, but I just kept giving myself excuses as to why I was giving up and starting over. It’ll be better to just wait for fall break. I don’t want to be disrespectful at cultural events by not eating the food there. I’d rather be healthy eating meat than not healthy not eating meat.
I went for it though after the new year. And it lasted for a while. I didn’t miss meat at all. And being in co-ops made it pretty easy to sustain my vegetarianism. I always worried about going home, because I didn’t know if my grandmother would be cool with me not eating her fried chicken or greens with turkey in them. But eventually, Thanksgiving and Christmas came, and I just ate the mac and cheese and salad. Crisis averted.
Sophomore year during my fall break, the life partner of one of my professors told me that vegetarianism is not as good for the environment as people think. In fact, it causes more harm. I guess it had to do with energy used for making/producing/transporting vegetarian food, or the energy the animals used or something like that. I thought long and hard about that “fact,” because 1. for every argument against vegetarianism, there’s a counter-argument, so who says that it’s right? And 2. I didn’t really become a vegetarian for ethical reasons, even though I love animals and the planet and all that jazz. I did it because I wanted to lose weight and stay “healthy,” whatever that meant to my messed-up-body-image-self. I prided myself on the fact that while friends of my started gaining their freshman 15, I actually lost weight. But then I thought, “Maybe I should be more concerned with my impact on the environment and the world around me. Maybe I should be a vegan.”
That was the big challenge. Vegetarianism was already a hurdle I had to pass in my family, and it was perfectly fine to do that at Oberlin. But once I started mentioning potential veganism, it was fucking over. Everyone felt the need to tell me about how they could not live without cheese or yogurt. And I’m like, “I don’t care, but OK.” I started psyching myself out about whether or not I could really be a vegan, so I waited and waited and made my excuses. Maybe you’re trying to be a vegan to mask your eating/body issues. Just confront them with a therapist, and leave veganism alone. Maybe that guy was wrong, maybe being a vegetarian is better overall. Maybe you should just eat meat again…
I decided that my New Year’s revolution my junior year was to be a vegan. I sort of tried to start before my winter break, but I decided when I went home that I wanted to eat Chicago deep dish pizza again. My whole idea of being a vegan was thinking in absolutes. My being a vegan meant that for as long as I would be a vegan, I was not going to ever eat an animal product again, unless forced to or by accident. I was house-sitting for my high school counselor, and she gave me money for groceries. A grocery store co-op had opened up in Oak Park and I was so proud of myself that I went there and bought all of my new vegan meals, all the breads and jams and pasta. I had invested in the supplements I would need since Wikipedia told me that vegan diets are low in omega-3s and Vitamin B. And I was happy to do it. For two weeks. Then I went to Amsterdam, and almost as soon as we got off the plane, I was offered stroopwafels, which are basically butter cookies. I gave up on the veganism, went back to vegetarianism. And then at some point when I got back from Amsterdam, I started eating meat again. And that was weird, because the meat was not that good. The first thing I had was dry-ass fried chicken from the dining hall in Afrikan Heritage House. I was like “This is what I stopped my ‘no meat thing’ for?”
I didn’t give up on meat though. I decided to just eat everything. Meat lovers pizzas over and over. By the start of the second semester of senior year, i.e. a few months ago, I realized the damage that had occurred. A combination of eating lots of red meat/pork, overeating, being on antidepressants, and just not working out as much led to a 50 pound weight gain over the year. And I found myself suffering from constant heartburn and just felt sluggish and shitty. I wasn’t too mad at myself, which surprised me. For years, I would beat myself up, even when I was at my skinniest (which was not necessarily my healthiest), if I messed up my diet. I was legitimately afraid of food. And I used vegetarianism and veganism to hide that. But over time, I learned to love my body and myself. I just figured this was a phase in my life. And honestly, maybe I’d get bigger. Maybe not. Maybe I’d be this same size for a while. That’s life.
So now, I’m in the process of losing weight, restarting my metabolism, all of that stuff. Over spring break, I decided to go back to being a vegetarian. Then I was like, “Let’s go vegan.” I don’t know how long that will last. I had read a study that a person is more likely to eat a certain way if there is a label put on how they eat. Part of why I claimed these titles was because people would see me in a certain light, and there would be a societal pressure placed on me to more or less prove them right, which I figured would only benefit me in the long run. I can’t be a vegan eating fried chicken all the time, I have to more or less prove I’m a vegan. I don’t even have to be aggressive about it, I would just tell people that I was a vegan if the occasion came up, or joke about how I can’t eat a certain food item if it was offered to me. That shit scares me sometimes. Sometimes I wonder why people care so much. And then I wonder why I care so much about why they care. So I felt like I was dealing with a combo of societal pressure to eat a certain way and my own feelings about my own health and body and fears of being just like my parents and many members of my family. That’s a lot. And it’s not going to go away any time soon.
But it’s OK. I view everything in my life as some type of learning experience. Being vegan, I dealt with people’s prejudices about veganism. I learned how to truly look at the food I was consuming. And I learned how to make vegan substitutes. I made many vegan cookies at my co-op that people did not know were vegan. These are also starved college students, but I took their appreciation as true support. I’m excited to move to Connecticut and work out how I’m gonna eat while living on my own. That’s usually the time that people get tripped up, especially if they’ve never had to cook on their own. Part of why I joined a co-op was so that I would be forced to learn how to cook. And I think I’m pretty decent. And I’ve learned a lot of vegan/vegetarian recipes on the way. I want to believe that being on my own and having to cook for myself and confront my feelings about food would help me to become more confident in myself, believe in my worth as a person, just continue to grow. I don’t know, I’m kind of at a loss, to be honest. All I can do is take it a day at a time.