This is not the first time I have written about being an Eating Disorder survivor, and I am continually open about my experiences of it, because the more we speak about mental health, the less shame people will feel for having destructive feelings and the more likely they are to seek help. It is therefore extremely important that I am frank about the recent OUSU-run competition “Veggie pledge”.
In a well-meaning campaign to raise environmental awareness, people were encouraged to “pledge” a certain level of vegetarianism on a public Facebook group. The college with the most pledges won a hamper of vegetarian food. For a person who has a completely healthy relationship with food, I am sure this would be a fun challenge. However for a person who was once reduced to tears at the sight of a cheese and onion omelette, it brought up old feelings of guilt, fear, shame and that temptation to stay hungry.
No matter which way we look at it, vegetarianism is a restrictive diet. It involves the deliberate avoidance of a large part of the food web. Anorexia thrives off restriction. A distinction must be made however: one can follow a restrictive diet without having anorexia- there is nothing nutritionally wrong with a balanced vegetarian diet-, but it can be very dangerous for someone who has had anorexia to deliberately embark on diets that encourage restriction in this way.
Allow me to explain how one’s restriction may escalate. I like to call it The Ripple Effect. This is where one begins by having a small circle of foods one would prefer to avoid, or would feel guilty about eating. On healthier days, for me, these tend to only include what you’d expect: pizza, cake, ice cream. However, if the ripple has been triggered, if I have dropped the stone, this circle gets bigger, until pretty much all foods that aren’t some kind of miserable salad are now absolutely bloody terrifying. Hence the omelette-induced tears.
Term times at Oxford are already stressful to the point that I am poised to drop that stone, and on some days it takes me all of my willpower to keep going, to keep reminding myself that I have the right to eat whatever I want, that I am in control, and that hunger is only going to slow me down. Suddenly, along with my own irrational urges, there were these legitimised voices there telling me to stop eating meat. Even if I love the taste, it’s immoral, it’s wrong, it’s murder, it’s causing global warming, we don’t need to eat it anyway and it’s making me fat. My anorexic voice loved the veggie pledge. There were people other than her now telling me to restrict my diet, so I dropped that stone.
Luckily for me, I have the benefit of two year’s worth of therapy and the heightened sense of self-awareness that comes with mental illness recovery, so I was able to reign it in after a couple of weeks. I am still steadying myself, still having to give myself little pep talks before each meal that it’s okay to eat cake, that a carbohydrate won’t kill me and still deliberately missing the odd meal. Still, I know who is and who should be in control, and it isn’t this pathetic excuse for a disease.
Others, on the other hand may not have it so easy. Maybe they haven’t been diagnosed; maybe there are other circumstances in their lives making it harder for them to fight – or, for whatever reason, maybe they don’t have the belief in themselves to carry on, and realise they deserve to be happy, well-fed and healthy. This breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that someone could be made to feel unable to talk about the painful ideas threatening them every day, and it hurts me that some may have had these harmful ideas rationalised, and encouraged by something as well-intended as the veggie pledge.
So please, look out for each other. Look out for yourselves. Make sure you treat others how you would like to be treated, and yourself how you would treat others. Make sure nobody is made to feel alone. At the end of the day, we are all worthy of love and deserving of care.