Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rant: Vegan activism as able-bodied privilege

I'm a vegetarian (as of September this year), because after reading one of Peter Singer's books, I couldn't deal with meat anymore (not even fish). While I am ethically okay with my choice, it is a pain in the ass socially; I do not want to impose my choices on others, and I hate being that person, the one who no-one wants to have over or go out for dinner with because they are annoying about food. I also worry that for some, my choice will imply judgment on their choices, and I don't want that; everyone needs to do what they need to do to stay happy and healthy, and (particularly that latter bit) for people with many medical conditions that implies a diet which includes meat as a source of protein.

Which brings me to vegan activism: It is a form of able-bodied privilege. If you read (for example) this page, it states that 'a properly planned vegan diet is healthier than the average American diet' and that 'it is very difficult [for a sensible vegan] not to get enough protein'. Ironically enough, that page also recommends B12 supplementation, and while B12 can now be artificially synthesized, I would lay money that the synthesized form was tested on animals).

Back to the claims on, though, which as vegan activist sites go is fairly mild: both the claims listed there (and a number of others I have chosen not to address) rely on the assumption of an able body to hold true. We don't normally think of able bodies in terms outside of motor functions, neurology, and the senses working adequately, but none of those systems is the one most affected by veganism. If you have (as I do) a digestive tract that does not work correctly, not only will a vegan diet not nourish you adequately, it may actually kill you. Patients with bowel diseases need more protein than the average bear, particularly when they are ill. This on its own would be no problem, but when you combine it with the type of protein readily available in the vegan diet, it becomes a problem. Those with active bowel disease often need to be on a low-residue diet, that is a diet that won't leave too much stuff in their poo to irritate them, or block up narrowed areas in their intestines. Fibre (as is foind in legumes) and nuts and seeds are all potentially harmful (and in very rare cases, fatal) for many bowel disease patients with active disease. This leaves only highly processed soy protein as a protein option to fulfil those extra protein needs which (in addition to being a very dull diet for patients with high protein needs and risking taste fatigue and thus further weight loss) may be a cancer risk (it is also an allergen, which would leave some people completely unable to use it).

Now, as I have said, I do not judge others for their choices about their diet. Like Jill, I believe that it is best to eat things that are humanely farmed, and I personally will only eat free range eggs, but I also recognise that veganism (and to a certain extent vegetarianism) rely on economic privilege as well. I also recognise that for some, their health is a barrier to a meat-free diet; this is likely to be true for me in my lifetime. Having said all that, I respect the choices and commitments that vegans make, but vegan proselytizing, particularly the kind where everyone should go vegan and consequences be damned, is a form of able privilege, and I am here to call it out.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rave: 'Ana's song' as a representation of pain

As I said in my post yesterday, 'Ana's Song' by Silverchair has been in high rotation for me lately, partly because I have noticed (and been saddened by) the food issues in society around me, but probably partly also because I'm in that kind of mood. Whatever the reason though, it is an incredibly clever song.

It's well known, I guess, that the song was written by Daniel Johns in the throes of his own struggle with anorexia and other mental illnesses so the pain is very real. The song is about anorexia nervosa, though, and while I was never anorexic, it certainly resonates with some of the less-sane coping strategies I have witnessed, and used myself.

There is an incredibly clever pairing between the quiet, high, stripped down first verse and the description of the destruction of anorexia that it offers: Even as Johns asks it to 'please die', and talks about it's sharpened nails, he sounds like he is singing about love and lust. The rhythm section of the song kicks in with the chorus, and adds the tension to the music between the open fire that burns, and needing that same fire. The verse is once again soft, talking about the seductions of a coping strategy that fails and hurts every single time, until describing the damage done, where the tension again becomes evident. The third verse is positively ragged, and while it is the most "sane" of the verses in terms social perception, it is the place in the song where the music is roughest, one could almost say angriest. The song closes with two repeats of the chorus with slightly less tension, but tense nonetheless.

The pairing of the "least sane" lyrics with the most seductive parts of the song, and the "most sane" with the angriest, most ragged, least stable parts of the's clever. It reflects obsession from the inside so cleverly that the listener becomes sympathetic with insanity without even noticing.

I am truly in awe of what was done here, and I think the world is a more beautiful (if sadder) place for the existence of this song.

Rant: 'Please die ana' and other food obsessions

This is going to be a bit of a rant, so if that offends you I suggest you look away now. The topic of today's rant is food, and in particular the way we have managed to generate obsession in a time of plenty.

In the past week I have watched someone suffering so deeply from an eating disorder I can count every bone in her body put out eating disorder awareness fliers out before she went to work out. I've read a posting on an online community from someone who, trying to instill healthy eating habits in her children said there was no dessert, and then ate candy from her desk; this post led to others (all women) saying they can't open Halloween candy because they eat it all. I've seen one of the fittest people I know actively wage war on half a slice of cake. I've read the story of someone trying to balance blood sugar and digestive disorder, saying that the "healthy" pasta was not worth it for her. I've had someone tell me that they need to join weight watchers because of their risk for heart disease (and their hatred of exercise), but they are worried about it because they have no food or body issues. I've seen a man on TV claim that the meal he cooked at 50 (his first) was the high point of his life, and that until that point food had been merely fuel. Is it any wonder 'Ana's Song' is in high rotation for me right now?

The nexus of all this, of course, is food and the ways in which people do not enjoy it, and all of them in one way or another resonate with me. My relationship with food is only now starting to normalise after a time where I could eat nothing due to illness, and then a time where I would eat a table if it wasn't nailed down because I was on prednisone, and frankly that is enough to headfuck anyone. Part of coming back to food, for me, has been coming back to enjoying it without fear, and part of that process has been noticing how completely and utterly fucked up most people's relationship with it (and I am not letting myself off the hook here) is.

In a time of plentiful food, as many of us in the west are privileged enough to enjoy, instead of enjoying it, food has become an instrument of torture for so many of us. Fat hatred has talked huge numbers of women into imposing artificial famine upon themselves, and when we do break that famine we gorge, because we're not being "good" so why the fuck not? The wester beauty ideal has a lot to answer for, let me tell you. When it isn't famine, it is eating the "right" things as defined by some metric of health; there is even a named eating disorder for taking this to extreme: orthorexia. The specter of "long term health" is being used as a stick to beat food choices with now, for many, and as in the case of my friend above some people can't win for losing. And even for those who are fuelling their bodies, for some it has become utilitarian and there is no joy in it. And lack of joy does not even begin to describe the hell and the demons battled by those with EDs; hell and demons that make me unspeakably sad.

What the fuck have we done as a society? How is it that we have managed to take the joy out of food for so many people, when there is plenty of food to go around? How many people are not performing at their best right now, because they are underfuelled, or obsessing about what they want to eat? How many people are eating chocolate and feeling nothing but guilt?

Do me a favour today: Enjoy something you eat, and don't feel guilty about it.

Postscript: Without meaning to, and truly ironically, I posted this just after the end of 'Love your Body Day' where I live. Life is so weird sometimes.