I've spent a lot of time in the last nine months asking myself, Is this okay? Is it okay for me to eat this ice cream? Did I push myself at the gym enough? Too much? Can I live with the body I have at this moment? Am I enough? Am I okay?
The answer rarely comes without significant mental wrestling. I know what I want the answer to be, and somewhere, deep down, I know what it is: Yes, always. (And: Calm down, why don't you. You're eating lunch, not curing cancer.) But, those words don't come easily, because until last fall the answer was always: No, never. You are a crazy, disgusting mess.
Isabel Foxen Duke spent much of her life telling herself a similar story. At 19, she went into treatment for an eating disorder that had been exacerbated by drug abuse. She knew she needed help, and when she was finally released, it was with the knowledge that she was officially a Binge Eater. "It became a part of who I was," she wrote in a piece about eating-disorder identities. "And, that protected me for a long time."
The essay struck me for a number of reasons. At first, I was alarmed. It had always seemed to me that diagnoses were a crucial cross to bear, if only to protect oneself against relapse — the way an alcoholic is always an alcoholic in AA. But, what if that diagnosis became an all-consuming part of one's personality? Duke moved on from inpatient treatment to Overeaters Anonymous and eventually to working with a private coach who helped steer her toward eating intuitively. Though Duke was no longer engaging in self-harming behavior with food, she was still thoroughly absorbed in the idea that she was sick — sick and unfixable.
Then, one day, things changed. Isabel was bemoaning her illness during a session ("I was like, “Ugh, my eating disorder, blah, blah, blah,”) when her coach interrupted: "Isabel, why do you keep saying you have an eating disorder? You eat like a totally normal person." For the first time, Isabel believed it.
When I met with Isabel last month to discuss this story and how it changed her relationship to food, she explained, "[My coach] was absolutely right. I was eating like a totally normal person. There’s no difference in my behaviors with food today." Now, many years into recovery and an eating coach herself, Isabel reflects that it wasn't until that conversation that she was finally able to let go of the idea that she was not okay around food. And, it was only in releasing the identity of Eating Disordered Person that her cycle of disordered eating broke, once and for all. She already knew how to eat. But, at last, she could trust that knowledge.
I'm on my way there, I know. But, I do envy her the faith it takes to leap away from one's identity, ugly and constricting though it may be. I've been calling myself "fat" and "hopeless" for so long that to call myself anything else feels illegal. It feels good, too — empowering and new. But, still, I feel I might be caught at any second by those who want to slap that old label back on my big, fat face.
Then, I watched as it happened to someone else.
Just a few days after meeting with Isabel, I clicked on Instagram and saw a huge announcement from Jordan Younger, aka The Blonde Vegan. Younger's been a huge supporter and friend of The Anti-Diet Project since Day 1. Though we obviously approach food in different ways, we both believe that eating is about finding what works best for your individual body. Jordan was a true pal and an ally to a meat-eater like me, and I was thrilled to have her on my side.
Her eponymous blog was huge in the online vegan community, and she'd built a business around her love of the lifestyle. So, when she posted an entry on June 23rd titled, "Why I'm Transitioning Away From Veganism," the response was huge — and, frankly, fucked up.
Jordan's whole world was based on her vegan identity. She's an all-or-nothing kind of girl, and in this case, her extreme personality fostered an extreme devotion to healthy eating — and eventually triggered an eating disorder. For months, she overlooked the warning signs: injuries, missed periods, etc. "I started living in a bubble of restriction," she wrote in the now-famous blog post. "Entirely vegan, entirely plant-based, entirely gluten-free, oil-free, refined sugar-free, flour-free, dressing/sauce-free, etc. and lived my life based off of when I could and could not eat and what I could and could not combine. There is nothing wrong with any of those things...but my body didn’t feel GOOD & I wasn’t listening to it."
Jordan was finally diagnosed with orthorexia, an eating disorder that revolves around a "fixation on righteous eating." Food quality and "purity" become the center of an orthorexic person's life, and in Jordan's case, it was even harder to tell the difference between disease and diet. "Vegan" wasn't just the way she ate, it was her name — the identity she had believed in for so long.
"Labels are very important in the early stages of diagnosis, when people are coming out of denial," Isabel Foxen Duke had told me only days earlier. Jordan needed to shed the vegan label in order to see the orthorexic one. She's in that early stage of recovery, when a person needs to face her illness head-on. And, she also needs a reminder of why she's making this change, because she's got an extra challenge on her plate.
"SHAME ON YOU."
"You are a fucking disgusting hypocrite."
"Don't let your body become a cemetery."
"No wonder you're so ugly."
"You aren't even blonde!"
Thousands of her former followers turned on Jordan after the post. For all the support she's gotten, many see her as a traitor to the cause and (though they'd never harm an animal) feel no compunction about threatening Jordan's life. That's correct: She's gotten death threats. Though Jordan has now changed the name of her blog to The Balanced Blonde (FYI, last commenter, I'm pretty sure she's blonde), and moved across the country, where she's working her way back to health, Jordan is reminded daily just how powerful words can be.
Labels are dangerous. But, labels are necessary. We need them to know who we are, but just as important, we need them to know who we are becoming. And, that means letting some of them go. It's not easy for anyone, whether you're actively struggling to free yourself from an eating disorder or desperately clinging to a lifestyle that no longer serves you. It's even harder when you realize that letting go of the label means stepping out of a community — and an identity — that made you feel safe and comfortable.
This summer, I'm letting go of mine. Every day, I wake up and loosen my grip a little more. And, I'm learning that "safe" and "comfortable" aren't all they're cracked up to be.