Posts Tagged ‘College’

Women and Vegetarianism

It’s a fairly well known phenomenon that the majority of vegetarians and vegans today are women. In fact, according to this article in the Vegetarian Times, women vegetarians outnumber men 2 to 1. Why? It’s an enormously complicated issue, and there are probably boatloads of interrelated causes. A quick search of “vegetarian women” brings up 1,160,000 hits. Yikes. Regardless, I’ve got a few ideas about what these reasons could be–none of them particularly unique–but a few ideas nonetheless. And I’m going to come back to this later. It’s a huge topic, and I can do it no justice in one quick post. Today I aspire only to get this ball rolling.

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Eight memes:

1. Men are hunters, women are home makers. Admittedly, we associate men with hunting for pretty decent reasons. I get this. I don’t like it, but I get it. Hunting is truly a badass activity, and it’s a damn shame, if a tolerable one, that women have rarely been able to own the same badass and lithe image. What is definitely not okay, however, is that this makes meat a manly food, and leaves little but alfalfa to the women folk. Moreover, the association of men with meat throughout history might also have developed out of the imbalanced gender dynamic. Men are on top, and men get served the richest food, which happens to be meat. Think about Beowulf, Roland, and Arthurian courts. Them royalty ate nothing but elk and pheasants. I’d be willing to bet that even with the advent of chivalry a few hundred years later, if food were sparse, men got the hearty stuff and women the light. Typical. Lame. Unfortunate lasting effects.

2. Women have an ascetic history with food. For a brilliant text on the origins of this phenomenon, check out historian Caroline Bynum’s seminal work Holy Feast Holy Fast, a revolutionary analysis of medieval women and the ways in which they wrung spirituality from their depressingly bland lives. Fasting was a way in which women could connect with Jesus Christ. They could not partake in many of the Patriarchy’s rituals, but they could always internalize their spirituality. This manifested increasingly in attempts to mimic and to experience intimately the suffering of Christ. And in the later middle ages, experiencing intimately the suffering of Christ was all the rage. Thus, women became uniquely associated with fasting. This is doubly fascinating because up until this time, bodies and food were heartily appreciated in European society. And the lower classes continued to feel this way. But it was with the increased interest in Christ, spirituality, chivalry, and courtly manners, and with the decreased agency of women, that women began undertaking asceticism as a form of definition, and as one of their only means of power and control. Eating was one thing you could never be forced to do.

3. Women today maintain an ascetic relationship with food. This makes me sick. Ugh. Literally. Every single ad for food marketed to women (never meat, by the way, but dainty foods such as fruits and cereals and sweets) is about indulgences, healthfulness, being slim, and taking care of that nasty appetite. Our society perpetuates the female burden of having cravings you shouldn’t (or couldn’t) ever satisfy, and I believe that this goes along with vegetarianism. My vegetarianism, personally, was often marked by a “if you can’t do it, you’re too weak for vegetarianism” type attitude. I remember very clearly the day my best friend converted* to vegetarianism. When she complained of never being satisfied, I told her she either wasn’t doing it right or that she just needed to deal. She had to pick which option it was. I feel so, so sorry for that. And I always will.

(* Religious language.)

4. Come to think of it, women have an ascetic relationship with everything. Think 1950s. Think corsets. Think douches. Women need to be perfect, need to be dainty, and need to dampen their corruptive carnal influence. Women need to hide their personal needs and imperfections in order to be perfect and catch a man. Thankfully this shit is OUT. THE. WINDOW. But vestiges of it remain and permeate our attitudes. This isn’t to say that men don’t face equally heavy pressures, both from themselves and from external forces. But they are different, and I’ll treat you 180 percent fairly in another post, promise.

5. Meat is lustful and impure, and suspected throughout history of causing lustful thoughts: women need to be light and pure. European Monks have historically eschewed meat for this reason. Related to items 3 and 4.

6. Now here’s an interesting thought.  What if female vegetarianism is not driven primarily by ascetic ideals, but instead by feelings of empathy and love? Is it more common for a girl rather than a boy to melt upon learning that Bessie is on her way to the slaughterhouse? Perhaps. But even if it is, we have to wonder if this is a natural phenomenon or a culturally conditioned phenomenon. Maybe empathetic connectivity is genetically wired into my brain more strongly than the brains of the boys who I witnessed drop-kicking frogs at band camp. This would explain a few things. Yet again, maybe we raise boys to be macho and girls instead to practice motherhood on worms in jars. Regardless, I think we can all agree that women tend towards the more communicative and the more empathetic. I’d guess that this phenomena accounts for a decent portion of animal rights vegetarians.

7. Women are more assiduous about their health. Studies by Men’s Health show that women go to the doctor approximately 35 percent more often than men (4.5 times per year versus 6.2). And according to theveggietable.com, the most popularly cited reason for vegetarianism is health. Huh. This is a neat little correlation.

So far as environmental vegetarianism goes, I’ve been dong a fair bit of googling and google-scholaring to see if I can dig up some data about male and female vegetarianism in the sustainability movement. I was off of a hunch hypothesizing that this is perhaps the one motivation for vegetarianism in which men and women are fairly even. But this was just a feeling. I don’t really have any idea. It’s possible that female empathy compels women more often than men to give up meat for the sake of sustainability, just like women more often give up meat for the sake of the cows, but it is–in my wildly inexpert opinion–true that men are equally as capable and driven to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. I’d in fact be rather indignant if people were unfoundedly claiming otherwise. In any case, I would really love to learn about this, if you have any resources or ideas.

8. And a final thought: what if women have been taking up vegetarianism as a part of contemporary female empowerment and norms? I have this amateur theory that women populate and excel so much over men in universities today precisely because they are told their whole lives that they are facing an uphill challenge and therefore adopt a more serious Go Get ‘Em attitude. This makes women… more driven? More focused? More disciplined? I don’t know. Moreover, there is a negative flipside to this ambition. Young women today feel not only pressure to perform, but also pressured to be “perfect without trying. ” This is extensively discussed in gender theory and feminist circles these days. (Check out Feministing) I witnessed this every day at Dartmouth, and I lived that way myself. Often it was manifested in spending hours on having perfectly disheveled bedhead hair, going to the gym for two hours a day but not telling anybody, or doing extra studying in secret. My vegetarianism was another way of building that perfection. A “difficult” lifestyle, a way to distinguish myself, and a way to come off as an even more moral and put-together individual, vegetarianism was an ideal way to… well, be perfect. I did what I could. It was misguided, but what do we do in life that isn’t misguided?

(Forgive me for conflating ‘women’ with ‘female’ a few times. Perhaps female was actually the correct term to use throughout much of this post. What do you think?)

Thoughts? Comments? Concerns? Did I fuck something up royally? Miss a really big idea? Let me know! Make me smart!

My Paleo Journey

Perhaps a good way to start out with my blog is to share my past. This should demonstrate why Paleo eating and living is so important to me. And perhaps, if you’re new to all of this, it will convince you to give it a shot, too. That would be wonderful. I’d be happy to help you get started.

And finally, please, as always, take everything I have to say with a NorCal ™ margarita full of salt. I try my best to be fair and to make sense of life. But that’s a giant challenge we all struggle with, so use your judgment as best you can.

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My story began in adolescence. I was…not quite fit. Perhaps 30 pounds overweight. Cute enough. Clean enough. Happy enough. And certainly productive enough. But I loathed myself. I loathed my body, and I loathed it even more because I should have been able to control it, but I couldn’t. What  I lacked, I thought, was willpower. I ate as healthfully as absolutely possible (with the occasional binge thrown in) but it didn’t make a difference. Special K cereal in the morning with skim milk, grapes and yogurt and a bagel for lunch, and salad or pasta for dinner. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But I was always grazing, never satisfied, and perpetually deprived. I hated myself for eating that much. Clearly, I lacked the control necessary to be truly beautiful.

So passed the years of 2002-2006.

I got to college in 2006 and my friends told me to love my body. Okay. I was a bit too busy running all over the world and getting pissed in fraternity basements to really be disgusted anyway, but still I lumbered on with my loathing. Moreover, for environmental, ethical, and health reasons, I became a vegetarian. (More wrath re: vegetarianism later). I needed to be stricter to be healthier. And I was. I ate virtually zero fat, with an avocado perhaps once per week and an egg white omelet perhaps once per week. I ate tofu. And I ate oatmeal, and I ate salad, and I ate approximately my weight in dried fruit. Also, continuing my habit from adolescence, I killed myself on cardio machines at least once per day (I was a college student and went to the gym at six AM: wtf?). Today I am appalled at the kind of damage I was doing to my adrenal system, to my liver, and to my brain.

Three years later, I wasn’t any smaller. I’m 5’2, and at the time I wore sizes seven and nine. And in September, miracle of miracles, I got a stomach flu. In my opinion at that time, this was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. It gave me momentum to keep losing weight. And now I’m really strict, but it’s working. I was eating perhaps 1300 calories of carbohydrates and cycling at least an hour each day. I dropped weight FAST. 30 pounds in three months. And I loved it. Of course it was hard as hell, and of course I craved food every second of every day, and of course I felt monstrously deprived, but at least I didn’t hate myself anymore.  I had control. My friends were terrified. Everyone was voicing disordered eating concerns. They convinced me I Had A Problem, and I panicked even more. How do I be healthy? How do I maintain weight? How fucked up am I really? Will I ever stop being hungry?

That winter I suffered a number of anxiety attacks. Have you ever gone an entire seven days without sleeping? I can’t explain to you how horrific it was. I wasn’t in control of my emotions at all, and I was barely functional. My hands never stopped shaking. There were some other hard things going on in my life, aside from the food issue, but clearly something wasn’t working. I remember one night when I couldn’t sleep, going downstairs and eating an entire carrot cake. It was blissful, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

My mom finally got concerned, catching wind of the whole disordered eating deal even though she was seven hundred miles away. She had been eating Paleo for about six months, and she voiced her opinion to me. “Stef,” she said, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I want you to read this book.” It was Nora Gedgaudas’s Primal Body, Primal Mind. I was a scientist, and it was a principle of mine to be as open minded as possible. Fine. I’d do it. But I was not happy. “Mom,” I choked out on the phone, trying to get some privacy in a packed student commons “even if it turns out that it’s healthier for me to eat animals, I won’t do it. It’s not right, and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice.”

Well, I did. I read Nora’s book and marked with sticky notes where I thought she was wrong. But by page 60 I stopped that hyper-sensitive, unfair nitpicking. I had studied evolutionary biology. I had read popular science books. And I had common sense. My life became a series of Duhs. I lived in a house full of vegetarians, and I began trying to get them to read Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint, which I had also read, and loved fiercely. One of my roommates suffered anxiety issues the same way I did, and I thought that fat imbalances and nutrient deficiencies might be messing with her brain like mine. I didn’t really know, but it was possible. All the sudden, I had all these changes I needed to make. Fast.

Immediately I jumped into eating “Paleo.” Admittedly, I didn’t quite make it. I was still afraid of fat. If I, someone who was feeling hugely deprived, wanted to enjoy food, and to eat a lot of food, conventional wisdom told me to eschew the foods with the greatest caloric density. And of course I knew that one grape has two calories and one teaspoon of oil had one hundred and five. But my efforts were better than nothing. I cut the dried fruit I loved so dearly; I cut the cereals that had been a pillar in my life since I was five years old; I added in the animals. Thus, I stopped obsessing over food. The sugar cloud floated away. I breathed freely. I thought clearly. My shoulders drooped. I fell asleep each night with a degree of peace I hadn’t known before.

Since that day in March, I have eaten a huge variety patterns within the parameters of paleolithic diets, including a few weeks in Europe when all of my calories came from canned tuna and cheese. Today, I eat a lot of eggs, seafood, organ meats, seaweed, cruciferous veggies, and whatever interesting tidbits Taiwanese night markets have to throw my way. I have maintained weight without hating myself. (Well, for the most part. More on that later). I still struggle with sugar. I still struggle with binge eating. Sure, these days it might be a whole head of cabbage instead of a whole box of cereal, but that still isn’t ideally healthy. And I do still struggle from time to time with body image. Someone once told me that you can never condemn a disordered eater for their habits, because the actions they are taking are the best ways they know how to deal with the demons inside them. Wise. I like being (need to be?) thin because it’s the best way to keep out the loathing. But MOST importantly: the degree of my neuroticism is perhaps 10 percent of what it used to be. Cool!

Eating paleo is a weapon against demons. Mine are practically vanquished. I feel like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Be gone, soul-suckers! Paleo works, And it works brilliantly. I am satiated when I eat, now, and I have better memory. I sleep seven hours a night for the first time since I was a young child. My hair has stopped falling out in frightening chunks. It grows faster. My skin is brighter. I work out less often, and when I do I enjoy it more. I forgive myself for my lapses because I know that all of the foods I am putting in my body are healthful. I no longer have excruciating pain in my knees and hips. I never feel the need to take naps. I have energy, and it fucking rocks. I can work for hours at a time without stopping. Did I say this rocks? It rocks.

There are other aspects of the Paleolithic perspective that have also altered my life. I have a different understanding of technology and of relationships, and as a result of reading the fantastic book Sex at Dawn, I think more benevolently of mankind. I think community is important, now, and I think more openly about sexual relationships and fidelity. I have read books such as Meat: A Benign Extravagance and realized that vegetarianism is not a catchall solution. I have identified the ways in which our modern world is at particularly strong odds with some of my natural inclinations, and I have done my best to manage those desires (eg: I will watch one EPISODE of House on my laptop, not one MARATHON of America’s Next Top Model on a TV.) I recognize the importance of play. And, while a lifelong workaholic, I try my best to live slowly and deliberately.

I like stopping. And I like smelling flowers.

I have never worn shoes. And I never will.

Paleo is for me, therefore, all about liberation. It is about the healthfulness of my body, the freedom of my mind, and, because of those two things, the peace in my soul. I love this life like it’s my job, and while there are elements of my life and the paleo world that I still struggle with, it’s a beautiful, evolving journey. I have nothing but whole heaps of adventure and vitality to look forward to.