This post was originally published on November 30, 2015.
Thanks to a popular blogger’s health scare, I just found out about an eating disorder I was unfamiliar with—orthorexia—and I have to confess that this news has somewhat alleviated the guilt, irritation and judgment that I’ve always felt about veganism. See, I’ve felt guilty because if I were a better person I obviously would never eat anything connected to the industrialized meat industry and irritated because—well, nothing is better than cheese. And I’ve felt judgmental because I feel judged by vegans, some of whom can be very righteous about their food choices. This in turn makes me judge the “formerly” anorexic people I know whose disease now seems sheltered behind a rigid veganism. Of course I also know vegans who truly care about eating in an earth-and-body friendly way, and knowing them is an inspiration to eat more thoughtfully.
A Vegan’s Dilemma
But the recent news about Jordan Younger’s experiences as the Blonde Vegan blogger after she took to a vegan diet to battle digestive issues confirmed my secret suspicions. At first, the diet, she says, was “cleansing and detoxing,” and Younger’s “stomach problems seemed to be resolved.” What a result! Younger was a true convert, and her blog became so popular that she accrued over 70,000 followers on Instagram.
The diet, and her blog, turned Younger from an anonymous college graduate into a self-supporting writer. It wasn’t to last, however. As she recounts in a recently published memoir, Breaking Vegan, within a year of starting the blog, her stomach problems returned. She also stopped getting her period, was shedding hair and had blue lips. She’d dropped 25 pounds and was constantly exhausted. And she was famous, even admired, for touting the diet that brought her to this state.
Orthorexia or Plain ol’ Anorexia?
According to Younger, she’d become the “textbook example of an orthorexic.” Orthorexia Nervosa, for those not up on these things, is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. It’s not recognized by the DSM-V as an eating disorder, but according to many medical practitioners the condition is real and complex. Orthorexia is allegedly motivated by health but there are usually dark compulsions underneath, including a demand for complete control, a search for self-esteem and spirituality, an escape from fear and using food to create an identity.
Perhaps many would say that Younger was a straight-up old school anorexic. There’s certainly an argument for that. At the end of her vegan days, she was consuming only 800 calories per day in the form of green juices and could scarcely get out of bed, but she was still touting her healthy lifestyle. Secrets and lies are part of any anorexic or addict’s life (though it’s rare that someone earns a living from them). But really, is the label relevant? Younger’s veganism somehow triggered an unhealthy relationship with food, and what we call that relationship is secondary.
Younger eventually broke her secrecy by telling a friend what was really going on with her body. With the friend’s encouragement, she began slowly introducing more foods (salmon and milk) to her diet, and gradually regained health and energy. Then Younger told the blogging world that she was no longer a vegan.
And the interwebz exploded.
The Blonde Vegan site crashed within minutes, and many followers instantly ditched her. What’s both creepy and illogical is how other vegans responded, by sending death threats not only to Younger, but also to her extended family. Aren’t vegans supposed to be, you know, anti-slaughter? Younger began asking herself questions about the elitism of some in the vegan community, and wondering why she’d been courting their approval.
So, Was it Only Food?
What if Younger were living in a non-Internet world without a pedestal to stand on or an audience to interact with? Perhaps veganism would not have taken her to such a dangerous place without the sense of approval the blog gave her. That fevered spotlight on her diet probably slowed her return to more balanced eating habits. The Internet brings our culture’s lunatic ideal of beauty to us 24/7 nowadays, along with instant—and ill-informed—opinions on our bodies and choices. Younger still earns her living from the Internet. Her new blog is called The Balanced Blonde, and she says she is happy living without a label. Let’s hope her readers can live without labeling her.
As for me, I’ve decided to go full Chuck Heston on the vegan issue. I’m holding on to my Gouda ’til you pry it from my cold, dead hands.