Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Short Unhappy Life as a Sorority Girl; or, Fraternities, Alcohol Enemas, and Dehumanization

CNN is running a story about a fraternity hazing incident at nearby University of Tennessee during which a student was taken to the university medical center in critical condition with a blood alcohol level of .40, the result of an “alcohol enema.”  According to a Knoxville Police spokesman, "Upon extensive questioning, it is believed that members of the fraternity were using rubber tubing inserted into their rectums as a conduit for alcohol as the abundance of capillaries and blood vessels present greatly heightens the level and speed of the alcohol entering the bloodstream as it bypasses the filtering by the liver.”  

The other members of the Pi Kappa Alpha frat are denying that this is the case because, well, I imagine that the fear of being charged with ass-raping one of one’s brothers with rubber tubing and booze is probably more terrifying than just about anything that these guys can imagine.  I mean, people might think they’re gay, never mind the fact that people might also think that they’re sadists.  And the student in question is denying it as well, despite the overwhelming physical evidence that supports the alcohol enema theory.


I’m not surprised by this incident, any more that I wasn’t surprised by a letter written by one Kappa Sigma frat boy to his brothers at USC in which he indicated the rules for being a “cocksman” and recording one’s female conquests in a tally that constitutes a competition between brothers.  At one point he says, “Note: I will refer to females as ‘targets.’ They aren't actual people like us men. Consequently, giving them a certain name or distinction is pointless.”  I'm not surprised that the body of a University of Texas fraternity brother, found dead after a night of partying, was covered in homophobic slurs, the word "fag" inked on his torso by his brothers.  And I haven't been surprised by the numerous incidents of fraternities hosting parties where whites show up in blackface or by “a fraternity at Johns Hopkins University invit[ing] partygoers to wear ‘bling bling’ grills, or shiny metal caps on their teeth.” 

This image is as close as I'm going to get to making some sort of vegan commentary in this post, but you've read enough at this point, I'm assuming, to make those connections, eh?

Caitlyn Flanagan notes,The Greek system is dedicated to quelling young men’s anxiety about submitting themselves to four years of sissy-pants book learning by providing them with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women.” And these incidents, diverse as they might seem, point to the ways that fraternities consistently dehumanize, ridicule, and brutalize (both literally and in effigy) groups of people that they feel pose some symbolic threat to their hegemonic masculinity: homosexuals, women, and people of color.  

In university sanctioned organizations based upon a principle of exclusion, young men are allowed free reign to enact behavior that is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and only when that behavior endangers the life of one of their own are sanctions enacted, and those sanctions, public and embarrassing as they are, are temporary slaps on the wrist for men who graduate and become upstanding members of society.  So what of the misogyny, homophobia, and racism of their past?  Surely that’s just college behavior, right?


A caveat:  I don’t think that the individual people who join Greek organizations are bad people, so please avoid telling me about all the good people involved in the Greek system.  I know, love, am related to, care about, and educate plenty of amazing people who participate and thrive in this system and who exemplify all that's good about humanity.  Nonetheless, I like the author of IceCreamHEADACHE, “won’t challenge the broad claim that many fraternities (particularly the ones portrayed in gross-out-comedy films) are part of an institution that supports and reinforces misogynistic beliefs and tendencies. They do, probably as much as the typical sorority reinforces markedly fatuous, intellectually-vacant Cosmo ideas about femininity that revolve around bad TV, an obsession with one’s weight, the assumption that men are simplistic and interchangeable, and mani-pedis.” But it's not the individual members that are the problem.  

It's the operating principle of Greek organizations that if you're in, then you're better than all those smucks who weren't given a bid; if you're a woman in a sorority, that means that you're prettier and more charming than all those other poor women out there.  If you're a man in a fraternity, then you are an alpha male, the epitome of all that is lionized in your culture.  You're on top, and, as Matthew B. Ruby and Steven J. Heine note, "in North America, manhood is still considered a precarious state, easily lost and requiring constant validation" (450).  To stay on top requires adherence to and enactment of the narrative that other people are beneath you -- and they need to be kept there.  It's the nature of group-think that is fostered and thrives by virtue of this exclusivity that enables behavior that, when it slips past the carefully guarded and secretive perimeter of the Greek system, makes the rest of us cry out for sanctions.  Or get up in arms about alcohol abuse on college campuses.  Or whatever other right minded but completely misguided solution we think might keep this kind of nonsense from happening again.

OK, so before you call me out as some feminazi out to demonize the Greek system, know that I was one its members, a sister in a sorority for one full year before I de-sistered. I had the highest GPA of any sister in my sorority the year that I belonged, and I have the plaque to prove it, so: Back. Right. Off.

Somewhat true.

I joined a sorority because my high school friends, with whom I went to college, wanted me to.  It was weird to feel popular and wanted, because I had never been either before.  But even when I was rushing, and later when I pledged, I knew that this deal was not for me; I didn’t want to exclude the friends that I had made during my first year of college, and I most certainly didn’t want to have to live, as was requisite for members of all sororities, in Greek housing.  But I thought that I would get used to things, to being a member of something that felt bigger, that felt like, maybe, real life.  I was wrong.  

I de-sistered after two events: first, I sat on the other side of rush, in the back of a classroom doing my homework (and getting told to stop doing my homework and pay attention to the photos of the rushees that were being projected on the screen in front of me), and listened as these women with whom I’d linked my fate rated potential pledges based upon their appearance, their past boyfriends, and their connections with current sisters.  I got yelled at for refusing to take part, and I gathered my notebooks and walked right the fuck out of the room.  I got in trouble for that, too; I was reprimanded by my sorority's president for my unsisterly behavior.


And then I was nearly raped by a frat boy, some guy whose name I don’t even remember now, but who I took to a dance out in the middle of nowhere because my sisters let me know, unequivocally, that the guy I wanted to take – a guy who wasn’t in a frat – would not be an acceptable date.  I was able to fight the frat boy off, only because he was falling down drunk and I was sober; I was, therefore, able to push him off of me, to get his fingers out of my hair, and to run away.  The next day, he trashed talked me; it was like something out of a movie.  And I got reprimanded – and I am totally serious about this – BY MY SISTERS for not putting out.  At that point, I was done.  

Joining a sorority may very well be the sole thing in my life that I unequivocally regret, the singular act that I know I should have known better than to undertake, and I hate myself for not paying better attention to that consistent and resounding voice – the part of me that I now know is my self – that told me it was bullshit, a way to buy into to my status as something less than human, a “target,” a trophy for some guy's mantle, a nameless cunt.  But I can also be thankful for the lessons that the experience taught me, particularly that I'm never going to be willing to be anybody's bitch.

When I told my sorority's president that I wanted out, she told me that I was making a mistake, but I didn't believe her, and I didn’t care at all about what any of my so-called sisters thought about me.  All I wanted was to be as far from any entity that would

1.  Expect me to have sex with a stranger and punish me when I didn’t, and
2. Judge my fellow women based on their appearances.

When I de-sistered (don’t you love that non-word, “de-sister”?  Cease and de-sister!), I was treated like a leper by women who had once vowed undying love to me; I was suddenly like a person whose physical deformity made me at once pitiable and grotesque.  The problem, clearly, was mine, and every time I saw one of my former sisters, I received a pitying glance and a heartfelt, “how are you?”  But I never once regretted leaving; I’m too smart to be treated like a piece of meat – and I’m way, way too smart to objectify other women and turn them into pieces of meat as well. 

- ER

Universities seem disinclined to ever abandon the embarrassing anachronism that is the Greek system, no matter how much evidence that system continually provides us as to why universities should stop perpetuating the kind of sexism, racism, and homophobia that underscore much of that institution.  But the good news is that we can all be individuals and walk away; we don’t have to buy in to the allure of exclusivity and denial, and we can treat each other like equals, not like subordinates.

Work Cited

Ruby, Matthew B., and Steven J. Heine.  “Meat, Morals, and Masculinity.”  Appetite 56.2 (2011): 447-450.  Print.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Top 5 Reasons Why Your Eating Disorder isn’t About Your Vegetarianism or Veganism

1.  Previous studies of the supposed link between vegetarianism and eating disorders include a category called “semi” or “quasi” vegetarians…a category I affectionately refer to as “omnivores.”

However, a study by C. Alix Timko, Julia M. Holmes, and Janice Chubski published in the June 2012 issue of the journal Appetite is titled “Will the Real Vegetarian Please Stand up?: An Investigation of Dietary Restraint and Eating Disorder Symptoms in Vegetarians versus Non-Vegetarians.”  This analysis alone addresses the ways that previous studies are flawed and seeks to account for their inconsistencies by looking at the ways that distinctions between different categories of non-normative dietary choices are often conflated:

a possible explanation for these inconsistent findings is that there are major differences between semi-vegetarians and vegetarians (who are often combined into one group), with semi-vegetarians exhibiting more dietary restraint than vegetarians.  The hypothesis is supported by findings that suggest that semi-vegetarians are twice as likely than true vegetarians to restrict their meat intake for weight reasons.  (983)

2.  The people conducting the studies don’t know the definition of the word “vegetarian.”

Within most of the studies examined by these “vegetarianism is defined as eliminating read meat; however, that does not reflect a true vegetarian diet” (983, my emphasis).  The authors define vegetarianism as “a spectrum of inter-related food selection and food avoidance patterns” (982) that includes, in this study as in those that precede it, the category of semi-vegetarian, people who undertake a “partial restriction of meat” (983), as well as ovo-vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and finally, vegans, a group that excludes “all red meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and other animal-origin foods such as eggs from their diet, and generally also avoid non-edible animal products such as leather” (982).  Because they predicate their findings on the realization that there are “problems with the operational definition of ‘vegetarian’” (983), the conclusions that they draw are markedly different from their predecessors (see my previous post for more info on those predecessors).

     Seriously, Mandy.  It's inconceivable. 

Prior to discussing those results, I want to return to the “operational definition” issue that plagues these studies.  The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “vegetarian” is “a person who abstains from eating animal food and lives principally or wholly on a plant-based diet; esp. a person who avoids meat and often fish but who will consume dairy products and eggs in addition to vegetable foods.”  Even this definition, while more absolute in what defines the appropriate parameters of a vegetarian diet, still allows for the possible inclusion of fish, and such a potential clearly indicates at least a modicum of fluidity with regard to a vegetarian diet, even as it allows for the continual and seemingly unending debate about what does and what does not constitute vegetarianism.  

But including people who simply do not eat red meat or who abstain from meat sometimes (semi or quasi-“vegetarians,” depending on the study) in studies that focus on the supposed connections between a vegetarian diet and eating disorders would necessarily generate results that have little or nothing to do with the purported subject of the study.  People who do not eat red meat but still eat other meats – pork, chicken, and fish – are not vegetarians; they are omnivores.  People who abstain from eating meat sometimes are not vegetarians; they, likewise, are omnivores.  Timko et al’s assertion that the category of semi or quasi vegetarian does not constitute “true” vegetarianism indicates the inverse, that such people are “false” vegetarians – they are not vegetarians at all.  And to start one’s study with a false premise would seem to nullify whatever results follow thereafter.

3.  “True” vegetarians actually – gasp – don’t eat meat.  And being a “true” vegetarian seems not to be a factor in developing an eating disorder.
Given the importance of this heretofore unacknowledged distinction between “true” vegetarians and those classified as semi-vegetarian, Timko, Hormes, and Chubski’s study found that true vegetarians are “less likely to participate in . . . weight control behaviors than semi-vegetarians” (983), that “given the wide variety of reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet . . . it is unlikely that vegetarianism is in and of itself enough to be a risk factor in developing an eating disorder” (983), and – most importantly – that “it may be that it is not vegetarianism per se that leads to disordered eating, but rather a partial restriction of meat . . . for the purposes of weight loss” (983). 

4.  Being an omnivore and cutting things out of one’s diet to lose weight, something I affectionately call dieting, might lead to eating disorders.

In other words, omnivorous dietary restriction – dieting – might lead to disordered eating (which seems somewhat obvious), not vegetarianism.  The authors note explicitly the paucity of studies that have looked at true vegetarianism (that is, vegetarianism) “or even veganism” (983), but while these authors still consider this bizarre category of semi-vegetarians in their study, they do work to clarify the various so-called “vegetarian” categories and to “clarify the correlates of a true vegetarian diet” (983). 

5.  And if you’re a vegan, you have healthier attitudes about food than any other group.

They hypothesized that “vegans and vegetarians would have healthier attitudes towards food” and would present less pathological attitudes towards food than they semi-vegetarian (hereafter omnivorous) counterparts (983).  Their findings supported this hypothesis:

Vegans and true vegetarians had significantly lower levels of restraint, external eating, hedonistic hunger, and greater levels of acceptance in relation to food in comparison to semi-vegetarians.  This highlights previously unacknowledged positive aspects of adhering to a completely meat or animal product free diet. . . . [And] vegans appear to have the healthiest attitudes towards food. (989, my emphasis)

To my mind – and, I would argue, to the minds of anyone who is a “true” vegetarian – one can no more be semi-vegetarian than one can be semi-pregnant; to be vegetarian is not to eat meat, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I am reminded again of the definitional debate that attempts to differentiate “legitimate” from some other supposed “illegitimate” category of rape.  In both instances, women’s solid realities[i] become fodder for rhetorical adjustment that undermines the realness of both circumstances.  In this case, to consistently attempt to link eating disorders to vegetarianism by examining a category of people who are not vegetarian further works to pathologize non-normative eating by creating a false category of vegetarianism, one that could likely encompass the majority of omnivorous eaters.

*  Next time, thoughts on veganism and the crisis of masculinity; or, why there isn't a crisis of masculinity and how being male and vegan makes you more masculine than the guy who isn't vegan out of fear of the threat that being vegan might pose to his masculinity.

This is Mac Danzig.  Call him a "vegan" when you mean "pussy" and see what happens.

[i] Most of the studies that link eating disorders to vegetarian diets focus on women, primarily young women.  Timko, Hormes, and Chubski’s study considers 486 respondents between the ages of 18 and 25.  Of these, 374 (77 percent) were female, while 111 (23 percent) were male (983).

Work Cited

Timko, C. Alix, Julia M. Hormes, and Janice Chubski.  “Will the Real Vegetarian Please Stand up?: An Investigation of Dietary Restraint and Eating Disorder Symptoms in Vegetarians Versus Non-Vegetarians.”  Appetite 58 (2012): 982-990.  Print.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Vegetarian/Vegan Anorexia Connection

Before I go getting all academic, last week was celebrity vegan week at Plant.  On Tuesday, Carol Adams dropped by for a three hour dinner, and, a week later, I'm still walking around going, "I got to eat dinner with Carol Adams."  She blogged about it here.

Carol and me.  I. Am. Happy.

Then on Wednesday, on their way to the DNC, Elizabeth and Dennis Kucinich dropped by for lunch.

I look like crap in this photo, but I attribute that to the fact that I am standing near Elizabeth Kucinich, who is a goddess.  Also pictured: Leslie, Alan, and Jason.

OK, so now to business:

According to historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, “historical, anthropological, and psychological studies suggest that women use appetite as a form of expression more often than men, a tendency confirmed by scholars as well as clinicians” (5), and her work traces the prevalence of so-called disordered eating in women from the phenomenon of anorexia mirabilis that took place in medieval Europe between 1200 and 1500 and during which “many women refused their food and prolonged fasting was considered a female miracle” (Fasting 43) to our present day understanding of the concept of anorexia nervosa as pathologically disordered. What is divinely inspired at one point is disordered at another, and what is obvious, both in Brumberg’s study and elsewhere, is that the concept of ascetic eating – even to the point of starvation – particularly among young women, has a long and complicated history.

 Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), who would be considered bulimic if she lived now.

For Kim Chernin, eating disorders serve as dysfunctional rites of passage for women in a society that does not allow for legitimate and transformative female rites of passage.  As such, the eating disorder is in some sense a misguided feminist attempt to form and then assert a fully realized female subjectivity into a space that does not adequately offer women roles that are distinct from, or not determined by, patriarchy.  Traditionally, rites of passage allow for the uninitiated participant to separate from and then reintegrate with his or her community.  Eating disorders, however, do not allow for reconnection with a clearly defined community that would then lead to the next stage of development, in large part because within Western culture, there are no female communities that are not inherently linked to and dependent upon male culture; women’s culture is, in effect, men’s culture. 

As a result, the “disordered” individual is stuck in time; according to Chernin, “much of the obsessive quality of an eating disorder arises precisely from the fact that food is being asked to serve a transformative function that it cannot carry by itself” (167).  Despite the fact that anorexia nervosa had been “known to physicians as early as the 1870s,” the American press did not start writing about anorexia until the 1980s (Brumberg 11).  And since the 1980s, an increasing body of research has explored the links between vegetarian and vegan diets and disordered eating, noting the possible connections that exist between women’s refusal to eat meat and anorexia nervosa.

In their 1986 study, Rao Kadambari, Simon Gowers, and Arthur Crisp conclude the following:

It can be said that vegetarianism within anorexia nervosa is probably associated with overall dietary restraint within the illness, with mothers who are themselves concerned about their weight, and with a family background wherein there is avoidance of contact with the feared outside world.  These findings invite testable hypotheses within new prospective studies. (544)

Since this study, others have followed.  In their 2000 study “Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders: Partners in Crime?,” Victoria Sullivan and Sadhana Damani assert that their own vegetarianism “never stopped [them from] eating” (265), and that, as vegetarians, they feel protective of that identity and “would like to be able to state categorically that there is no association between vegetarianism and eating disorders” (265).  But even as their study points to some contradictory findings with regard to the connection between eating disorders and a vegetarian diet, they ultimately note that “although the evidence on the whole is limited and contradictory, it does seem that there is at least a passing association between vegetarianism and dietary restraint, and possibly eating disorders” (265).
And more recent studies seem to corroborate and expound upon the connections between vegetarianism and anorexia, particularly within adolescent anorectics.  In his 2011 study Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Why it’s so Hard to Think Straight about Animals, Hal Herzog quotes a former vegetarian anorectic named “Staci” who notes that as a teenager, “being a vegetarian was a way for me to have more control over my body by taking the fat out of my diet,” and she notes as well that vegetarianism appealed to her because of its “righteousness:” “at that age, you want to have something that is strong and clear and righteous” (197). 

Finally, speaking of a 2012 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Melissa Jeltsen notes that, while this research does not argue that being vegetarian causes eating disorders or that being vegetarian is unhealthy, “it suggests vegetarianism can be a symptom of an eating disorder for some women,” given the fact that of women with histories of eating disorders, “68 percent said there was a relationship between the two,” and the researchers found “that 52 percent of women with a history of eating disorders had been vegetarian at some point in their lives” (Jeltsen). 

In all honesty, I find it completely unsurprising that vegetarianism and adolescent female anorexia are in some instances linked, even for reasons other than the fact that adolescent girls may very well lie about being vegetarian in order to abstain from eating.  But speaking of lying about behavior, adolescents lie all the time in order to hide subversive, counter-cultural, and dangerous behaviors from adults; anorexic teenagers are only one such example. 

Consider another.  First, if a person lies about being vegetarian – for whatever reason, whether to mask an eating disorder or to impress one’s girlfriend who is a vegetarian – but eats meat (is a carnivore) or does not eat anything at all (is an anorectic), one is not really a vegetarian; one is lying. End of story.  If someone lies about going to church as a cover for going to buy drugs, that lie could ostensibly happen for the same reasons: to mask an addiction (which anorexia is as well) or to impress one’s church-going girlfriend, but there do not appear to be any studies linking going to church to drug use (when the drug user is not, in fact, really going to church), while there are studies that continually link vegetarianism to eating disorders, even when the anorectic is not a vegetarian. 

I believe that these studies continue to proliferate because vegetarianism is represented within them via the same rhetoric of pathology that is used to describe anorexia and because female vegetarianism constitutes a choice that offers both a challenge to patriarchy and to a dietary norm dependent upon that patriarchy.  And, finally, because for young women, both anorexia and vegetarianism may be indicative, as Brumberg asserts about anorexia, of mentalities in transition” (Fasting 99); both are unrealized identity formations called upon to allow adolescent women to participate in rites of passage into a full adult female community that simply does not exist.

In all of this research, I have been able to find a singular study that challenges the abundance of others out there linking vegetarianism to anorexia.  B. Fisak’s 2006 “Challenging Previous Conceptions of Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders” does something that the other studies do not do: it examines the motives for vegetarianism and discovers, unsurprisingly, that vegetarians “tend to avoid animal products for ethical and health reasons rather than as an excuse or cover for dietary restraint” (199). The authors conclude that prior studies have argued that vegetarianism “may be an attempt to mask disordered eating” while their “study expanded upon prior research by making a variety of comparisons with psychometrically sound measures of eating disorders” to discover that “in contrast to previous findings, Vs and NVs [non-vegetarians] did not differ significantly on any eating disturbance measures” (198).  

To return to the concept of the ineffective rite of passage as it relates to both anorexia and vegetarianism, I want to posit an assertion that works to further differentiate vegetarianism from veganism, as I feel that one is not simply the more “severe” form of the other, even as, in these studies, if veganism factors in at all, it is as a "severe" form of vegetarianism (as per Rao et al).  By the way, this is a hypothesis, so don't kill me for making it.  

Terrible comic relief.  But you've got to be sick of reading by now.

For some young women caught shuttling between vegetarianism and anorexia, caught in a space that seems to support the perpetual linkage between the two, veganism may very well function as the culmination of a successful, feminist rite of passage, an identity category that allows food to serve the transformative function that anorexia unsuccessfully asks it to serve.  Because veganism may very well be less about dietary restriction and more about an anti-speciesist ethic, a shift from vegetarianism to veganism might allow for productive growth -- at least for some women. 

I know that in my case, at least, that was the scenario.  My vegetarianism was very much tied up with the eating disorder that fully manifested itself by the time I was 19, but I think that for women who find themselves in such circumstances, the connections between these two things – vegetarianism and eating disorders – are much more complicated than simply one serving as an excuse for the other. Without going into great detail about what solidified my decision to become vegetarian, not eating meat made sense to me, and I was not eating meat for ethical reasons; I have never doubted that reality, and I was not lying about the ethical commitment that made me decide to become vegetarian, even as my eating disorder thrived in tandem with my vegetarianism.  One was not a mask for the other, nor was one responsible for the other. 

At the time that I became vegetarian, I had not really cared about what was good for me; I just knew that I did not want to eat animals.  Years later, when I became vegan, I made a conscious choice to eat more fully and to eat better, to consume things that would make me healthy and strong, to eat food that was fresh, whole, and not processed.  The goal was as much one of self-empowerment as animal liberation – and because the connections between those two things were now clear to me, I was able to be empowered by this choice.  Becoming vegan, in its most feminist manifestation, meant doing something actively in response to a cultural stasis that dictated dietary behavior with which I simply did not agree.  I just had to figure out why I did not agree with it.  This time around, I was reacting in ways that felt fully conscious, and that consciousness has allowed me to eat – and live – more and better than I ever did before.

Including animal rights in the discussion about why women choose to become vegetarian or vegan certainly will not alleviate the negative discourse about veganism that pervades both the mainstream media and scientific studies of the links between non-normative diet and eating disorders, but it would certainly allow for more honest analysis, and it might empower instead of pathologize such a choice as having less to do with restricting female diet and more to do with making productive connections between health, feminism, and animal welfare.

If you have a narrative about veganism and eating disorders that runs counter to the various studies that continue to perpetuate linkages between vegetarian and vegan diets and anorexia, I would like to hear it – and with your permission, possibly use it in my own study.  Please send me your stories in 1000 words or less at or post them below.  And thanks in advance.

Works Cited

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa.  New York: Vintage, 2000.  Print.

Chernin, Kim.  The Hungry Self.  New York: Harper and Row, 1985.  Print.

Fisak, B. et al.  “Challenging Previous Conceptions of Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders.”  Eating and Weight Disorders: Studies in Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity 11.4 (2006): 195-201.  Print.

Herzog, Hal.  Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat:  Why it’s so Hard to Think Straight about Animals.  New York: Harper, 2011.  Print.

Kadambari, Rao, Simon Gowers, and Arthur Crisp.  “Some Correlates of Vegetarianism in Anorexia Nervosa.”  International Journal of Eating Disorders 5.3 (1986): 539-544.  Print.

Sullivan, Victoria and Sadhana Damani.  “Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders – Partners in Crime?”  European Eating Disorders Review 8.4 (2000): 263-266.  Print.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Some thoughts on Death by Veganism, Legitimacy, and the War on Women

I’ve been working on some material about the reported connection between eating disorders and vegetarianism, and I ended up in a place I wasn’t expecting, focusing, for a few pages, on the media’s linking of several cases of infant mortality to veganism.  I’ve read some of the commentary about these cases in the past, but I hadn’t really realized until now the ways that much of the criticism has focused on the role that the supposed nutritional inadequacy of the mothers’ breast milk plays in these cases, which got me thinking – as much has lately – about external attempts to control female bodies, particularly when it comes to their status or potential status as maternal bodies, and about questions of legitimacy, in this case, in terms of diet.
Consider the nature of the media discourse about veganism more closely: Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan, in their 2011 study “Vegaphobia: Derogatory Discourse of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers,” used the LexisNexis database to search the terms “vegan,” “vegans,” and “veganism” in all UK newspapers for the 2007 calendar year in order to analyze the Foucauldian concept of discourse[i] – whether positive, neutral, or negative – with regard to the topic of veganism.  Of the 397 articles that they examined, only 22 (5.5 percent) were positive; 80 (20.2 percent) were neutral, and 295 (a whopping 74.3 percent) were negative (138).  Of the articles that treated veganism negatively, the authors characterized the negative discourse by placing it in one of six categories.  These are, in order of frequency of occurrence, ridiculing veganism, characterizing veganism as asceticism, describing veganism as difficult or impossible to sustain, describing veganism as a fad, characterizing vegans as oversensitive, and characterizing vegans as hostile (139).  

...but the news media doesn't.

According to Cole and Morgan,

empirical sociological studies of vegans are rare . . . .  When they are present as research participants, they are usually treated as a subset of vegetarians and their veganism tends to be viewed as a form of dietary asceticism involving exceptional efforts of self-transformation.  (135)

What such studies tend to overlook, therefore, is the importance of animal rights for vegans, an area of research that remains largely unexplored.  If it is, according to Cole and Morgan, “plausible to assert that on the basis of existing evidence, veganism is understood by most vegans . . . as an aspect of anti-speciesist practice” (135), then cultural discourse that conflates veganism and vegetarianism (on the one hand) or that views veganism as simply a more severe form of vegetarian dietary restriction (on the other) disregards the primary motivation for veganism – animal rights and animal liberation – as it focuses instead on a rhetoric of dietary restriction, denial, and privation.  And while this study was conducted in the UK, the discourse about veganism is similar, if not more negative, in the US.
Perhaps nowhere can the linkage between discussions of veganism and issues of privation be seen as clearly as in “Death by Veganism,” Nina Planck’s 2007 editorial in the New York Times that discusses Crown Shakur, who died at six weeks of age after “his vegan parents . . . fed him mainly soy milk and apple juice” (Planck).  As a result of their son’s death, the parents were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.  Planck, who, according to the article, was once a vegan herself, is the author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why; her web page claims Planck is an advocate of “traditional foods. She will liberate you to eat red meat, butter, raw milk, and lard.” For Planck, a “vegan pregnancy was irresponsible” (“Death by Veganism”), and she asserts that in her study of indigenous cultures, “there are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long term” (“Death by Veganism”).  In her outrage at parents who would deny their child animal-based food, she makes inaccurate claims,[ii] particularly that vitamin B12 is “found only in animal foods,”[iii] and equates veganism with faddism, noting that “food is more important than fashion.”  As an aside, if you want to read what I consider an informed response, go here.

Not at all fashionable.
In addition to the case of Crown Shakur and the outrage against veganism that it sparked, since 2001, worldwide there have been four other cases of infant mortality that have been depicted in the news media as having resulted, in some form or other, from veganism: in addition to one other case in the United States in 2005, there was a 2008 case in France, a 2001 case in the UK, and a 2002 case in New Zealand.  The news stories all focus on the vegan status of the parents – and in at least two cases, on the inadequate nature of the breast milk of the negligent vegan mothers – as well as on the diets that they fed their children prior to death. 

A March 30, 2011 headline in the Mail Online reads French Vegan Couple Whose Baby Died of Vitamin Deficiency after being fed Solely on Breast Milk Face Jail for Child Neglect.”  The couple, Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou, are described as “militant vegans” in the article.  In an article about the case in New Zealand, the author notes “Roby and Deborah Moorhead are vegans. . . . Mrs. Moorhead’s breast milk was deficient in B12 and inadequate for Caleb’s nutritional needs.”  In addition to their radical diet, the Moorheads are also characterized as “radical Christians,” and supposed extreme religious beliefs are likewise linked to veganism and the 2005 death of Woyah Andressohn of Miami: “it has also been reported the family's diet may have been connected to their religion, known as ‘Hebrew Israelite’ which promotes raw food and natural eating.”

OK, so a disclaimer, which I would hope is unnecessary, but I’ll add nonetheless: to critique the presentation of these cases is in no way to undermine or downplay the seriousness of the circumstances that led to the death of these children.  It is, however, an attempt to look at these cases in a broader context and to examine the sensationalizing rhetoric that depicts veganism as a menacing danger inflicted by negligent, uninformed parents – primarily mothers – on their children.  For some perspective: according to the Centers for Disease Control’s infant mortality statistics for 2008, “the U.S. infant mortality rate was 6.61 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.”  Further,

The leading cause of infant death in the United States in 2008 was congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities . . . accounting for 20 percent of all infant deaths. Disorders relating to short gestation and low birth weight, not elsewhere classified (low birth weight) was second, accounting for 17 percent of all infant deaths, followed by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) accounting for 8 percent of infant deaths. The fourth and fifth leading causes in 2008 were newborn affected by maternal complications of pregnancy (maternal complications) (6 percent), and Accidents (unintentional injuries) (5 percent). Together the five leading causes accounted for 57 percent of all infant deaths in the US in 2008.

According to statistics complied in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “nationally estimated 1,560 children died from abuse and neglect in 2010. This translates to a rate of 2.07 children per 100,000 children in the general population and an average of four children dying every day from abuse or neglect," and according to the World Health Organization, world wide, “every year, there are an estimated 31,000 homicide deaths in children under 15.”  Finally, “this number underestimates the true extent of the problem, as a significant proportion of deaths due to child maltreatment are incorrectly attributed to falls, burns, drowning and other causes."  If we take the 31,000 figure as the yearly average of world wide child death attributable to abuse, neglect, and murder, then the singular “death by veganism” incidents that occurred in 2002, 2005, and 2008 constitute .0032 percent of that number for those years.  In 2001, when death by veganism spiked to a whopping twin instances, the percentage is .0065.

Regardless of these statistics, however, these cases and the media’s focus on the supposed vegan diet fed to these children by their parents generated overwhelming condemnation of the parents in these cases and of veganism in general as an unnatural and unhealthy lifestyle[iv] -- and it generated an abundance of articles condemning vegan mothers for breast feeding.  It is not my intention to prove or disprove the role that veganism played in the deaths of these children, nor do I want to expound on the extant data in support of a vegan diet as more health supportive than an omnivorous diet; my sense is that these cases are tragic and were caused by some combination of legitimate neglect and misinformation. 

My sense is that these children suffered horribly.  And my sense is that their parents have suffered horribly as well.  But what seems significant with regard to these particular cases is both the focus on the diets of the parents as “radical” (and, at least in some cases, the link between radical diet and radical religious beliefs), the role that that diet played in the way that these cases were investigated, reported, and punished, and the fact that the content of the mothers’ breast milk – in two of the cases – was of central importance.  Given the statistics above, and given the miniscule number of vegans in the global population at large, children of carnivorous and omnivorous parents die of malnutrition and neglect far more often than children of vegan parents, but the diet of the parents almost never makes headlines,[v] unless that diet deviates from what is considered the standard.[vi] 

Of the French death by veganism case, Mike Adams on chastises the “vegan police,” claiming that “if the ambulance had shown up and found a dead baby in a family whose cupboards were stuffed full of junk food and fast food -- sugary cereals, McDonald's food wrappers, frozen pizza, ice cream and donuts -- that would not have seemed suspicious at all.”  Adams’s position, while extreme (he goes so far as telling parents to lie about their veganism in order to protect their children), highlights the way that veganism is treated as anathema to appropriate parenting.  Adams addresses the breast milk issue as well:

be prepared to fight the State for your right to raise your baby on breast milk. The State . . . believes you're supposed to be feeding your baby processed "junk" infant formula made by powerful corporations. That infant formula, of course, contains . . . soy proteins extracted with the toxic solvent hexane. Even the DHA in many infant formula products is essentially "synthetic."

If you think a vegan woman's breast milk is dangerous, here's some more info about infant formula.

In a cultural moment in the United States marked by a childhood obesity epidemic, the product of a high calorie and high fat diet combined with limited exercise, there has been only one case where a parent has been charged with neglect for the morbid obesity of her child.  In 2009, Jerri Althea Gray was charged with neglecting her 14-year-old son, a child who, at that time, weighed 555 pounds.  Sherri F. Colb writes “the arrest of [the child’s] mother and his removal from her custody raise an important question. . . : Might it be child neglect simply to feed our children the Standard American Diet?”  It’s a significant question – and one to ponder – when the “Standard American Diet” consists of 35% fat.  Check out this New York Times feature that tracks the devolution of the Standard American Diet…which, of course, is S.A.D. 

And in our present political moment, we find ourselves in the midst of a media frenzy with regard to the Republican Party’s so-called war on women, a platform characterized by legislation aimed at limiting women’s access to both birth control and abortion and fueled by rhetoric that seeks to establish such entities as “legitimate” and “forcible” rape.[vii]  Simultaneously, we are experiencing a proliferation of popular cultural narratives that champion women’s ability to be bawdy and funny, to be sexual, and to be in control of their sexuality.[viii]  Given where we are, perhaps it’s time to consider how much of our cultural discourse represents veganism as a form of extreme and dangerous dietary control – and as an illegitimate choice that runs counter to the “standard American diet” – and how such representation factors into this broader political and social discussion. 

[i] Their paper addresses Foucault’s concept of discourses, “recognizing them as ‘structured ways of knowing’ which become ‘institutionalized practices’” (136).

[ii] For a summation of these points, see John A. McDougall’s letter of response:

[iii] B12 is produced by bacteria, not by animals, but animal foods are the best source of B12.  However, it occurs naturally in nutritional yeast as well, and can be found in numerous vegan supplements. 

[iv] A google search on August 31, 2012 for “vegan baby death” pulls over four million hits.

[v] See my later discussion of Jerri Gray for the exception.

On August 19, 2012, KTVI-TV posted to its Web site an interview with Todd Akin, Republican representative for Missouri’s second congressional district, in which he was asked whether he believes abortion is justified in cases of rape.  He replied that rape does not result in pregnancy:“It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
[viii] I’m thinking, for example, of films like Bridesmaids (2011) and the HBO series Girls, which premiered in April of 2012.

Work Cited

Cole, Matthew and Karan Morgan.  “Vegaphobia: Derogatory Discourses of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers.”  British Journal of Sociology 62.1 (2011): 135-153. Print.