Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Disordered Pronouns, Disordered Eating, and Absented Women: A Journey to The Sexual Politics of Meat

This is an excerpt from a longer piece appearing in Defiant Daughters, soon to be released by Lantern Books.

Back Story
I have to situate myself: I am a middle class white woman from North Carolina, a state that on May 8, 2012 became the 31st to pass an amendment making same sex marriage constitutionally illegal.  According to a New York Times article about North Carolina that appeared three days after the passage of Amendment One, the ambiguous and broad text of which reads that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State,”Social and religious conservatism and economic populism have historically gone hand-in-hand in a state that, for many decades, consisted largely of small farms and mill towns. Thus in a state that became known for first-rate universities, it was illegal to buy a cocktail for most of the 20th century.”

In other words, I exist – and have existed for the majority of my life – in a state (literal and in many ways figurative) of problematic socially ascribed contradictions, a place that, despite its many forward thinking actions, enacts codified and tacit rules that disenfranchise members of its populace.  I have lived elsewhere, in Massachusetts and New York, and I could argue, I suppose, that things were clearer and less muddled there.  But I’ve come back to North Carolina, and it is from within that literal state and its engagement with these various states of being that I continually seek to enact a vegan feminist social activism informed by Carol J. Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, a text I happened upon quite by accident in 2001.

But first things first.

1. I have an early memory of asking my mother why “he” was the universal pronoun.  I didn’t use the phrase “universal pronoun,” but I was conscious at about age five of the fact that “he” was used to mean male or female.  Things have changed since then; I am neither young nor exceptionally old, but old enough to remember being a child prior to “they” entering the mainstream lexicon as both singular and gender neutral;[1] at one point, we were all “he.” 

2. When I was 13, my class took a field trip to a fellow classmate’s father’s sausage processing plant.  I never ate sausage again. 

3.  At the age of 19, I stopped eating just about everything.

4.  A graduate school colleague of mine was beaten within an inch of her life by her ex-spouse, a man against whom she had a restraining order.  The day before he broke into her house and savaged her, he came to her house and killed her dog.  This was the second incident of which I was aware where the mistreatment of a companion animal preceded violence against a woman.  The first happened several years earlier, in 1991.  My parents’ friends’ daughter, Nan Schiffman, was brutally murdered by two men who had worked on a paint crew at her house.  One of the men had done something to her dog, and she had complained to the men’s employers. The men abducted, raped, and murdered Nan, burying her body at an abandoned farm. [2]

How do I link these experiences in this backwards-glancing exercise?  To my mind, they are all about arbitrary and contradictory rules that are gender specific, about consumption, and about violent control.  They are all, as well – and this is something I can only see now, in retrospect – about restoring the absent referent, Carol J. Adams’s term for the way that language is used to remove actual bodies from discussions of the brutalization and consumption of bodies.  In Adams’s formulation, tricks of language are used to characterize “meat” as distinct from “animals”: “through butchering, animals become absent referents.  Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist” (40).

But as I lived these early experiences, I hadn’t yet found and read The Sexual Politics of Meat.  So to reiterate and expound: I come from contradictory circumstances, a state both liberal and conservative, a family both permissive and dictatorial, the daughter to a father who treated me, in many ways, like the son he likely wished I was, but who always came up against his beliefs that girls and women should occupy certain confining spaces.  So here’s the rub: as a teenager, I could drive a tractor and I knew a lot about cars, but if I swore or stayed out late, I’d get in trouble.  I was expected to be smart and pretty, and that was for me an impossible balance, to be cognizant of all the reasons why being pretty was a trap, to be able to articulate those reasons, and to be held to those expectations nonetheless.  To hold myself to them and to punish myself for not adhering to either piece of the equation of beauty and brains.  Hegemony is, after all, rule by consent.  Oh, and I was expected to eat meat.

To be pretty and smart in the south in the 1970s and 1980s, for me at least, was to disappear, to make myself absent.  To absent myself – my body – already rhetorically absent in the universalizing pronouncement of “he,” via an eating disorder that overtook my life for over a decade.

I.  Disordered Pronouns

I don’t remember my mother’s answer to the question about the universal pronoun, or maybe she didn’t have an answer, having always just accepted as truth the fact that femaleness, in the abstraction of generalization, simply ceased to exist, simply disappeared in the crush of overwhelming masculinity.[3]  But to this day I remember raising the question, knowing that there was some injustice in the negation, even as I grew more and more acquainted with what it meant to be negated. And that knowledge stuck.

When I went on that class trip to the sausage plant several years later, I’d already asked my poor parents a second question: where does meat came from?  Did the animals die naturally before we ate them, or were they killed?  Again, I don’t remember the answer, probably, this time, because whatever I was told proved woefully untrue in the blinding glare of the truths revealed to me that day in the processing plant.  Lessons learned and then discarded: “he” is the universal pronoun because it is.  Animals are violently killed and I eat them because I do.  And then I didn’t anymore, at least not those animals, at least not pigs, whose bodies I’d seen hung on hooks, gutted and waiting to be processed.  Never those animals.  Never again.  Sausage was pigs, real, once-living pigs, the bodies of which were bigger than I was, the eyes of which, on that day, stared at me out of dead sockets. 

I stared using “she” as my universal pronoun thereafter as well; I lost points on papers for doing so.  I was consistently corrected, all the way through my undergraduate studies.  I never stopped.[4]

II. Disordered Eating
When I went to college at Appalachian State University, I became a vegetarian, fully and completely, and I started running.  I lived in Boone, North Carolina a tiny town at the time, where nothing bad ever happened.  I ran on backcountry roads; I ran I night.  Running made me feel free.  I was able to eschew eating some meat – sausage, for example – while I lived with my parents, but I couldn’t make a case for not eating any meat without getting in trouble at home.  My life up until that point had been, at least from the time I was about 13 until I left at 18, a struggle to gain some semblance of control of my body and intellect from my parents who – with what I have no doubt were the best of intentions – continually wrested control away from me in their attempts to protect and care for me.  Such circumstances are not unusual; I was the elder of two daughters, the one upon whom they had experimented, as parents must, with how to parent.  They were by turns loving, demanding, and incredibly rigid; I, in turn, was perfectionistic, overachieving, and often profoundly angry. 

The power struggles between my parents and me were more often than not about my body: what I wore, how my hair looked, how far my stomach protruded and why I didn’t hold it in as was more appropriate for a girl of my upbringing.  Undoubtedly, then, food became for me, as it is for many girls like me, both an enemy and a weapon; food was by turns a catalyst for unseemly and inappropriate appetites that threatened to overwhelm me and alternately something that I could resist, the concrete substance through which I demonstrated my will and strength.  Not eating was a paradoxical act of control, one that enabled my first clear acts of defiance even as doing so undermined my health and sanity.  The problem, at least initially, is that I wasn’t sure what I was defying.    

But to be clear: becoming a vegetarian when I went to college and asserting that identity when I went home to visit my family was a manifestation of an awareness that fomented on that visit to the sausage plant years before, that animals that become meat suffer and die to feed us.  I became a vegetarian out of a desire not to participate in that suffering, but my vegetarianism also served as an assertion of my own identity and an affront to my parents who didn’t know what to do with or how to feed a vegetarian daughter and who took understandable offense at what they viewed as a rejection of their care, their nourishment, and their heritage.

I am well aware of the ways that women use vegetarianism as a so-called excuse to cut things out of their diets, and there is a significant body of research on this subject, as chronicled and detailed by my colleague and friend Hal Herzog on his blog at Psychology Today.  What some research would seem to indicate is that women cut meat out of their diets to lose weight; they claim to be vegetarian in order to make an excuse for not eating certain things.  In this light, being a “vegetarian” is divorced from its ethical implications and becomes a way to mask disordered eating. Hal notes an interview he conducted for his recent book Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Why it is so Hard to Think Straight about Animals, one woman claimed that “she became a vegetarian when she was a teenager. Then she dropped the bombshell: ‘My vegetarianism was tied up with my eating disorder.’” 

OK, so my vegetarianism was likewise tied up with the eating disorder that fully manifested itself around 1989, 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.  I know that in my case this reality is a profound truth.  Not eating meat made sense to me, and I was not eating meat for ethical reasons; I have never doubted that reality.  But along with not eating meat, I was left with a void with regard to how to eat thereafter; essentially, I was left without resources to enable one great leap in terms of my consciousness with regard to a kind of care for non-human animals – my vegetarianism – to translate into self-care that could nourish and sustain a position that felt so unfamiliar and, in many ways, unsafe to me. 

Think about it this way: if at 19 I was aware on some visceral level – and I was – of a kind of erasure of women and animals via tricks of language that render them absent, then I was not yet aware of the connections between such rhetorical violence and actual violence done to animals and women.  I had no roadmap for making those connections (The Sexual Politics of Meat was still a year from publication, and, as I’ve already noted, I didn’t discover it for another decade) or for knowing how to assert an alternate and independent female identity, no matter how much I wanted to do so.  In the space of being a vegetarian whose prior existence had been predicated on the eating of meat and of being a fledgling feminist whose prior attempts at self-assertion had been effectively quelled, deemed inappropriate, and that I had internalized as the source of doubt and guilt, I found myself shuttling between a positive sense of self-assertion (“eating animals is wrong”) and a negative internalization of learned helplessness (“so what do I do now?”).  I started, quite literally this time, to disappear.  And then women around me, women I knew, women who were independent and self-actualized, disappeared as well.

III.  A timeline
1989: I become a vegetarian.  And Jeni Gray is abducted from the same sidewalk where I run every day in Boone, North Carolina.  She is found raped and murdered two weeks later.  Daniel Brian Lee, the man who killed her, abducts another woman, Leigh Cooper Wallace[5] – a fellow college students and runner like me – again from my running loop and rapes her.  She escapes and identifies him.  He dies of a brain aneurysm in prison several years later.

1990: The Sexual Politics of Meat is published.

1991: Steven Bishop and Kenny Kaiser rape and murder Nan Schiffman after she complains to their employers about their treatment of her dog.

1992: I graduate from Appalachian State University with a BA in English and start graduate study at East Carolina University, where I write an MA thesis on Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, a novel about a young Shona woman named Tambu who goes to live with her English educated relatives.  At one point in the novel, Tambu’s mother lashes out at her “Englishness,” admonishing her “if you are so greedy you would betray your own mother for meat, then go to your [aunt] Maiguru.  She will give you meat.  I will survive on vegetables as we all used to do” (141).  

Tambu’s cousin, Maiguru’s daughter Nyasha, develops an eating disorder, caught as she is between her English upbringing and her Shona culture – one defined by a diet based on meat and the other on a diet based on vegetables – the weight of European and Shona patriarchal standards, and the conflicting expectations of her father that she be an “intelligent girl but . . . also develop into a good woman . . . not seeing any contradiction in this” (88).  When Nyasha’s parents take her to a psychiatrist, he negates her condition telling her family that “Africans did not suffer in the way that they had described.  She was making a scene” (201).

1993: My graduate school colleague’s ex-husband kills her dog and then returns the next day to brutally beat her.

The Impact
“Sexual violence and meat eating, which appear to be discrete forms of violence, find a point of intersection in the absent referent.  Cultural images of sexual violence, and actual sexual violence, often rely on our knowledge of how animals are butchered and eaten.”                                                                                  
                                                --- Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, p. 68

“When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her – isn’t it a bit like killing?  Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?”

                                                --- Lucy Lurie, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, p. 158

Yeah, I've just harshed your mellow, and I'm sorry bout that.  But to read the rest, buy the book.  I promise that the story gets better -- and so do I.  Proceeds to go Our Hen House.

[1] Actually, this statement is not remotely true: “for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine” (O’Connor and Kellerman).

[2] The court transcript of the Schiffman murder case can be found here.

[3] Here’s the answer, as it appears in an 2009 New York Times editorial by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, authors Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language: “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book…. Fisher’s popular guide, A New Grammar (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”
[4] There is really no right solution to this universal pronoun business, but there are lots of ways to play with the reclamation of language and, therefore, of identity.  Using “they” is one way; alternating between “he” and “she” another.  Creating one’s own gender neutral pronoun – “shhe”? – is an option.  But I decided that I liked using “she” because doing so was jarring, a kind of Brechtian alienation effect.  Brecht claims that “a representation that alienates . . . allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.  The classical and medieval theatre alienated its characters by making them wear human or animal masks” (192).  “She” masked the universalizing “he” in my lexicon; I used it in a way that was recognizable but unfamiliar.  Doing so called the “he” into account, and that was the idea.

[5] The transcript of Leigh Wallace Cooper’s 2010 Oxygen Channel interview about her abduction and rape can be found here.


  1. Great post....your book's going to be very important. Can't wait to see it.

  2. I am pleased to hear that I wasn't the only girl using "she" all the time.
    But I would like to ask a question, certainly out of your academic scope, but just to a human being who has lived your life thus far: what would you say to parents who want to allow their very young (7, 8) daughters to be vegetarians, but who have seen a family history of anorexia? How should we keep them safe from the disorder that takes the lives of so many? And what would you say to those little girls, themselves?
    Really, I am genuinely interested, as this is a personal question about my own daughter...
    Take care,

    1. Hi Julia - I would teach your daughter the importance of getting the correct nutrients to be healthy and strong! This is easily accomplished eating only plant based foods. Look up the blogger Angela Liddon, Oh She Glows. She has AMAZING plant based recipes. You should research this yourself first, to make sure you understand how to nourish the body with plants (again, it's very easy). If you do not allow your daughter to make decisions about the food that goes into her mouth, one of the few things that keep her ALIVE, you will only make her feel powerless. Showing her that she can decide what to eat and allowing her to learn the importance of nourishment and health, you will open many doors for her and she will grow to be a healthy, caring, lovely human being. Best of luck! I've been strictly vegan for 2 years and will never go back to eating animal products. Research the dairy industry too, while you're at it. It's horrible. Watch documentary's, Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, Earthlings...all on Netflix.
      Best regards,

  3. Government should give an action to prevent crimes specially sexual abuse!

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  4. I remember the Schiffman case. I was a little girl living in Greensboro at the time she was killed and remember my family talking about it. Lately, (after years of never pondering the story) I remembered her and now have some questions about this case. It seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth. I just thought of her murder today as I was wondering about crime and the role of technology in today's world. If her tragedy would have occurred in the 2010's, we would all know about her story. As I searched Google to find details about her case, I found NOTHING until I found your blog. Not only do I want to know what really happened to her, but I want ALL older cases to be as accessible as newer cases are today. I guess the virtual world is chasing itself to catch up with the past? Perhaps concerned citizens can help with this problem one day soon, though I don't want to stir the waters...

  5. I find it truly amazing how people will post stuff on the internet for everyone to see without knowing what they are talking about. First off Nan Schiffman was not raped and killed because someone mistreated her dog. The part about her being rapped is hearsay and comes from one of the defendants (Kenny) about his half-brother the other defendant (Mark). All of the evidence pointed to Kenny because it was his finger prints in her car, his brand of cigarettes in her home and he was the one caught with her credit card. He was facing capital punishment for murder, credit card fraud, first degree kidnapping and B&E. Kenny failed his polygraph when asked about the murder then he copped a deal with the prosecutor agreeing that he would say his brother (Mark) killed her and only take responsibility for the other accusations for a 10 year prison sentence. Low and behold to his surprise the jury found him guilty of first degree murder and he was sentenced to life whereas Mark was handed capital punishment. He (Kenny) later retracted his false claim of his brother and admits that he was actually the one to pull the trigger. It was not until after Mark was convicted that the defense attorneys found where the prosecuting attorney Goodman withheld evidence stating that Mark had an alibi for the time that Schiffman was killed. This was not the first time that these accusations were made against Goodman. After looking into these accusations he had withheld evidence in several other cases and was disbarred in North Carolina. Mark was granted a new trial but it was too late everyone had already decided that he was still guilty and he received a life sentence instead and moved off of death row. North Carolina is the 5th highest capital punishment state yet over half of the people sentenced to death row was wrongly convicted with lacking or withheld evidence.