Your daughter’s delicate ladybrain can’t handle ethical decision-making about food

I’m usually a fan of longtime Guardian favorite Hadley Freeman, so I was surprised to read the following, written in support of her assertion that parents shouldn’t let their daughters choose to become vegetarians.

When Lena Dunham announced that “a lot of times when you are a vegetarian it is a just not very effective eating disorder” she was duly pilloried. But speaking as someone who has been a vegetarian for 30 years and has a certain amount of knowledge about eating disorders, I’m going to defend Dunham here, even though she slightly missed the real point. Vegetarianism is not an ineffective eating disorder – it is a potential gateway to eating disorders.Obviously not all vegetarians become anorexic and not all anorexics are vegetarian (although in my experience, in regards to the latter part of that sentence, there is a heavy overlap). But vegetarianism encourages people to divide foods between the good and the bad, and it then becomes a legitimate means of limiting one’s diet. Your daughter has a whole lifetime ahead of her to think of food as something other than a pleasurable physical necessity. Why let her start early?

I really don’t know where to start with this. First, the suggestion that vegetarianism is “a potential gateway to eating disorders” seems to come out of nowhere (and has no evidential support, as far as I can tell). The thought that careful ethical consideration about food choices is the sort of thing that might lead to an eating disorder seems both to woefully misunderstand the pathology of disordered eating and to insult young women’s capacity to handle ethical decision-making. I’d have thought that a young woman who makes, for whatever reason, a conscious decision to avoid meat might be lead to, I don’t know, careful ethical consideration of other parts of her life. But apparently young women are just too delicate and fragile to handle the way in which “vegetarianism encourages people to divide foods between the good and the bad”. That’s just too much for girls. They’ll end up with an eating disorder, the poor things!

The idea that vegetarianism is “a gateway” to eating disorders manages to be disrespectful both to young women with eating disorders and young women who choose to become vegetarianism. It suggests of the former that their complex, multifaceted disease might be little more than the side-effect of confused thinking about food. And it suggests of the latter that they need to be protected from their own ability to consciously, deliberately think about the ethical implications of the food they eat. What nonsense.

(You can read Freeman’s article – on “How to Parent Girls” – here.)

23 thoughts on “Your daughter’s delicate ladybrain can’t handle ethical decision-making about food

  1. I’m a vegetarian, aspiring vegan, and a huge advocate of respect for the ability of teens to make competent life decisions. But the ‘vegan as route to eating disorder’ has its roots, I think, in books like the Skinny Bitch series. From their website, “Stop Being A Moron and Start Getting Skinny! If you can’t take one more day of self-loathing, you’re ready to hear the truth: You cannot keep shoveling the same crap into your mouth every day and expect to lose weight.” The Skinny Bitch Diet is just one of the vegan diets our there in which being a vegan is explicitly promoted as a route to getting skinny, and of course, being a bitch.

  2. But surely it isn’t veganism per se in these cases that’s the gateway to eating disorders. It’s *dieting* that’s a gateway to eating disorders. And some diets (in the “way of losing weight” sense, not just the “what you eat” sense) do happen to be vegan. That doesn’t mean vegetarianism or veganism are by themselves “gateways” to eating disorders – anymore than eating a lot of fiber or eating locally are gateways to eating disorders, though I’ve seen (rather severe) diets that champion both.

  3. One complicating factor is, of course, that women with eating disorders often self-ascribe various dietary restrictions as a way of masking or deflecting attention from unusual eating habits. “I can’t eat that, I’m vegan” or “I can’t eat that, I’m lactose intolerant”, or “I can’t eat that – I only eat locally-produced food” are useful ways of navigating complex social interactions involving food for some of these women. But again, that doesn’t mean that a decision to become vegan is a prelude to an eating disorder, in much the same way that finding out you’re lactose intolerant or deciding to eat only Kosher foods for religious reasons aren’t.

    It might well be a prelude to an eating disorder if you decide to become vegan to “get skinny”. But it’s feeling the need to “get skinny” that’s doing to work, not the veganism.

  4. Right except that the Skinny Bitches explicitly say that saying you’re a vegan is more socially acceptable than saying you’re on a diet and they recommend for the purpose of disguising dieting behavior. It’s targeted to normal size women who want to be skinny.

  5. From my school days, folks of all shapes and sizes were vegetarian, but there was an overlap with veganism in particular and anorexia (the latter which was pandemic at our single-gender public school). But I think a bit part of this was to do with families and how they catered (or failed to cater) for different diets. If, as a British teenager in those days (twenty years ago), had I insisted I was vegan and refused to eat meat or dairy, I’d have been expected to live on salad and plain veg – I would have struggled to get enough proteins and fats.. These days, really easy-to-prepare proteins like tofu is quite cheap (let alone Quorn etc.), and there’s a lot more awareness of recipes and ways of making interesting balanced meals. I know the 1990s was hardly the 1950s, but folks care more about food and eat a greater variety than they did back then. It’s not easy, but it’s not such a struggle to have a balanced vegan diet.

    So back then, becoming vegan was a good strategy to get out of eating enough calories. These days, with parents who have the first clue about food, it wouldn’t really work.

    I also think there is an argument against allowing any children to eat the diet of their choosing at a young age. But if a girl doesn’t want to eat meat, for whatever reason, it’s going to be impossible to force her up to the age of 16. And I don’t think massive family arguments about food are in any way a healthy foundation to a young woman’s relationship with food.

  6. Well, everything is a gateway to everything. So why not?

    I don’t think Dunham is picking on philosophical vegetarians who don’t eat meat.

    I think that what Dunham might be getting at is that *selective eating* is often a precurser to disordered eating. (Dunham is very smart and I am sure she knows all about this, perhaps firsthand but certainly from observing it in college.) Some kids will only eat white things, e.g., which can lead to problems. Some kids have to have things on the plate in a certain way. Sometimes this is a nuisance, sometimes it is a health problem. But beyond that, wedged between the big eating disorders and ordinary selective eating, you have people who don’t eat wheat, don’t eat white things (sugar, wheat, butter), don’t eat dairy, don’t eat gluten (even when they don’t have celiac disease, e.g.), because those things are “bad.” Meat is just another category of things that can be restricted, even for a non-philosophical reason (e.g., it’s icky), but it has the added feature that there are credible moral and health arguments against eating meat. The fact that there are good reasons to avoid certain categories of food for certain people can become a pretext for food restricting and obsessing that becomes bulimia’s best friend.

  7. Sam, I wonder if we’re talking past each other a bit?

    There are two readings (at least!) of Freeman’s claim that veganism/vegetarianism is a “gateway” to eating disorders.

    (i) Veganism/vegetarianism is one way of enabling eating disorders.
    (ii) Veganism/vegetarianism is something that *leads to* eating disorders.

    It seems like (i) is pretty clearly the case. Young women often claim veganism (among many other dietary restrictions) as a socially acceptable way of masking disordered eating. But I think the overall quote suggests that (ii), and not (i), is the reading that Freeman intends. Freeman writes that “Obviously not all vegetarians become anorexic. . .but vegetarianism encourages people to divide foods between the good and the bad, and it then becomes a legitimate means of limiting one’s diet”. I think the language in this passage – particularly the usage of “become”, reiterated in “it then becomes” – suggests that veganism/vegetarianism can be something that *leads to* eating disorders, rather than something that simply enables already disordered attitudes/behaviors toward food. And that’s what I don’t see an argument for.

    In a similar vein, I found this final bit particularly troubling: “Your daughter has a whole lifetime ahead of her to think of food as something other than a pleasurable physical necessity. Why let her start early?” Food *is* something more than a pleasurable physical necessity. Our food choices are morally laden and morally complex. Freeman seems to suggest that we need to protect our daughters from this complexity – that they’re too delicate to handle it. Why *let her* start early? Last time I checked, how young women think about things isn’t something that’s under their parents’ direct control. And it’s frustrating to see it suggested that parents should try to control it – try to keep their daughters from seeing food as a complex issue – because their daughters might suffer from that complexity.

    So that’s the big problem I have with Freeman’s comments, the presence of veganism-as-a-mask-for-dieting notwithstanding.

  8. Okay, one more thing and then I’ll shut up. A further reason – that I meant to mention in the previous comment – why I think Freeman intends reading (ii) of her “gateway” comment is that this is all said in support of her claim that parents shouldn’t let their daughters – just their daughters, not their kids – become vegetarians or vegans until they’re at least 16. Why wouldn’t you let your daughter become a vegetarian? Well, maybe you’re worried that she’s really only using vegetarianism as an excuse or mask for covert dieting. But if that’s the case, stopping her from being a vegetarian won’t solve the problem. If she already has disordered attitudes to food, then without help she’ll find a way to manifest them (if you outlaw vegetarianism she’ll just find something else.) If you think your daughter has a problem with attitudes to food, talk to her about her attitudes to food. A blanket ban on vegetarianism just won’t help the actual problem.

    Alternatively, maybe you think that vegetarianism or veganism will lead to disordered eating. In that case, though not in the former case, it would make sense to not allow vegetarianism (just as you might not allow some magazines or some tv shows, for similar reasons). So I think Freeman’s advice only makes sense if she thinks vegetarianism is the kind of thing that may well *cause* your daughter to develop disordered attitudes to food. And that’s the bit I find mystifying (and more than a little annoying).

  9. It seems to me that there is a sane or rational attention to healthy and ethical eating which often takes the form of vegetarianism or veganism. (I’m a vegetarian).

    There is an irrational or not sane attitude towards to eating (which generally goes not have an ethical component) and that is anorexia.

    Now there are sane and rational ways of paying attention to almost everything. For example, it is sane and rational to have enough money to pay one’s bills and those of one’s family, while it is not sane and rational to hoard money like Donald Duck’s uncle.

    To compare vegetarianism to anorexia is like comparing having enough money in the bank to pay one’s bills to accumulating riches in the bank for the pleasure of reading one’s bank statement.

  10. The point about splitting food into good and bad categories (i.e. not such a good idea) seems like a valid point, but if so then it’s way off base to pick out vegetarianism as specifically endorsing that framework. Our entire culture around food endorses that framework. (we call things “junk food”, lots of diets split food into the good and the bad, we talk about food itself as being “unhealthy” regardless of the context in which you are eating it, etc.)

    As for the gateway part….

    Watching TV, reading magazines, and listening to the ways people praise and shame their fellow human beings is way more of a ‘gateway’ to eating disorders than vegetarianism could ever be.

  11. We are just discovering that seemingly independent, little local businesses are actually owned, or partially owned by huge global corporations. Will we find next that the likes of Hadley Freeman are backed by the National Beef Industry? What else could explain such a take on vegetarianism? Surely she must be on the National Beef Industry payroll.

  12. I think magicalersatz is pretty much right, at least as far as my knowledge goes. As a not-so-young woman who was once an anorexic young woman, I started first with “eating healthily”, and then continued to cut more and more things out of my diet. Saying I was vegetarian was one acceptable excuse for cutting out one set of foods from my diet. But if the idea is that having a pattern of dividing foods into good and bad is a partial cause of disordered eating, then for me it happened a long time before I got to vegetarianism – it was at the simply “eating healthily” stage. Controlling what your daughter eats before she’s showing any signs of anorexia is a terrible idea – after all, it’s a common thought about eating disorders in young women that they arise as a response to a feeling of lack of control. The kind of girls that succumb to anorexia are really anything other than delicate and feeble-minded – they tend to be pretty smart, disciplined, and driven. They’re just far too good at being disciplined, and prone to obsessive behavior. Sounds like a lot of successful academics, doesn’t it?

  13. I am not going to be philosophical, ethical or argumentative here. I would just like to say that if you have a daughter, or son (An estimated 10-15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are male, 9. Carlat, D.J., Camargo. Review of Bulimia Nervosa in Males. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 1997.) and you notice a change of eating habits that seems to come out of nowhere, pay attention, watch and act. If there is loss of weight, toilet visits, a personality change or behavior change that accompanies this dietary change, it certainly is a sign that something is happening.

    ~A mom of a recovered young teen anorexic.

  14. Here are two examples from my close experience (both involve girls becoming vegetarians, not vegan, but they may be relevant)
    – my cousin was always deeply concerned about animal welfare, volunteered in a dog shelter, and had her own horse that she rode and took care of. The idea of eating animals was loathsome to her even as a child, and when – as a young teenager – she learned about how animals we eat were treated, she decided to become a vegetarian (her parents had free-range chickens, and she still wanted to eat those eggs and drink organic milk). Her parents (non-vegetarians) supported this decision.
    – a daughter of a close friend already had issues with her body since about 8 years old, thinking herself fat (she was actually in the lower range of BMI for her age and height). As a teenager she became a vegetarian. Her parents who were not vegetarian were supportive of this decision, and bought her special food, but she nevertheless began to develop bulimia and, after a while, had to be hospitalized. After therapy, she got rid of the eating disorder but also stopped being a vegetarian.
    It seems to me that case (1) is one where the decision is a considered one, and where it seems unlikely that the choice not to eat meat would result in eating disorders. Case (2) is clearly of the type Freeman describes, and should be approached with more caution as a parent. What I want to say is: there are clearly 2 different types of motivations playing here, and we can’t generalize what the best parental response would be.

  15. If dividing foods into (morally) “good” and “bad” is inherently problematic, wouldn’t the real gateway (the gateway pretty much ALL of us have passed through) be rejecting cannibilism?

  16. Ha ha, good one, anon#17!

    Yes, Lena Dunham’s initial statement is much more easily defended (as logically possible, at least) than Hadley Freeman’s. Masking one’s disorderly thoughts or conduct with what will appear to others to be orderly thoughts or conduct is possible, sure. But the ‘gateway’ language is silly, for exactly the reasons magicalersatz identified. The connotation of the word ‘gateway’ is that it opens up or leads to a possibility that was previously closed or at least constricted. It is not a very coherent causal claim to say that vegetarianism, as a form of considering what one eats, leads to disordered thinking. How does thinking about vegetarianism lead to the dawn of disorderly, or dysmorphic, or self-deceived thoughts?

    In full disclosure, I’ve been both vegetarian and anorexic (so I have a personal interest in reading and writing as best I can, anyway, about both topics). At least in my case, I can certainly say that the former didn’t cause the latter.

  17. Women diagnosed with an eating disorder are four times likelier to have been vegetarians (per a study published in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Certainly it was one of the first major warning signs of my own eating disorder. Is it a gateway? I wouldn’t call it that. But neither would I glibly believe any young woman who told me her choice to restrict food groups was because of the animals, you know?

  18. @Sam B
    have you read the whole book of Skinny bitch? While I do not encourage vegetarianism or veganism as a gateway of ED’s or the like. This book does not in any way encourage eating disorders. It states at the end of the book that the title was merely to attract viewers interest to read it (even though it sounds distasteful but hey it works for people that are sucked in by media ideologies).
    There are many points that the author also implies and expects to be aiming for people who need to loose weight for health (not to be unrealistically thin). As well as reference quoting the cruel experiences within the slaughter houses). It also provides a section where they have a list of acceptable junk food (vegan) as well as daily meals which i have checked and each of them look filling, healthy and wholesome. Not unhealthy and does not indicate or encourage disorderly eating patterns.

  19. @the_beheld, the rationality of refusing to believe a young woman who says she is a vegetarian for ethical reasons depends on two figures. You give us one: how likely is it that anorexics pass through vegetarianism? The second is what percentage of female vegetarians ever have an eating disorder. Your first figure is compatible with the answer to that question being very close to zero.

  20. I’ve never before commented here, but as a vegan, I feel compelled to comment:

    I’m no expert on eating disorders, but the claim that vegetarianism “is a potential gateway to eating disorders” misses the point that eating disorders are a mental illness and usually stem from the victim’s obsessive preoccupation with his or her appearance. That, if I’m understanding things correctly, is the root of the problem (or one of them, rather, as eating disorders are very complex and come with many social, emotional, and biological factors). With that in mind, I don’t see the connection between going vegetarian and developing the anxiety problems that drive eating disorders. I think it goes without saying that many people with eating disorders take up vegetarianism (usually very unhealthy versions of it). But that’s entirely different from saying that vegetarianism leads to eating disorders. Eating disorders and the culture of thinness that surrounds them may lead to vegetarianism, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

    On another note, I think Dunham’s comment is nasty and condescending, not just to vegetarians but to people with eating disorders, too.

Comments are closed.