I am so delighted to share with you this interview I did with Zipporah of Zipporah the Vegan. She was kind enough to chat with me and share her experiences and insights about eating disorder recovery, veganism and racism.
If you haven’t already, be sure to read my post on veganism and eating disorders, which discusses the complexities of eating disorder recovery as a vegan. I interviewed several clinicians who are experts in the intersection of EDs and veganism and it’s full of lots of important info!
Back to Zipporah. We met through social media and connected over our consistent anti-oppression approach to social justice and anti-diet approach to veganism. She has posted about being vegan in eating disorder recovery and I so admire her sharing her story with the world!
When we chatted, we set out to discuss a few key topics:
- Her journey to becoming vegan
- Eating disorder recovery as a vegan
- Her experience as a Black femme in the vegan world
- The intersection of racism and eating disorders
- The connection between speciesism and racism
So let’s dive in!
Generational Fat Phobia
At a young age, Zipporah remembers learning from her family that her body was a problem – a disgrace, even. This was the impetus for her to start restricting her food to pursue a thinner body in an effort to please her mother (which of course then triggered binge eating). She found herself in the cycle of restrict-binge for years.
Zipporah also remembers rules around food when she was growing up. From having to clean her plate at meals to not being allowed to snack – these are familial food rules that I think a lot of us can empathize with. And for Zipporah, it all contributed to her developing an unhealthy relationship with food in which she was unable to honor her internal cues.
“When I was young I didn’t understand that my eating disorder was actually a symptom of how I was taught to view myself, my body, or my weight. It was always this ‘you problem’ or ‘weight problem that you need to get under control’ without realizing that a kid doesn’t necessarily have the means to make up those ideas of fat phobia,” she says.
Zipporah recalls her father always being pro-Black and teaching her about white supremacy, racism and anti-Blackness from a young age. She says this critical eye of dominant systems was crucial for her to recover from BED as it allowed her to criticize the fat phobia she was taught and question the norm that is diet culture.
Through therapy and learning about diet culture, Zipporah came to understand why she was taught that her body was wrong and that her mother was only teaching her what she was taught. “I didn’t necessarily know that fat phobia was also a dominant system. So, once I got to researching it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is not her trying to be a bad person or inflict harm on me. This is actually what she’s learned and how she’s coped and her fear that she’s now projecting onto me.’”
“It was super liberating when I was able to recognize that what my mother was preaching to me was actually internalized fat phobia.”
Going Vegan While in Eating Disorder Recovery
While veganism may be problematic for some folks in eating disorder recovery, it wasn’t for Zipporah. Going vegan actually helped her recover from her eating disorder. In fact, her desire to go vegan and reduce harm to animals helped motivate her recovery. She wanted to go vegan for ethical reasons, and knew she needed to heal from her eating disorder in order to do that.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please remember that this blog post is a story about one person’s experience. Only you and your care team know what’s appropriate for you.
First, she took her time going vegan (about 5 years). When she first became interested in veganism (sparked by the short documentary Meet Your Meat – content warning: this video shows graphic footage of animal abuse), she was living at home and wasn’t in charge of what food was available.
Once she had more autonomy, she slowly began eating fewer animal foods and considered herself “plant-based” before eliminating all animal foods and going vegan. “My veganism today is a lot different than it was when I first went vegan 3½ years ago,” Zipporah explains. “I still considered animals as food and gave myself permission to eat animal-based foods if I wanted. I was careful not to label myself as vegan – I said I was plant-based for the first year.”
For Zipporah, the key to going vegan and not feeling restricted was learning how to make all of her favorite foods with plant-based ingredients.
She also felt a lot better, both physically and emotionally after becoming vegan. I want to note that this isn’t a guaranteed outcome of going vegan, but I am happy that it was so positive for Zipporah.
“There is so much less anxiety over food now. I don’t feel like I’m consuming that angst and that fear and that energy. Animals raised for food are afraid, they’re tense, they are cramped up – you get all of that in the food you consume. I didn’t realize that until a few months into eating plant-based. I just felt more alive in a sense. It always felt like I had this cloud over me when I ate animals. I definitely saw a difference in my outlook on life, my energy levels, everything about it just shifted which made my recovery so much easier.”
“I wanted to care for myself more because I loved the way that I was feeling. I was just eating good food and enjoying my life.”
This even impacted the way she showed up in advocacy. “It became less of a thing where I felt the need to shame other people or to look down on them because they weren’t doing what I was doing. I felt so free and so open that I was like ‘I need to share this good energy with others.’ That’s how I want to advocate for veganism.”
Healing from Binge Eating Disorder
Diversifying the media she consumed was also helpful in Zipporah’s recovery, as it made her realize how pervasive diet culture is in vegan spaces. At first, a lot of the popular vegan personalities she followed were pushing veganism not just for animals, but as a way to lose weight or remain thin. Then she realized, “This is not content that I should be consuming especially given my disordered eating patterns and how I feel about my body and it’s just not accurate science.”
Shifting the content she consumed helped her see the kind of person she wanted to be and how she wanted to show up for animals (which had nothing to do with diet culture and weight loss).
Intuitive eating was also helpful in Zipporah’s recovery. She started practicing IE after she went vegan and says, “It has definitely saved me and made me feel so much more secure because I am able to see food as energy and comfort. It’s not a source of stress or anxiety, at all.”
A Black Femme in the White-Dominated Vegan World
If you Google or search for vegan content on any social media or video platform, the top results are overwhelmingly white (and thin and cis and heteronormative). And this isn’t just in digital media, it’s the same for print publications on vegan ethics and food, and this is also the case within leadership of animal rights organizations.
Like many parts of society, mainstream veganism tends to uphold white supremacy. Be sure to read Zipporah’s blog post on white veganism.
[There’s also a fat phobia and sexism problem within the animal rights movement. Check out my interview with vegan fat activist Chelsea Lincoln for a discussion on these topics.]
When Zipporah first became vegan, she was frustrated by the overwhelmingly white content within the vegan space. “It was annoying because I was consuming very white, thin, abled and straight content from vegans. So now I consume content primarily from Black and brown people who advocate for more than animal rights,” she says.
“If you’re advocating for more than just animal rights it tells me there are other issues on your radar and you recognize that oppression is linked.”
Healthism and Plant-Based Dieting are Not Veganism
We got into a good discussion about folks using health as a way to get others interested in veganism. I don’t want to paraphrase what Zipporah said because it’s just so good:
“If you’re advocating for veganism as this health movement then you’re not using the term vegan accurately and you’re perpetuating this idea that veganism is somehow a diet or this thing that you can do to optimize your health. And that is not the case because you can eat so many foods vegan.”
Zipporah and I agree that the health-focused argument for veganism tends to do more harm than good.
“People have this misconception that if you’re eating vegan you’re eating ‘whole food plant based’ and then when a vegan shows up eating more processed foods, it’s a problem but the thing is that veganism is not a diet. Given how much misinformation there is about veganism we have to be hyper aware about how we advocate for it and that we advocate for it correctly. If you’re a vegan activist you should be advocating for the ethics, the animals, liberation, and oppression. These are terms you should be discussing.”
Colonization, Racism and Speciesism
Before we launched into this topic Zipporah made sure to highlight that these systems exist within a white supremacist context. She again shared such fantastic insights into this nuanced topic:
“The way in which we relate to animals now is a result of colonization and it is incredibly exploitative. But that wasn’t always how it was, and speciesism has turned it into ‘animals are here for us and not with us.’ This idea that certain animals are worthy of different treatment based on the species that they belong to is a result of colonization. We didn’t always have this power dynamic with animals where we were the ones that were oppressing them and exploiting them.”
“A lot of vegans I’ve seen in the animal rights movement use the term ‘human supremacy’ – this idea that it’s humans that are oppressing animals. And while it is true, it wasn’t always the way that it was. Indigenous and Black people are not responsible for factory farming as it exists today. We’re not responsible for all of these different ways in which animals have been commodified for profit. And that is also because capitalism and white supremacy exist hand in hand so there is so much more to it than humans exploiting the world for everything that there is. We have to look at which humans and how.”
Zipporah also shared that she tends to prefer the term ‘carnism’ over ‘speciesism’ and finds the former to be more inclusive of the human experience. While humans are at the top of the species hierarchy as far as exploitation goes, we also treat certain humans differently based on their identities, class, religion, etc.
Recovering from an Eating Disorder as a Black Person
In terms of being a Black femme who is in recovery from binge eating disorder, Zipporah says, “It’s important to know that we are just as likely to suffer from eating disorders as anyone else.”
The dominant stereotype of someone with an eating disorder is of a young, very thin, white, hetero female suffering from anorexia nervosa. The reality is three times more people suffer from BED than those who suffer from anorexia and bulimia combined. And Black folks are just as likely, if not more likely, to struggle with eating disorders as white people. What’s worse – clinicians often fail to recognize disordered eating in Black women, and people of color are less likely to receive treatment for their eating disorder.
As far as the Black community goes, Zipporah recently had a discussion (on her podcast) about how common it is for Black family members to comment on each other’s weight. Regarding family gatherings, “The first thing that anyone says when they see you is always about your size,” she says.
She recalls pulling her family aside and asking them not to comment on body size. “You never know what somebody is going through even if they are gaining weight or losing weight. You don’t know what was the cause of that and you don’t know how they may feel about their body. Commenting on that person’s presentation is never OK but it is so common among Black people to do that and make those jokes.”
Zipporah also noted that cultural background can impact what eating disorder recovery looks like for you. For her (with parents who are both from the Caribbean), eating disorders weren’t often discussed and she found that her community didn’t pathologize eating as much. She didn’t even realize she had BED for a few years. Talking about the underlying issues that caused her eating disorder have felt more helpful for her than talking about the disorder itself.
“It was through uncovering my childhood trauma that I was able to understand the root of my eating disorder and after which I was able to rectify my disordered eating patterns,” Zipporah explains. Going vegan helped in terms of the guilt aspect around food and it also allowed me to practice self-compassion as I was showing compassion to other living beings,” she said.
Here are the key takeaways from Zipporah:
- Recovery is possible as a vegan (and veganism was helpful in her case).
- Recovery takes time (and there is stigma around overeating which can make BED recovery even more difficult).
- Recovery is different for everyone and what works for one might not work for another (journaling, therapy, and social support were key for her).
“The tools that you use to recover from your eating disorder are not going to be the same as someone else who has a different lived experience or comes from a different background, and that’s fine. I think that they are all valid as long as they don’t harm you or anyone else.”