Body Spirit Think

Modified Diet, Modified Mindset: How Veganism Changed My Relationship with Food

Stephanie Kuehnert

When people learn that I’ve been vegan for half of my life, they often ask why. “Is it political? Ethical? Environmental?” My response: “It’s personal.” This answer isn’t meant to be a cop-out; it’s actually an invitation to a longer conversation, my way of saying it’s more complex than one reason. It’s all of those things and more, and it is deeply rooted in a personal place.

vegan, riot grrl

I was thirteen-years-old when I went vegetarian. It made sense at the time: two of my closest friends were vegetarian, and we all loved animals—simple. It was also a pretty easy transition because my parents were health-conscious nurses who didn’t eat a lot of meat, and I was a picky eater who mainly subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches, yogurt, and carrots (as well as other “vegetarian” foods that my health-conscious parents didn’t necessarily approve of, like chocolate, popcorn, and cheese pizza).

Meat was just never a regular part of our diet. My mom loves to tell the story of driving past the Jack in the Box on Grand Avenue in St. Louis and my four-year-old brother whining from his car seat, “Are we ever gonna get to go there?” Fast food burgers were never on her radar because when I was offered a burger at his age, I had flat out rejected it.

Despite being a little picky, as many young kids are, my relationship with food wasn’t complicated. That all changed by the time I turned sixteen. I spent the second half of my sophomore year of high school in an abusive relationship. My boyfriend controlled everything. If he didn’t like my clothes, he shamed me by throwing me over his shoulder and flipping my skirt up, exposing my ass to the busy street.

When he decided I shouldn’t be friends with his ex-girlfriend anymore, he mutilated her stuffed animal and made me give it to her. We went to class or ditched it when he said so. We had sex when he said so. Ultimately, we broke up when he said so, leaving me filled with shame, and unable to make any decision on my own without saying “eenie-meanie-miney-moe.”

I also ended up with a stomach ulcer, perhaps caused by the constant state of anxiety in that relationship, perhaps caused by the fact that I had mostly stopped eating. At that time, not eating was one thing about my life, and especially about my body, that I believed I could control.

I spent most of the next year counting the food I ate. Ten tortilla chips. Three maraschino cherries. I’d force down a PB&J during lunch at school or a frozen fettuccine alfredo before work because I knew it would be embarrassing to pass out from hunger. But I was eventually able to evolve past my food obsessing with the help of feminism.

skaterI started devouring riot grrrl zines and books by bell hooks and Susan Faludi. I joined an online riot grrrl forum, and though most of the women in that community were scattered around the country, I met one grrrl who happened to live nearby.

Tai was vegan and had recently come back from a stint volunteering at an animal rescue facility in New York. She and I got together regularly, and we spent many late nights discussing our beliefs in feminism and animal rights. Tai encouraged me to read Carol J. Adams’ book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, wherein Adams discusses the connection between the treatment of dairy cows and women.

On the surface, these influences might seem like my decision to “go vegan” were politically motivated. True, the political angle gave me a platform to discuss my choice, instead of delving into my personal reasons. The politics allowed me to be angry and self-righteous—yes, one of those vegans—giving me an outlet for my pent-up anger.

I wasn’t ready to talk about my personal struggle, to say that I actually related to the caged, controlled creatures, a feeling lingering even years after my abusive relationship ended. The truth was that much of the reason I went vegan was to stop starving myself, to make myself feel good about food and the things I put in my body again. But I wasn’t ready to talk about that.

Tai and I were roommates during the first year of my veganism. She taught me to cook. We made cream of potato soup, vegan French toast, lemon tofu “chicken” and a seitan-stuffed phyllo dough thing that we called “tofuttibeast.” The process of cooking, creating, talking, and then eating these creations, often sitting together on the floor of our one-bedroom apartment, was more healing than a year in therapy.

Once I was eating again, I stopped obsessing about my relationship with food. It seemed like a good thing at first, but I soon discovered I wasn’t truly healed. I dropped out of college, and spent the next couple of years consuming more booze than food—so I dropped veganism, too. My rationale: living on quesadillas left more money for Franzia boxed wine.

But by age 21 I was able to break from this pattern by throwing myself into my writing and going back to school. I wanted to “be healthy,” and I equated “healthy eating” with “vegan eating.” But I was so busy and stressed that food was still an afterthought, so I simply substituted my frozen prepared dinners with frozen prepared vegan dinners.

Once again, Tai came along to change all of this. We found each other as we were each ending long-term relationships. She was looking for a new place and I needed a roommate in order to pay my mortgage, so we were roommates once again. Suddenly, all of the prepared foods in my fridge were replaced with actual fruits, vegetables, and blocks of tofu. After work one crisp fall day, I walked in the door to the magnificent scent of ginger and found Tai stirring a pot of bright orange liquid—a delicious batch of carrot-ginger soup.

It was like liquid stress relief—and not the kind that leaves you hungover and remorseful the next day. After sucking down a huge bowl at the “grown up” glass dining room table—quite the departure from our meals spent on the floor of that apartment so many years before—I told her, “I have to get back into cooking again.” She lead me to her bookshelf in the basement and pointed out her enormous cookbook collection, welcoming me to partake any time.

With the wealth of those cookbooks (along with the discovery of the “quick & easy” recipe collections on vegweb.org), I gradually began cooking a couple of my own meals each week, and eventually, every day. Cooking my own meals became an essential part of my everyday routine. Cooking allows me to be creative in a different way than I am in my writing jobs. Vegan cooking expands on that creativity, requiring some searching and modification of recipes. And unlike the long, cold hike toward getting a novel published, cooking provides an instant, warm and tasty reward.

Even now, nineteen years after that awful teenage relationship, I still have moments when I feel out of control. Sometimes I still have to fight the impulse to stop eating, but having built a healthy and delicious world for myself helps me win that battle. Becoming more in touch with what I consume, and even with how I create it, the more I feel at home in my body, and the less I feel anxious about my life.

It’s incredibly empowering as a woman to find what makes you feel good—whether it’s vegan, vegetarian, raw, carnivorous or omnivorous—and taking the time to be hands-on in the preparation enables me to enjoy every bite.

About the author

Stephanie Kuehnert

Stephanie Kuehnert

Stephanie Kuehnert was raised as a health-conscious feminist. She went vegetarian at 13 and vegan at 17. She hated gym class, but learned to enjoy working out in her late 20s when she realized how fun and empowering it can be to punch and kick imaginary opponents. She also writes for Rookie (rookiemag.com), an online magazine for teenage girls, and has published two novels, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia. Find out more about her writing at stephaniekuehnert.com.

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