My not-so-simple response to the question: ‘So, why did you become a vegetarian?’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Earlier this summer, I ate a piece of red meat. It was the first time I had eaten meat in two-and-a-half years, and for a while after, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My boyfriend had given me a tiny sliver of beef from his enchillada after I made a deal with him.

“l know how much you love mushrooms,” I told him sarcastically. “I’ll eat a piece of your meat if you eat one of these mushrooms off my plate.”

“You won’t do it,” he said, knowing that when someone tells me I can’t do something, I usually try to prove to them that I can.

“Oh yeah?”

I put a mushroom on his plate and he put a piece of beef on mine. A look of disgust on my face, I cut the meat in half, closed my eyes and broke the rules. I expected it to taste unfamiliar. Instead, it tasted like home. In the few seconds that it took to eat it, I was reminded of my dad grilling hamburgers and my mom sticking a fork in one and putting it on my plate.

Mom used to love meat — especially when it came from a fast food joint. Burger King Whoppers were her favorite. She wasn’t overweight, but she knew what she liked to eat and wasn’t afraid to indulge herself. I wasn’t either. I remember how much I enjoyed biting into Whoppers. The mayonnaise and ketchup mixture would ooze out of the bun onto my little hands. More often than not, it’d end up on my shirt.

Mom and I also went to McDonald’s at least once a week for lunch. She was convinced that the Happy Meal toys would be worth something someday, so we started collecting them. I think Mom liked the cheap price of fast food as much as the taste of it. She was always on the lookout for bargains, especially when it came to food. She loved getting free food at events, and often went grocery shopping on the weekends just for the free samples. Whenever our local grocery store had deals on lobsters, we’d flock to the store, peer into the lobster tank and buy the biggest ones. When we got home, Mom would start boiling a pot of water and then take the lobsters out of the grocery bag. She’d put them on the kitchen floor next to the washing machine, aka the starting line. The kitchen table a few feet away was the finish line.

“On your mark … get set … Gooooooo!” she and I would yell in unison.

The lobsters, their claws closed shut with rubber bands, would start crawling. Sometimes, they charged ahead. Other times, they’d just sit there or start meandering in the wrong direction. Whichever lobster was farthest away from the kitchen table after a few minutes went into the pot first. You’d hear the lobster let out a little scream and see its antennae moving around. Mom would put the lid on the pot and I’d wave goodbye.

Mom and I had fewer lobster races after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. The chemo made her lose her appetite and feel nauseous. Eating began to seem more like a chore, a means for survival. Mom would sit in front of her plate and play with her food, a look of pain on her face. Eventually, the cancer spread to her bonemarrow, her liver and her brain. She became so weak that she stopped eating altogether and had to be fed intravenously.

When I was 11, Mom lost her battle with cancer. Though I could see her getting sicker during her three-year battle with the disease, I wasn’t prepared for her death. I had still been holding onto the hope that, someday, we’d be able to start up our Happy Meal toy collection again and hold more lobster races. These things just wouldn’t be the same without Mom.

The night she died, Dad and I tried to watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos” as we usually did on Sunday nights. Canned laughter ensued as we sat in silence. I wondered how people could be happy when it seemed the whole world should be sad. Skipping dinner, I went to bed feeling empty.

“Do you want to talk, Mal?” Dad asked.

“No. I just want to be alone,” I said, even though I wanted nothing more than to hug him and cry.

I pulled the covers over my head and stared into the darkness, unsure of how to express what I wanted and what I was feeling. In denial, I pretended things were fine and told myself not to be sad.

“Erase it from my mind, erase it from my mind,” I whispered, scratching my head and repeating a phrase I’d say whenever something bad happened. I didn’t know that, years later, everything I had temporarily erased would leave such a lasting mark.

In the days following Mom’s death, I pretended to be strong. I wrote a eulogy at her funeral and tried to convince everyone that everything would be ok. “Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives,” I said. “We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.”

I remember feeling disconnected when I read the piece, confused as to why I felt the need to write about my mom’s death in a Hallmark card kind of way. At the time, I thought I was strong. And I was, but I didn’t realize that being weak when we need to be can make us strong later on. When we cry, when we make ourselves vulnerable, when we readily admit that losing a mom is nothing short of devastating, we learn to see the value in being honest with ourselves. Hiding these realities only delays the grieving process, making us surrender to sadness later instead of embracing it in the moment.

But try telling that to an 11-year-old.

For as much as I wanted to help others move on to the next chapter in their lives, I was stuck. I tried clinging to the past as a way of hiding from the reality that mom wasn’t coming back. Feeling as though I had lost all control, I turned to something I could control: food. I started monitoring what my dad ate and told him that he should stop eating so much red meat and start eating more vegetables. I soon realized, though, that Dad was going to eat as many chicken wings and ribs as he wanted, no matter how many times I told him not to.

So I started controlling my own food intake. I had a health teacher at the time who said red meat was fatty, and that you shouldn’t eat too much of it. It seemed like a logical choice, then, to remove it from my diet. Soon after, I cut out all meat — and almost all foods except for fruits and vegetables. I figured if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, I could pretend things were still the same. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, who needed their love and attention. I’d be special.

As I continued to lose weight, I saw my dad grow weary. He, too, was losing weight because he was so worried. Mealtimes often ended with a fight. Dad’s sweet, innocent girl who got straight A’s and never talked back to her parents gradually became more and more argumentative.

“Stop telling me what to do!” I’d yell.

“Mallary, you need to eat. Please, just a few bites.”

“No! I’m not hungry.”

“Mallary, you haven’t eaten all day and you’re wasting away to nothing. You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”

“Dad, you’re overreacting! I’m not doing anything to myself. I’ve got this under control, ok? Just leave me alone.”

“Mal …”

“Leave me alone!”

Then one night he scared me.

“Mom fought so hard to survive,” he said. “Now you’re just letting yourself die.”

I knew he was right, but I pretended not to care. I went to my room, slammed the door and started exercising. The thought of being able to eat a Happy Meal, let alone feel happy, was beginning to seem more and more like an impossible dream. Along with doing leg revolutions in bed at night and shaking my leg whenever I sat down, I would jump — as high as I could. It sounds so odd now, but at the time I didn’t care what people thought. I wanted to burn calories, and if that meant jumping and making a fool of myself, then so be it. I jumped in the grocery store aisles, in the library and at church, embarrassing my dad and grandma.

They pleaded with me to stop, but for as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t. I felt so alone.

My dad admits now that he felt as though he was losing his little girl. He realized he couldn’t help me on his own, so he took me to my pediatrician, who simply said it was “normal” for pre-teen girls to be picky about eating and to cut out foods such as red meat. The doctor couldn’t have been more oblivious. Knowing that my weight loss was more than just a side effect of being “picky,” my dad contacted one of my mom’s old friends — who was a nurse — to ask her where he could take me to get help.

A few days later, I was standing on a scale at Children’s Hospital in Boston. At 66 pounds, I was fragile and secretly longing for an excuse to rest — to lie in a hospital bed like Mom did and not have to jump or shake my leg. I got a lot of cards while I was in the hospital. Most of them said, “Get better soon!”

If only it were that easy.

I was put on a specialized meal plan and had to eat a certain amount of calories each day. Meat was on my list of “forbidden foods.” For protein, I instead chose foods like cottage cheese and hummus. A lot of anorexics will tell you that these are “safe” foods and that meat is a “scary” food. The thought of eating meat quickly sparks images of people chowing down on a McDonald’s hamburger or a Burger King Whopper. It’s easy to equate meat with gluttony and fear — fear that if you eat just one bite of meat, you’ll gain weight.

I feared that anything I put into my body would make me fat. I would draw pictures of snowmen in my journal and scribble the word “ME” next to them. I’d write out everything I had eaten on a given day and then tally up the number of calories I had consumed. But I hardly had time to talk about these journal entries or the origin of my eating disorder while in the hospital. I went to therapy sessions, but the staff was more concerned with stabilizing me physically. I left the hospital feeling physically stronger but emotionally weak.

After four hospitalizations and two stays in the psychiatric ward at Children’s Hospital, I went to a residential treatment facility where I stayed for a year-and-a-half. The rule for eating disorder patients was the same there as it was in the hospital: If you didn’t eat your meal within 30 minutes, you had to drink Ensure supplements. If you didn’t drink the Ensure in 15 minutes, you’d “get the tube.” Several times, I ended up drinking the Ensure. I’d stare at it for 10 minutes and then chug it in the last five minutes so I could avoid having to be fed intravenously.

“Mom fought so hard to survive,” I remembered my dad saying. “Now you’re just letting yourself die.”

With time and the help of a therapist, I began to understand how my feelings about food and my mom’s death were tied together. I started gaining confidence and began finding ways to ground myself in the present rather than hiding in the past. I tried different types of foods and eventually began eating meat. For whatever reason, I don’t remember exactly when I started eating it again, or how I felt when I did.

I kept eating meat when I left the residential treatment facility in September 2000, and continued to eat it through high school and most of college. Then toward the end of college — likely because I was worried about the changes that would come with graduation — I started cutting red meat out of my diet. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t like it and that I didn’t need it. Two years after graduating college, I cut out all meat and fish. If I’m going to cut out red meat, I told myself, I might as well go all the way.

I liked hearing people’s reactions when I told them I was a “full-fledge” vegetarian. Even more so, I liked the attention.

From the non-vegetarians:

“You don’t eat meat? You don’t know what you’re missing!”

“You don’t even eat fish? Wow!”

“You’re going to stop being a vegetarian once you get a whiff of these awesome barbecue chicken wings.”

“I don’t know how you do it!”

From the vegetarians:

“Oh. my. God. Did you read ‘Skinny Bitch‘?! That book TOTALLY made me become a vegetarian.”

“I saw ‘Food Inc.’ and it made me never want to eat animals again.”

“I don’t know how people eat meat. It really grosses me out.”

“I feel so much healthier being a vegetarian.”

Inevitably, people from both ends of the spectrum ask: “So, why are you a vegetarian?”

It’s one of the hardest questions for me to answer. There are so many reasons why. Usually, I respond by saying that I don’t like the idea of eating animals. Sometimes I’ll also mention that my mom didn’t cook a lot of meat for me when I was a kid. That’s true, but it doesn’t account for the fast food trips we’d make.

While I hate the idea of animals being killed for human consumption, that only explains a small part of my reasoning. My decision to become a vegetarian is partly a manifestation of the idea that I should always be looking for ways to cut calories. By being a vegetarian, I can cut certain foods out of my diet without raising eyebrows. I don’t have to explain why I’m not eating meat or fish; it’s understood.

But how do you explain that to someone, especially someone who doesn’t know you’ve struggled with an eating disorder?

I’m healthier now than I ever imagined I would be. I can go out to eat with friends and family. I can treat myself to gelatto when I’m craving it. I can cook meals — including meat dishes for others — without feeling grossed out or fearing that the smell of food will make me gain weight. I can eat without having to be told to do so.

But still, I struggle.

I hide and hoard food. When I see free food I think of Mom and grab as much as I can. Then I feel guilty for taking so much, so I eat it in secrecy. Some days, I go for long runs and hardly eat anything. Other days, I binge. To prevent binges, I buy fresh salads and wraps every day so that I won’t have to keep food at home. But as anyone who struggles with overeating knows, there are always ways to find food.

I’ll eat just about anything during a binge, but I’ve never turned to meat or fish. This ability to control part of my food intake even when I feel so out of control is proof that my vegetarianism isn’t just about feeling “special” and getting attention. In large part, it’s about genuinely not wanting to eat meat. Now I just need to find more ways of filling the gap between what my body needs and what I’m willing to give it.

We can learn over time to listen to our bodies — to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. We can tend to the wounds of the past and work not necessarily toward “full recovery” but toward a process of healing. To heal, we have to recognize the progress we’ve made and not be hard on ourselves when we stumble. I try to avoid catastrophic thinking by reminding myself that one bad day of eating doesn’t have to ruin my entire week. When I start to slip into old habits, I think of something my grandma often says: “I live every day my kids didn’t get to live.” After she lost both her daughters to breast cancer, she promised herself that instead of focusing on what she’d lost, she’d focus on what she was still lucky enough to have.

Someday, I want to have kids of my own. I want to cook for them and make eating a fun and communal experience. I want to take them up north to visit my dad so he can grill them hamburgers and spoil them with ice cream. I want to lead by example and teach them to listen to their bodies. I want to be healthy enough to see my kids go to prom, graduate high school and start their first day in college — moments my mom never got to experience. Mom would want me to experience these things, and to be happy and healthy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever fully overcome my struggles with eating. And as much as my boyfriend would love to see me eat a beef enchilada someday, I’m not sure I ever will. I do know, though, that being with him has helped me normalize my eating habits and made me happier. And it’s helped show me that, especially during tough times, being with someone is so much better than being alone.