When people think of rebellion, or of trying to change the world by changing themselves, they tend to cast all of their desires for change outward– changing governments, economic policies, banks, corporations, the emotions of large groups of people who hold what we believe are harmful beliefs and act on them in harmful ways. Rebels seldom think of themselves in these contexts, falling into the same traps and contributing to the same bigotry and intolerance that they decry in their enemies. Even those of us who are conscious enough to want to hold ourselves accountable to the change we’d like to see in the world often miss a few of the most personal and deeply felt rebellions in which a person can partake: the things that we ingest.
A very select few people know that over the last few months, I’ve been making a serious effort to cut back (with the goal of eliminating) a number of things from my diet, chief amongst these things meat, dairy and high fructose corn syrup. When people who found out asked, I gave them vain, mostly physical appearance-related answers because I decided early on that if I was going to be a vegetarian or vegan, I didn’t want to be one of those irritating ones who constantly tells you why the things you eat are disgusting and evil and because I know that my inherent moral weakness on the matter was going to lead to a few slip-ups that I’d beat myself up over when they happened. I said that I was avoiding eating dairy for my complexion and because I’ve been getting a lot of upper respiratory infections and allergic reactions and stomach problems and that I don’t get those quite as often when I’m avoiding dairy (all of which is true). I said that I was eating tofu in place of meat and chicken because of the estrogen boosts and because I smell better when I’m not eating meat (everything from bathroom time to breath and sweat) (all of which, again, is true though it may have to do with the fact that I’m also eating an insane amount more vegetables than I used to, which is basically like taking chlorophyll pills but better) (someone suggested that this may be because of the estrogen-like effect of tofu). The high-fructose syrup bit is a no brainer.
The truth of the matter, though, is that if you watch enough food documentaries, the truth starts to sink in a little bit. A lot of the stuff that we put in our bodies is known to be terrible for us, huge chemical compounds equal parts addictive and cancerous. As a country, America is laden with entirely preventable diseases. As a culture, we’re constantly made to feel bad about ourselves and constantly given an image to live up to while simultaneously sold products that contribute to the lifestyle that we have now, which is bloated and inactive and self-deprecating. The result is that we fill ourselves up with stuff that’s making us sick and depressed and fat and docile and the attention span-dulling stimuli we’re bombarded with on a daily basis reinforces the idea that we’re not good enough and that it’s all our own fault that we’re such failures. Our emotions are scattershot from all the depressants and stimulants surging through our bodies, especially those of us with legitimate chemical imbalances, and we turn to psychotropic drugs that the majority of us don’t really need to make the pain bearable. We’re tired as fuck at 3 in the afternoon and we don’t know why. Our dicks are broken and we don’t know why. We’re aggressive and wound up and we don’t know why. There’s noise everywhere and our kids are just as bad as us and none of us know why.
Before I start sounding too much like a conspiracy theorist, I should include the caveat that yes, the choice to live this way is a personal one. Nobody forces these people to buy soft drinks, eat shitty hot dogs, french fries, taco bell, whatever your poison is. It’s just like smoking. Everyone knows this shit is bad for you, but they buy it anyway because they want to. They know the risks and they accept them and that’s their right as people in a free, Democratic society. Remember how I said that I don’t want to be one of those militant vegetarians? I mean it. But the fact of the matter is that while some of this information is out there to be gotten, a lot of people are terribly ignorant on the matter. They’re content to be woken up by caffeine when they’re tired, content to eat meat with every meal because of that little surge of endorphins they don’t know they’re feeling and then end up with cancer and say to themselves “but I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life!”
What bothers me most about it all is that it’s a class thing. Good food is more expensive and hard to come by. The price of organic food is through the roof compared to crappy canned vegetables and a lot of people just can’t afford to care about the comparably drastic nutritional value. A lot of people don’t have the time to make things from scratch because they have kids and exhausting jobs. They don’t have the time to do the reading about food for the same reasons. It’s also just hard to keep up a resistance to the bombardment by advertising these days. Pizza and cheeseburgers and french fries and soda all look and taste really, really good. I guarantee most kids, even when they’re raised by vegetarians, throw screaming tantrums about wanting these foods once a week. I definitely did when I was young. That’s what advertisers are going for– most parents have a real hard time saying no to their children even when they know they should. I’ve had to take a really hard line with my father (who’s also vegetarian) and his nutritionally conscious wife (mostly vegetarian) about how often they allow their children to eat chicken nuggets and french fries and high fructose-laden cereal and juice and candy. The only thing that worked in the end was telling him the pink slime story and offering a number of meat alternatives that do taste quite a bit like chicken nuggets if you smother them in barbecue sauce. The amount of sugar in their diets and the number of emotional screaming hyperactive meltdowns that my baby sisters both experience on a daily basis isn’t an accident, either.
Since I was about ten years old, I’ve been plagued by a number of debilitating illnesses, both physical and psychological. I’ve been diagnosed with a wide variety of chemically-based emotional disorders, from depression to bipolar disorder to ADD to mild schizophrenia to borderline personality disorder. The only thing that’s clear about my condition is that I’m sometimes overtaken by waves of aggressiveness, depression, elation, that have nothing to do with what’s going on in my life or the world around me though they impact them drastically. I’ve been given to severe panic attacks that made me think I was having a heart attack. Similarly, I’ve been plagued by crippling, sometimes days long migraines since I was about nine. I frequently spent days in bed with fevers, digestive disorders, reproductive disorders. I had high blood pressure and cholesterol by the time I was ten. I’ve had severe eczema since I was a toddler. I was technically obese at age eleven. I missed a lot of school, so much so that it’s just a testament to our poor educational system that my grades didn’t reflect my absenteeism in any way. Today, I’m free of most of these problems: I’m still overweight but nowhere near what I was, my cholesterol and blood pressure are immaculate and my cardiovascular health is slowly getting closer to where it should be, my eczema only flares up occasionally as dryness in the hands and is now primarily a result of me not drinking enough water, my digestive health is slowly repairing itself in noticeable ways, I sleep better, I wake up better, I get sick less, my moods are still fragile but nowhere near the terrible daily swings and I haven’t had a panic attack in well over a year.
What’s changed? When I was a child, I was terribly poor. My mother spent money horribly and she gave into all of my childish desires. She bought lots of soda for me to drink, fed me fast food whenever she could, fed me processed food when she couldn’t feed me fast food. If it weren’t for a small pickle addiction, I don’t think I would have consumed a single vegetable between age 6 and age 13. I ate slices of American cheese byproduct by themselves when I couldn’t get a cheeseburger to put it on. Fried everything? Yes please. Boiled cheap pasta with strained Ragu sauce smothered in freeze-dried mozzarella and parmesan? Fuck yeah. While my mother and I have quite a number of issues regarding the way she raised me, I think this is the only one I still haven’t completely forgiven her on and it’s the thing that everyone who loves me judges her the most harshly about. To her credit, I was a very strong-willed child and when I wanted something, I wanted it. She also didn’t have very much money or anyone to teach her how to spend that money when she got it. She was insecure about not being able to give me the world so she indulged in the few vices of mine that she could. She was also (and is, still, despite my efforts) catastrophically ignorant in the way of nutrition despite having diabetes and being given all of the resources to fix this. She literally cannot be emotionally satisfied by a meal if it doesn’t include at least one kind of meat and one kind of cheese and be washed down by a large quantity of Diet Mountain Dew. She routinely buys caramel-covered apples and cash register-adjacent candy bars despite her diabetes. While all of this sounds extreme, I assure you it’s not abnormal in this country. The effects this kind of lifestyle had on me were more obvious but less severe than the effects they had on her through luck and time alone. I started figuring out a couple years ago that I had to start changing and recently, I’ve been putting more of my knowledge into practice, so at 23, there’s still some hope for me. At over 50 years, there’s even still some hope for her if she changes her ways, but she probably will not.
The fact is that the things you put into your body affect everything about you: your physical appearance, your health, how you feel, and even how you think. The cheap food industry in this country pulls in an absurd amount of money each year, as do the private health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies because of the staggering amount of disease that this lifestyle causes. It’s already made the leap from private interests to part of the government that regulates our life. Choosing not to partake in this modicum of eating habits is the most effective way to liberate yourself from a dishonest, class warring, manipulative culture of oppression. By consuming better food and monitoring your nutritional intake, in a short amount of time, you’ll find yourself with much more energy and clearer, cleaner thinking processes and much greater physical control over your life. You won’t be giving money to companies that knowingly sell harmful products to children and poor people just to gain a buck. You’ll be helping stop global deforestation (a subject I don’t feel like going into right now but look into it) and climate change. In short, you won’t be part of the machine anymore, you won’t be part of the problem. You’ll be taking an active role in your own life and the world around you in a positive way without imposing your own will on others (and I stress this. Don’t be an asshole).