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I remember the first time I was called fat.
I was the new kid in kindergarten, and I was so shy that my classmates thought I couldn't speak English. A month into my new school, I celebrated my sixth birthday. My parents brought me rainbow birthday cupcakes from the local bakery and everyone in class sang to me. I felt even more special that day because my father was there; it was the only time in my life he was present to celebrate my birthday. My parents had divorced while I was in the womb, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen him.
I happily munched on my cupcake and was ready for a second. As I walked towards the front of my room where my teacher was serving everyone, I heard the group of girls snicker.
"She's having one more? She's so fat," they giggled.
My parents didn't hear, and I didn't dare tell them. Looking back now, I can't believe how young I was when I was first bullied.
I wouldn't call myself fat in kindergarden (and I'm being honest here, I was really just a chubby baby), but I did grow faster than the rest of my classmates. I was taller than the boys, and I always looked like I was in a grade or two above. Already used to feeling like an outsider, first as an Asian American in a white suburban school, I felt even more like an outcast as I grew more quickly than most through the years.
I started binge eating in high school. Before I got on the morning bus, I'd stuff my face with anything in sight. I'd have leftovers from the night before, make myself oatmeal and eggs, and then binge on saltine crackers and Diet Coke until I had stomach cramps and wanted to purge. I tried forcing myself to throw up, but I was never able to. So I stuck to eating once a day every other day until I could squeeze my growing body into a size 0.
During my sophomore year of college, I discovered veganism. I was at the local Borders, browsing the cookbook section, when I stumbled upon Alicia Silverstone's The Kind Diet right next to Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The latter isn't even a cookbook, but I'm convinced it was fate that I found them strategically placed next to each other. I devoured the two books and became a vegan overnight.
For the next few years, I would flip-flop between being a vegan and non-vegan, where I would chastise myself for eating meat, and the stress of it would make me physically ill afterwards. I spent hours on Tumblr, scrolling through pictures of women who were lithe and thin, worshipping their bodies and agonizing over how I didn't look like them. I wondered if I ever could.
I was suffering from severe depression at the time, but I didn't know binge eating was a mental illness. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) has only recently started getting the recognition it deserves, and I am so grateful for this because when I was struggling, BED wasn't mentioned like anorexia or bulimia. I could never put into words that I had an eating disorder, nor could I admit to myself that I had a problem.
In my early twenties, I traveled alone to Dubai. I'll always remember the night I ate chicken liver at the food court in one of grand malls. I don't even know what compelled me to eat liver, but I was so disgusted with myself afterwards. When I got back that night, I tore the kitchen apart and ate everything in sight — not to reward myself, but rather to punish myself. I felt like a filthy pig, and I continued to self-destruct in my own diary.
It was as I was furiously writing in my diary that I realized I never felt this way when I was a vegan.
When I was vegan, I ate for ethical reasons. Knowing I wasn't contributing to the planet's destruction or taking away an animal's life was rewarding to me. I never hated myself or loathed how I looked during those periods. I never binged.
Binge eating over the years screwed up my digestive system, but as a vegan, the wheels turned faster. When I ate plant-based foods, I was happier not eating animals, and not feeling guilt was such a nice feeling.
On the way back home from UAE, I threw out my scale and became a vegan again. For the next six years, my relationship to food became extremely complicated. Although I never felt ashamed when I was vegan, it was hard for me to enjoy vegan foods. Even when I began eating a vegan diet in college, the food options were scarce. A hunger for meat fueled an internal war, resulting in a vicious cycle of constantly beating myself up.
A year ago, I developed iodine, vitamin B and vitamin D deficiencies. This past December, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disease, and I went back to eating meat for a couple of months. I had more energy then, but for some reason I wasn't harsh with myself because I knew I needed it at the time to survive. It was being diagnosed with a health problem that gave me a wake-up call to take better care of myself. I knew I needed to let go of my unhealthy behavior from the past and give my body the kindness it deserves.
I've been taking my thyroid medicine for six months now, and a few weeks ago, I felt healthy enough to start anew my vegan journey. I even decided to create a blog for it to keep me motivated. This time around, I'm making sure I avoid vegan junk food and stick to mainly fruits and vegetables — lessons I learned over the years from my mistakes.
Today, veganism for me is about non-restriction, the opposite of binging. It's about eating bountiful whole foods that only nourish my body from the inside out. It's taken me so long to get to where I am today, but now that I don't condemn myself for being human and making mistakes, I'm in a much better place.