I used to be a vegetarian. Let me rephrase that. I used to be a “vegetarian.”
I was on the phone the other day with my mom bragging about what a grownup I am now and how many vegetables I can eat without having to fake faint, when she said that she was genuinely proud of me, not like that time as a teenager when I became a vegetarian just to antagonize her. First of all, what mother thinks her child decides to eat vegetables to antagonize her? And second of all, are we sure she was talking about me?
She was. However, even though torturing my mother was certainly high on my list of priorities as a teenager, she was slightly misremembering the motives behind this particular angst-driven undertaking. In the spring of my 10th grade year of high school I was psyching myself up for my first spring break at the beach with my girlfriends without my parents, and I had found the most perfect, wildly expensive, red striped, two-piece bathing suit that had the potential to secure for me a moderately sufficient middleish spot on the social food chain for the rest of my high school career. If it fit. And looked good. My girlfriends—Malibu Barbie, Cheerleader Barbie, Cheerleader Barbie, Cheerleader Barbie, and Cheerleader from our Rival School Barbie—were inherently image conscious and diet focused. Malibu Barbie’s mom was an exercise nut who insisted Malibu Barbie always a have fresh manicure, an even tan and toned biceps. The Cheerleader Barbies lived for nothing other than cheering, cheering and cheering, an activity that made their stupid teenage bodies hard as boards. I, on the other hand, was an avid reader. So….. To get my sedentary body beach ready I was going to have to pretend I cared about things like food and fitness, but to make that believable I couldn’t vary my character too much from my regular snarky, judgy, bookish self. And thus, Skipper Barbie was born.
The day I decided to adopt a counter culture lifestyle I knew nothing about other than how to pronounce it with self-righteous pomposity, I came out to everyone I knew. I was so proud of myself. And I scorned everyone else for not immediately following suit.
“I’m a veg-e-tar-i-an. I don’t eat meat. It’s cruel. Get a clue.”
The reason my mom thought my vegetarianism was an evil I was perpetrating against her was that I was delusional. At 15, even though I believed my weary and tormented teenage soul had already endured enough suffering for a lifetime, my body had not yet endured the full onslaught of puberty: I stood barely 5 feet tall in the morning and weighed 87 pounds soaking wet. That scrawny figure combined with the short shag haircut I gave myself one unfortunate day after a Meg Ryan movie marathon gave me the appearance of a malnourished 9-year-old boy. So determining I suddenly needed to pay attention to my food intake and physical appearance, especially in a way that was grandiose and annoying, put my mom on a mom’s highest alert.
But whereas my mom believed that me living out my totally normal teenage life was her hell incarnate, I was equally sure she spent every night dreaming of new ways to ruin me. She would constantly press me to diversify my diet, which I tried to pass off not as a diet but as a way to differentiate myself from the Barbies. I suggested that as a lifestyle concept, vegetarianism in our suburban, meat-eating South could be akin to piercing a nipple or dying my hair pink, so really she should thank me for being only mildly independently minded. But she knew my lifelong hatred of vegetables was deeply rooted and that any other kid might have been able to pull off the cool, brooding teenage vegetarian look, but for me vegetarianism really meant being a starve-myself-to-death-a-tarian, because there was no way I was going to wake up the next day and take a bite out of an onion.
She was right. For the next four months I ate nothing but bananas and baked potatoes.
Then, one afternoon during the much anticipated spring break for which I started these shenanigans, I was walking on the beach, choking down my third banana that day, when I looked down at myself and realized I was covering my most perfect, wildly expensive, red striped, two-piece bathing suit with an oversized sweatshirt and gym shorts, my uniform for the week. I looked over at the Barbies. They were all wearing the exact same thing.
I swapped my banana for a hot dog, hit the beach with my book, and that was the last time anyone ever accused me of being a vegetarian.