I have always found evangelical vegans tedious. I would rather eat my own liver than be lectured on the evils of gelatin. The irritating compulsion to fuss over one's food combined with moral certitude is as off-putting as a plate of raw offal during a heat wave.
And yet here's a secret: I eat tofu all the time. And kale and tempeh and organic brown rice and all kinds of other crunchy-granola stuff I won't bore you with. I also consume my fair share of melted-Stilton sirloin burgers, but the veggie fare always beckons me back. It's healthy and tasty and makes me feel virtuous, especially when washed down with plenty of cold beer.
In other words, I get the benefits of a rabbit-friendly diet. What I don't get are the benefits of unfriendly vegans. Or in the words of the great singer Chris Murphy, "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans."
Of course, by "vegans" what I mean is "smugaholics who want to convert you to their way of thinking by making you feel guilty about yours." I was going to hold a contest to determine the world's most wretched vegan diatribe, but then Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin trumped the whole thing by publishing their sleeper hit Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense Tough-Love Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous!
The two L.A.-based modelling industry refugees - Barnouin is a former model, Freedman a former agent - have packaged their meat-free mantra into a peppy chick-lit-style manual that promotes self-starvation by way of perky body fascism. Example: "You are a total moron if you think the Atkins diet will make you thin. Or, you are a gluttonous pig who wants to believe you can eat cheeseburgers all day long and lose weight."
First published in 2005, Skinny Bitch has slowly climbed in sales and last week was No. 4 on The New York Times paperback advice list. The title has garnered plenty of media attention (especially after it was photographed under the arm of Victoria Beckham, the skinniest bitch of them all), but it could easily be renamed A Vegan's Guide to an Eating Disorder. Slovenly meat eaters like me are known are "fat pigs" and "pussies." Its preachy tone reminds me of the days when vegan celebs such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone clogged the pages of every glossy trumpeting the benefits of kale and quinoa. Of course, that was before Drew Barrymore quit being a vegetarian and lost her baby fat, making dieters everywhere wonder whether avoiding all things meaty and creamy works in the end.
I'll tell you what works: not eating much of anything. True to form, Freedman and Barnouin outline a strict vegetarian regimen that leaves one starving and cranky just reading it. "Don't eat lunch until you're close to ravenous," they instruct. "This will allow your breakfast to pass through your body without having food piled on top of it. In a perfect, skinny world, lunch consists of a fresh, organic salad with lots of raw vegetables."
Breakfast? Two pieces of fruit, eaten slowly.
Skinny Bitch promotes the kind of food phobic paranoia that, according to a recent study, has a growing number of vegans terrified to sleep with, let alone kiss, a member of the evil carnivore majority. It is no surprise that such vegan militants are just as squeamish about sex as they are about food: This kind of radical diet restriction is not about health but body hatred.
Before I rail on, I should point out that not all vegans are cut from the same hemp cloth. Ruth Tal, founder of Toronto's Juice for Life restaurant and juice bar chain and author of the Refresh vegan cookbook, is moderate where the skinny bitches are militant and sensible where they are sensational.
"Veganism can attract people who are neurotic and obsessive-compulsive about food," she says. "I used to be quite evangelical, but I have softened. There was a tipping point where I realized that all these regular coffee shops were offering soy milk. I realized I was being just as unaccommodating as the mainstream world once was to me."
While Tal originally did not allow dairy, coffee, wheat or wine on her menu, she has since loosened the rules so dabblers can have a slice of Swiss on their soy burgers.
"A little bit of cheese," she says, "is not going to kill you."
The Skinny Bitch authors, of course, would like you to think otherwise. "For us the definition of a skinny bitch is women who treat their bodies like temples and love themselves as a result," Freedman says in a phone interview.
Funny. When I hear the term "skinny bitch" I tend to think of, well, skinny bitches. Could tapping into women's deep physical insecurities be little more than a marketing ploy?
"If we called the book 'How to be the Healthiest You've Ever Been in Your Whole Life,' I wouldn't be talking to you now, would I?" Freedman snaps when I suggest as much.
Asked whether the diet worked for her, Freedman readily acknowledges that veganism has had no effect on her weight - just her attitude. "I've always been skinny, but I subsisted on nothing but garbage for most of my life."
So if it didn't make her thin, what was the effect? Perhaps the title does ring true.