Iron Woman


by Sally Wilson; pictures: Cecilia Renard

My ten years of denial started and ended with the flick of a switch. And by denial I mean dietary veganism. One day at the age of 12 I woke up, showered, dressed and then refused to eat eggs for breakfast. The refusal immediately extended to all animal products, though I didn’t express it in words at the time. Ten years later I came home from work with a T-bone steak; I seared it on the grill, then plated and demolished it, leaving only the cleaned bone as evidence. I had never felt more alive and have never looked back since.

The only passage I know from the Bible is the King James version of 1 : Corinthians 13. I learnt it faithfully, word-for-word, at my all-girls Anglican high school in the nineties, at a time when Kurt Cobain was singing Smells Like Teen Spirit and the hole in the ozone layer over Australia had ballooned to an ominous size. Faith, hope and love form a holy trinity, was the Bible’s message to the Corinthians–as I construed it then–with love positioned like a Christmas star right at the very top. Faith and hope I got, they were qualities within reach, but I still had a lot to learn about love.

Our patron was Saint Margaret of Scotland. Upon reflection she was an odd choice of mascot for a school of girls. In stained-glass windows Margaret is depicted as a translucent woman, fair-skinned, no fat. As far as saints go, she is renowned for her piety, faith and some form of holy anorexia nervosa, which in the end killed her. Looking back, it strikes me that while Margaret shone a vast spotlight on denial as our role model, she mustn’t have known very much about love.

It was when I turned 12 that I gave up steaks. I gave up all kinds of things along with them: cheese, ice-cream, jelly, milk chocolate and preservative 910. I’m a fairly philosophical person, with my own set of non-religious, personal beliefs, but the decision to lead a life of dietary veganism was not driven by any of those things. It came on like a dream, overnight, and thanks to my wilfulness, it lasted. It did my body no good, but made me feel alive at the time; purposeful and strong as a teenager on the ascent through years of middle-class revolution.

None of this is to say I was particularly unhealthy. Lettuce leaves and vegan sausages weren’t for me. I ate bowls of muesli fortified with soy milk; frozen mango, ratatouille and tofu sushi. My mum attended night classes in vegan cookery, and today still cooks from the pages of recipes hand-written by Claire, a chef belonging to the vegetarian underground, who seems to have vanished since the advent of Google. What that food proved was that these two women knew faith, hope and love. Most notably love.

“Dietary vegan” was the catch-cry that helped me manoeuvre through my social anxieties in the late 90’s. Every kind of invitation could be swept aside because, thanks and sorry, I was a fully-fledged vegan. I said no to dates and parties. I exempted myself from performing animal dissections as part of biology class, taking instead pen to paper in a 5,000-word thesis to prove pregnant women could maintain a healthy vegan diet through their 40 weeks. But unless every pregnant vegan is prepared to take up eating as a full time job, I’d say my hypothesis failed. It failed even though I was concerned only for myself, and had no babies.

I realise now that the denial of red meat in my life was little more than a blunt-nosed refusal of iron and pleasure. Internally, my red blood cells flagged without the where-withal to taxi oxygen through my body. Scientists tell us that iron is an essential element for most life on Earth, though it took me ten years to realise that mine was one of those reliant. No number of fainting spells, blood tests or supplements can change the fact of deficiency rooted in denial.

In Australia, iron women are elite athletes who compete in pink, full-piece Speedos on our beaches through the summer, boasting virile tans and disciplined, Max Dupain-like bodies. My ascent to iron woman status happened when I sat down for dinner one night at the age of 22 and promptly demolished a T-bone steak. That night there was no need for delicacy or ceremony; the steak was itself all three courses, entrée, main and dessert.

And it wasn’t a one-off, adulterous affair. I didn’t feel pangs of guilt, the violence of seduction, or rushed back to a bowl of tofu and mental torture. Instead, the next night, I ate another T-bone steak and again I felt whole and contented. This routine played out for a fortnight, perhaps more, until the novelty blurred and red meat and the BBQ were again part of my normal, everyday existence. I was back: a fully edged iron woman and every part of my body and mind knew it.

When I think of Saint Margaret these days, I regret that she never was an iron woman. She had a husband, eight children, religious faith and presumably some hope, but didn’t appear to know about love. “Love is constant and kind”, the Bible told the Corinthians. “Love starts as one cell”, is what I would have told them, “feed that cell what it needs, and love can do nothing but multiply”.~