Get off my (vegan) back

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When I first went¬†vegan, almost six years ago, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be one of ‘those’¬†vegans. The pushy vegan. The in-your-face-about-it vegan. The how-dare-you-eat-that-steak-in-front-of-me vegan. I didn’t (and still don’t)¬†want to become a judgemental person because of my personal choice to not eat animal products. Unfortunately,¬†this doesn’t stop others from openly – and often confrontationally – judging me for my lifestyle. To be frank, I’m getting tired¬†of it.

The number one reaction I receive to my veganism is, “OH I COULD NEVER DO THAT”.¬†… No one asked you to.¬†My choice to eat vegan has nothing to do with you. It is not a judgement against you or your eating habits. I have never pushed anyone to be vegan. Ever. So your pre-emptive defence against whatever judgment you think I’m going to make against you, after it comes up that I’m vegan, is both misplaced and annoying.¬†Your need to reassure yourself that you couldn’t possibly follow a vegan diet stems from a self-doubt and self-consciousness about your own habits and health. That is your problem; please stop¬†projecting¬†it¬†onto me and my veggie burger.

The second most common reaction I get is, “SO, LIKE, WHAT DO YOU EAT?”. The answer to this question is, of course, “food”, just like everyone else. If you are truly interested in learning about a vegan diet, I’m more than willing to discuss that with you. In fact, I really enjoy sharing my personal experiences with others when they ask. But nine times out of ten, learning¬†is not the intention of this question. I find, instead, that this question is designed to put me on the defensive, forcing me to lay out my daily diet¬†for you to investigate and mock. Many when asking this question suddenly become doctors and nutritionists, faking worry for me and assuring me that my diet couldn’t possibly sustain me over the longterm. If you ever feel compelled to do the same, please remember that my diet and my body are none of your business.

Speaking of my body, let’s all just agree to stop saying things like, “You’re vegan? Really? You don’t LOOK¬†like a vegan”. Thanks for letting me know that I don’t look like the waif-y vegan stereotype you have in your head. Saying things like this is¬†thinly veiled way of commenting on my body, something you have absolutely no¬†jurisdiction to do. We live in a world where so many of us struggle everyday to appreciate and love the bodies we have that we¬†should all avoid passing harmful judgements like this. Just like all people, vegans can be all shapes and sizes and races and genders. Stop trying to fit me or anyone else into the¬†boxes that live in your head.

Finally, I need to call out the gender issues embedded in¬†much of criticism I hear when I’m being questioned¬†about my veganism. Because meat is very closely associated with masculinity, plant-based diets¬†are¬†culturally¬†characterized as feminine. Veganism and those who practice it¬†are therefore immediately considered inferior¬†because we live in a culture that is patriarchal. This means that every time someone assures me that I won’t be ‘strong’ because I am vegan or bullies¬†a man for eating ‘girly rabbit food’, they are conforming to and¬†reinforcing¬†our patriarchal system, which means they are contributing to the oppression of women, non-binary, and queer folks.¬†Not good.

[Relevant sidenote: Please don’t mansplain veganism. Last night, I was surrounded by a group of men – all of whom I’d just met¬†–¬†that¬†decided that my veganism would certainly kill my future baby. Seriously.¬†I was too shocked by the sexism of the situation to do a proper take-down so indulge me¬†now: How dare¬†you automatically place me in the role of mother and caregiver because I’m female and how dare you think you know best about my health and my body.]

This post is not aimed at a particular person or situation. Instead it represents a culmination of experiences over the past six years that have each made me feel¬†hurt, judged, angry, and self-conscious. My veganism is deeply personal. It comes from a complicated history with food and health and it has grown into a lifestyle that fits who I am. Through veganism, I have gained a¬†greater understanding of global food systems, environmentalism, animal welfare, feminism, and health and fitness, too. If you want to talk about any of that¬†with me, that’s fantastic. But if you just want to point¬†out my veganism for rude, bullying, or self-serving purposes, please think before you speak and just back off.

No meat for me

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The number one question I get when I tell people that I am going to Ghana for eight months after the traditional “What’s your job description?” and “How are you possibly going to carry enough sunscreen with you?” is the question, “But what are you going to eat?” The people in my life know that I eat vegan, which means I don’t eat any animal products so no meat, dairy, fish, or additives derived from animals or their various parts. In the context of a brief conversation, I politely remind people that I have been vegan for over five years so I know what I’m doing and I’ll be perfectly okay.¬†

A more relevant question, I think, is what I will do if it is culturally or socially strange to not eat meat, especially if it is offered to me. I really don’t want to offend anyone but, as I chose to when I have traveled in the past, I will not compromise my health or my values because I’m in a new place and need to make friends. This means that I will have to learn the best way to – again, politely – decline offers of food and have substitutes with me, because it is unacceptable to expect others to constantly accommodate me. That being said, I am hopeful that these kinds of interactions could foster conversation and allow me to share how I live and eat while learning about others as well. At the end of the day, this knowledge exchange resulting in mutual learning is one of the main reasons I want to go on placement in the first place!

I think it’s important to keep in mind, too, that the biggest challenge of eating vegan has always been social situations, no matter what country I’m living in. It can be awkward explaining that I eat a plant-based diet and, yes, I get enough protein and nutrients and I have piles of energy so please stop worrying. For instance, a few nights ago when I was out with friends, everyone was sharing appetizers and I couldn’t because of their ingredients. I was completely fine with the situation but those with me felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t eating with them yet and, when my entree arrived, everyone seemed relieved. My eating habits are odd to many people and have even been described as ‘extreme’ by some. But I am lucky enough to be able to choose this as my lifestyle and I’m sticking to it.¬†

Yes, I might miss out on eating all sorts of delicious local foods but this is something I’m okay with. I know there will be plenty of opportunities to adapt local recipes to a vegan-friendly ingredients list and this is something I’m really looking forward to, as I love to cook! Moreover, I’m excited to explore foods that I’ve not been exposed to like new fruits and vegetables. I’m pretty experienced at this whole vegan thing so as long as I learn to navigate social situations in my new context, I’m sure everything will come up roses.¬†