A Deconstruction of Society’s Perception of Veganism

I never thought I would become a vegan.  When I heard that other people were vegan, I would always think, “I couldn’t live without meat” and “cheese is too important to me”.  I thought that my love of animal products was a part of my identity.  I was the girl who loved to bite into a juicy, tender piece of steak and marvel at my father’s grilling abilities.  And as a Jersey girl, I took great pride one of my region’s most celebrated creations—pizza, and scoffed at people who said pizza from anywhere other than an “authentic” pizza joint was good.  Even when my sister became a vegetarian in middle school, I would make fun of her and try to tempt her with bacon to convert her back from the “dark side”.  But when all I could think of anytime I put a cheesy or meaty bite into my mouth, even in an altered state of mind, was where that food came from and the suffering that the animals endured, I had to make a change.   No longer could I let my sense of taste rule over my moral consciousness.  However, each time my new eating practice is revealed to other people, I began to notice how much tension I feel and the different reactions I receive.  Some people seem impressed, some are curious, some get defensive of their own eating habits, but no matter who it was or how they react, there is always a palpable tension in the conversation.  The source of this tension and discomfort is sometimes more obvious than others, but each person comes with a unique background that has led them to their current eating habits and opinions.

Shame

One of the more complex, yet obvious factors that leads to the discomfort of omnivores and even vegetarians is the shame that they feel when they are consciously reminded of the choice that they make to consume animal products.  As John Foer said in his book, Eating Animals, “Shame is the work of memory against forgetting.  Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate gratification” (Foer 37).  Every time someone eats a piece of meat, they choose to ignore the source, the short and torturous life that the animal has likely lived, the brutal slaughter, and the gross and corrupt factory system through which it is processed. 

Sometimes omnivores and vegetarians are reminded of these facts through videos that are publicized on social media or the news, and that can be impactful.  But when a vegan is in their presence, they can see that someone else has truly taken these terrible facts into consideration and modified their lives to directly address the issues.  This can be taken in a variety of ways depending on a person’s view on the matter.  If it is a person whose values align with those of vegans, then they would feel shame because they are not living by their own values.  If it is someone who has not thought through the issues as thoroughly, a vegan may make them feel ignorant or defensive.  Either way, vegans force people to confront their own values and question them, if only briefly.  “We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness.  We are the ones of whom it will be fairy asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?” (Foer 248).

Privilege

One issue that people often use to defend their omnivorous eating habits is the fact that veganism excludes groups of people who are underprivileged and may not have access to the proper resources to lead a vegan lifestyle.  This is is very true that it is much harder for people in the developed world who are busy working and struggling just to feed themselves and their families with the cheapest and most convenient options.  Chris Rock once said, “If you’re one of the chosen few people on this earth lucky enough to get your hands on a steak, bite the shit out of it!” This is a popular view of many omnivores, as meat is hard to come by or too expensive to eat on a regular basis in many countries around the world, and even in the United States “high-quality, grass-fed” meat is expensive. 

As for dairy products, I asked one of my vegetarian friends if she ever considered going vegan and she thought that it was unnecessary because who else is going to drink the cow’s milk, their calves can’t drink all of it right? So there is this large misconception about the dairy industry that adds to the misunderstanding of veganism.  Because of these factors, many people often think of vegans as overprivileged (often white) hippies who care more about the well-being of animals more than humans, many of whom are also treated inhumanely or unjustly as workers in the food industry.  Therefore, when I identify myself as vegan, people can often make assumptions about my character that are not justified, when in fact, it is very hard for any person of privilege in the developed world to justify their need to eat animal products.  This is often the crux of the tension between me and my privileged friends, though I do admit that had I lived on campus and relied on campus food, it would be tenfold harder to maintain a vegan diet.  Nevertheless, the decision to eat animal products to many of them is mindless. A few videos I found on youtube address many of these issues and tensions:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CCNUZGJOgs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GBK6NSJH_E

Race

The overwhelming whiteness of the vegan movement in the United States, especially, is another huge turnoff.  Closely linked to privilege, but not entirely, is the idea that veganism is a white space and people of other ethnicities do not have as loud of a voice or as much of a space within the community.  Because of this, “whites continue to define the rhetoric, spaces, and broader projects of agrifood transformation” (Guthman 277).  Therefore, the majority of the publicity about veganism that non-vegans see is geared toward white people, especially those who have access to an abundance of fresh local produce and vegan food sources.  When I go to Abundance Cooperative Market, which I began to do almost every other week after becoming vegan, even though it is in a racially and socio-economically mixed neighborhood, I notice that the majority of shoppers are white. 

Many reasons for the lack black vegans in the United States exist, stemming from the lasting effects that slavery still has on society, politics, and the economy.  The many youths of color who participated in a school gardening program “see their efforts more as donated labor than therapy” (Guthman 273), which helps to explain the rejection of veganism and other alternative food movements. There is a lasting tension and feeling of exclusion that black people feel that leads many to continue to prefer soul food and other foods they are comfortable with rather than opt for what is still perceived as white people’s food. However, the momentum of black vegans is growing and many see veganism as a form of empowerment. In a youtube video by a young black woman who identifies as a revolutionary, vegan food became part of her spiritual journey. In fact, she sees the rejection of society’s default of eating meat, dairy, and fast food as taking control and doing what is right for her body, animals and the environment.

Although veganism is growing in popularity and the presence of people of color is growing, this is still a huge issue since black Americans have the lowest average income level (Economic Policy Institute). Therefore, a majority of low-income neighborhoods are black and these neighborhoods tend to be food deserts, so even if there was a will for a person of color who lives in a food desert to become vegan, or lead a healthier lifestyle by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, it would be very difficult.

It is clear that race plays a huge factor in the tension existing around the vegan community. As a privileged white vegan, and knowing how I saw the vegan community before, I know that many people will probably perceive me as part of a white fad, and even as someone who is trying to deal with my white guilt in some ways.

Socio-Economic Status

Closely connected to race, is the accessibility of veganism to those of a lower socio-economic status. Many people think that it is more expensive to lead a vegan lifestyle and is therefore a mark of one’s higher socio-economic status. Whether or not this is true, depending on the one’s personal methods of shopping and cooking, what is true is that it often takes more planning, anticipation, and time. Vegans must know proper nutrition, preparation to go out and make sure that they will have enough food for the time they are out of their homes, and time to cook meals. This is a luxury that only people who are not busy with multiple low-paying jobs and taking care of kids have. Only people with some leisure time and passion for animal rights, the environment, or a particular view on health can afford. Busy, working people who are just trying to get food on their table from day to day simply do not have time for. Even if these people would like to buy healthier options, if they live in a food desert, which many low-income families do, it would be nearly impossible.

Additionally, education is a huge factor, as most public schools do not teach students about nutrition or anything about the food industry, most people of lower socio-economic standing do not even have the opportunity to learn about what they are putting into their bodies. The government has such low standards and gives the public such distorted and biased information, that even if schools gave students information and resources about diet, it is improper. School lunches are so unhealthy that the tomato sauce on pizza is counted as a vegetable for their nutritional requirements (NPR).

In order to truly think about what food means, where it comes from, and have the chance to critically think about it, one needs to make a true effort on their own or, like me, take a class at an institute of higher learning. Any form of deep, critical thinking, creativity, and art all needs time to develop and nurture. For people of lower socio-economic status, their time goes to more important things, such as working, spending time with family and loved ones, and putting food on the table.

Even as a college student, where most students see each other as equals socio-economically, one of the first questions people ask me is “isn’t it so expensive?” and “how do you afford it?”. This makes me uncomfortable since my family does mostly support me financially and are encouraging of my veganism, whereas I know many other students do not have this privilege. I play this down in front of people who I know are more critical of this and I focus on the fact that I have a lower meal plan and I live off campus, so I cook more often. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how to answer honestly because I do not really know how to compare shopping for myself as a vegan to how I shopped before, as I did not rely as heavily on eating food from my house. My socio-economic status is a definite source of discomfort and tension in the conversations about veganism.

Location

Where a person lives is a huge deal when talking about food habits, especially in the United States. With people from not only many different countries with different foods and traditions related to foods  in addition to food trends of particular regions within the United States, where a person lives is a deciding factor for many people of what they eat. Veganism goes against what many people are proud of and even consider as part of their identities. For example, lobster in Maine is a big deal, it is how people make a living, it is a significant element of the cuisine, and it is part of the state’s long-standing tradition. Lobster is so celebrated, in fact, that the Maine Lobster Festival is held every year, and in 2003 “Total paid attendance was over 80,000, due partly to a national CNN spot in June during which a Senior Editor of a certain other epicurean magazine hailed the MLF as one of the biggest food-themed festivals in the world” (Wallace 50). It is taboo not to eat lobster in Maine. I remember when I went to a wedding there as a child and I hated lobster, but it was everywhere and I had no idea what I was going to eat because I have always hated seafood. People constantly pestered me to try lobster, but because distaste for it combined with my innate stubbornness, I refused and it baffled people.

However, aside from a few regional dishes such as lobster, Kentucky fried chicken, and beef in the midwest, the population of the United States is so diverse and full of immigrants who bring their own food culture, that it is near impossible to pinpoint eating patterns of Americans (Pollan 301). There is no national cuisine or method of eating, as many other countries have developed and modified based on food specific to their region. India itself as distinct dishes in each region based on the plants that naturally grow there and are conducive to the lifestyles. I can easily distinguish a dish that is from Northern India or Southern India, and even regional specialties such as Biryani from Hyderabad. It is so engrained in their culture and traditions that Indian people often prefer it over the globalized food that is available to them. Since there is no unified American food culture, the United States is easily susceptible to fast food chains and industrial food markets. Therefore, processed food, which is cheap and readily available, has become the automatic food choice of many Americans. Since meat and dairy have a significant presence in this system, they have become consistent food staples and the societal norm. Because of this, many people believe that the current system is necessary to feed America, “High-yield farming has allowed everyone to eat. Think about that. If we go away from it, it may improve the welfare of the animal, it may even be better for the environment, but I don’t want to go back to China in 1918. I’m talking about starving people” (Foer 95). Thus, the many people who agree with this would think that opposing the current system by becoming vegan is selfish and anti-American.

Social Situations

Perhaps the greatest source of anxiety for me about being vegan is the awkwardness that comes from going out to eat with non-vegans or going to a non-vegan’s house for a meal. The last thing I want people to think is that I am high-maintenance, rude, or trying to draw attention to myself, and that is precisely what people often think of vegans who make special requests at restaurants or inform their host of their diet ahead of time. Foer puts it best,

“If you’re at the guest end, it stinks not to eat food that was prepared for you,

especially…when the grounds for refusal are ethical. But how much does it stink? It’s a

classic dilemma: How much do I value creating a socially comfortable situation, and how

much do I value acting socially responsible?” (Foer 55).

It’s hard not to have at least some conversation about being vegan, especially at a meal where it is obvious either because you brought something special for yourself to eat or something special was made specifically for you. Whether I like it or not, I’ve had more conversations about my food choices in the past month than ever before, simply because I had to eat something different from the other people present. When this comes up, I often need to explain why I became vegan and for how long, and I am forced to tell the truth, which is that I believe in animal rights. Depending on the people, I try to leave it at that, but if probing continues, I have to go into deeper explanation, which automatically sounds preachy. The stereotype of the “preachy vegan” is so rampant not only because many are activists, but even without the activism element, vegans are forced to talk about it so much and the reasoning behind it is often ethical and emotional, that it automatically sounds preachy, especially for people who are not particularly keen on the idea.

I struggle day to day with this, trying to figure out the best way to handle these situations. I want to be truthful and tell people how I feel and why I really am vegan, but I also want to avoid the inherent labels that come with it. What I am slowly starting to understand is that there is no “chill” or “low key” vegan, either you are all-in and accept whatever social awkwardness and stigma that comes with it, or not. I would love other people to follow my lead and I want to spread the word and help educate people around me by setting an example and showing them that it is not as hard as it seems. Right now I am still insecure about it and I am growing into my new identity as a vegan, so I am unsure of how exactly it is best for me to deal with these social situations.

Conclusion

I am clearly struggling a lot with my new life as a vegan. At first I said I would give it 30 days, but once that 30 days came and went, I remained a vegan. I cannot say that I will definitely be vegan forever, and I have had my slip-ups a few times already, but even then I never felt the urge to give up and return to my omnivorous, or even a vegetarian, life. Though I have tried dieting and going paleo, it was for superficial reasons so nothing lasted more than a few weeks, but going vegan is not a diet to me, it is a mindset. As a 20-year-old woman in college, I am still defining my identity and growing into what I want to be and I never before thought that becoming a vegan was something that I could, or even wanted, to do. It comes to prove to me that life is unexpected and keeping my mind open to new ideas is extremely important to my development. Yet, even with these realizations and beliefs, the social dynamic in my life is changed. No longer am I the “cool, chill girl”, but now I am the “cool, chill, vegan girl” and maintaining the “cool, chill” part is tough when discussing why I am vegan. Becoming vegan has tested me in ways that I never thought it would. I constantly find myself defending veganism, even to myself, and this has made me consider the views and backgrounds of other people in a new light, even not relating to food. No doubt there is a strong social tension surrounding veganism due to all of the factors that I discussed and more, but this tension creates space for discussion and critical thinking that is necessary to create positive change. As I was looking through videos on youtube for angles on this subject, I came across a video in which the host said, “We have truth on our side”, no matter what argument is made, it is the truth that affirms my veganism and allows me to deny all of the social pressure and overcome the many social discomforts.

Works Cited

Foer, Jonathan Safran (2009-10-14). Eating Animals. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle

Edition.

Guthman, Julie.  “”If Only They Knew” The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food.”

“New Census Data Show No Progress in Closing Stubborn Racial Income Gaps.” Economic

Policy Institute. Web. 04 May 2016.

“Pizza As A Vegetable? It Depends On the Sauce.” NPR. NPR, 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 May

2016.

Pollan, Michael.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.  Penguin, 2006. 

Wallace, David Foster.  “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Aug.  2004: 50-64.