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Ends and Means

January 9, 2008

There’s a post today over at Feministing discussing the “Skinny Bitches” book and the use of veganism to cover for an eating disorder. The author makes a great point in the first part of the post:

In a culture where being skinny is something held over the heads of young women and used to determine their social and cultural value, I am wary of its use in the politics of food.

Absolutely. As I said in a previous post, I’m against using the false promise of weight loss to get people involved in veganism. It reinforces the culture of self-hatred and cheapens what many of us would like to be a respected political/ethical philosophy.

There are a few things I take issue with in the post though. The author’s characterization of veganism as “extreme” is troubling. I can see, depending on your location and access to certain foods, saying that veganism can be difficult because that’s true. As a vegan in West Virginia, I certainly miss the plethora of convenience foods and restaurants overflowing with vegan options that I had in Atlanta. But the word ‘extreme’ brings to mind a level of self-denial that I just don’t think really applies. The example the author uses of not being able to eat a cake that a coworker brings in actually made me laugh just because it was a bit of a joke at my last office job that no one could remember exactly what it was I didn’t eat so people brough it sugar-free cakes and low-fat cakes and cakes made with kosher ingredients in the hopes of including me. And you know, I was always touched to be in their thoughts even if I didn’t ever eat the cake (and honestly the shit grocery store cake most people brought in wouldn’t have been on my plate when I was an omnivore.) Feeling extreme deprivation in those kinds of situations is something I get, but it’s also something I would assign more to my struggles with DE than to my veganism. Like I used to always feel ‘cheated’ when sharing appetizers at restaurants because the fear of not getting enough of a food I like or of being deprived was one of my biggest struggles with DE, but I don’t blame restaurant portions on that.

Also the suggestion that vegans have to worry a lot more than the average omnivore about getting enough nutrients is so far from the experience of any vegan I know that I’m not sure what to say about it. The majority of vegan convenience foods are supplemented with iron and b12 (the two that vegans *might* be low on) and almost any book or website you read on veganism will tell you to make sure you get enough of these nutrients. A lot of vegans are no different from a lot of omnivores, they could stand to get a bit more of some nutrients from their food, but they’re not in danger of developing serious conditions due to being malnourished.

All that said, however, what I really want to address is the reaction of some of the vegans in the comments. Please feel free to keep reading regardless of your views on veganism and animal rights, but this next part is for my fellow vegans.

Pull up a chair. Get comfy.

OK, first, lets all take a few deep breaths. In. 1-2-3-4. Out. 1-2-3-4. Good.

Let me say that I totally get those of you who read things like the post at feministing and get angry. I’ve been all around the progressive communities. I know how it goes. Animal rights is treated like a joke. Vegans are dismissed as extremist assholes before one even speaks up and then when she/he is defensive at being stereotyped, their reaction is used as ‘proof’ of the inherent assholishness of all vegans. Legitimate critiques of AR groups and tactics are mixed in with ignorant and ill-informed jokes about silly cow-hugging weirdos. And most of the criticisms come from a place of obvious ignorance wrt the philosophical underpinnings of the animal rights movement.

So I understand the urge to rush in and defend vegansim.

But!

1) Let’s be honest. There are some vegan individuals and groups that promote the skinnifying powers of the vegan diet. Due to society’s general fatphobia and to the desire to see vegan ideals reach a wider range of people, these people and groups are not widely critiqued in the movement. So to act surprised that a lot of people don’t get that veganism has absolutely nothing to do with losing weight either means you are being a tad bit disingenuous or are not paying enough attention to our movement.

2) I want people to be vegan too. I believe in the concept of animal rights as much as I believe in anything. But food is not simple. And for people who struggle with disordered behavior and thought patterns around food, something that you might find inconvenient (like not being able to eat anything off a menu except a side salad) can be extremely triggering. Instead of treating these people like they just weren’t ‘strong’ enough to be vegan, perhaps we can turn that negative energy to the societal structures that sometimes make foods without animal products difficult to find (contact your rep about farm subsidies that make animal products cheap, write to local and chain restaurants about providing vegan options.) Also, stop supporting the diet industry (even when they’re vegan.)

3) Preying on people’s self-hatred and insecurity is never ok not matter how elevated your reasons. “Skinny Bitch” is not ok because it’s also a book about animal rights. It still relies on the hatred of fat and the fear of being physically unacceptable to draw readers. And it is still a diet book. A few throwaway lines about how it’s more important to be healthy don’t change anything especially considering the fatphobic language littering the rest of the book. People pick up the book because they desperately want to be thin. They may learn a bit about animal rights and, in a few cases, they may even actually go vegan (you know, embrace the actual philosophy instead of just buying soymilk for a bit.) But the majority will treat it as a diet and what’s going to happen when that weight loss doesn’t happen? Or if they gain weight? They will move on to the next empty promise and thousands of people will regard veganism as nothing more than another failed diet.

People deserve better and so do the animals.

One of my hopes for this blog is that people will see an example of a happy, fat vegan and understand that veganism is not a form of orthorexia or a way to avoid food or a good cover for an eating disorder. And it sucks that I have to fight against some members of the animal rights movement who are so short-sighted as to believe that any path to veganism is a good one.

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3 Comments
  1. January 9, 2008 8:33 am

    I think it only hurts the animal rights cause, and not just because it forfeits the moral high ground. I think when you buy into the good food/bad food dynamics so associated with weight loss and dieting you bring in a whole host of baggage. I know a lot of people who theoretically support vegetarianism but either don’t want to restrict their food choices or simply already feel guilty about what they eat and can’t stomach the idea of adding more guilt on top of that (pardon the pun). I know that’s part of the reason I have a hard time contemplating going vegan (I am vegetarian but doubtful of my ability to go vegan).

  2. January 9, 2008 3:50 pm

    I think when you buy into the good food/bad food dynamics so associated with weight loss and dieting you bring in a whole host of baggage.

    I agree that anytime people employ the good/bad food dynamic, they’re bringing in a lot of cultural baggage.

    But I would say that most vegans don’t operate under that paradigm. Avoiding obvious animal products (meat, cheese, milk) is easy as I truly don’t see these things as food. And reading labels to check for gelatin or whey or whatever is, for me, no different than checking to make sure that the coffee I buy is fair trade. Although I do understand that it’s not that way for everyone and I respect the triggering nature of it for some people.

    I think one thing that creates problems for people who’d like to be veg*n is that there’s this diet-esque all or nothing mentality surrounding a lot of things in our society. And lots of people in the movement really encourage that sort of thinking too. So if you eat vegan 99% of the time and then have one non-vegan brownie? You’ve blown it. You may as well eat some veal or something. It’s ridiculous.

  3. January 10, 2008 5:56 am

    Yeah, a lot of my vegan friends say that’s how they view animal products – not bad-food, but not-food. Maybe that’s how they’ve been able to maintain veganism. For me, it doesn’t work that way. I still view meat as food which I have to resist eating, and so the idea of having to do the same for dairy products is too much for me (right now) to really do.

    I absolutely agree that the all-or-nothing mentality is a problem. When I became vegetarian, I didn’t say “I’m a vegetarian now” or say “I’m never going to eat meat again”. I said, “I am trying to eat as little meat as I can” and it turned out it wasn’t that hard for me to not eat meat at all.

    The worry I have felt (and some people express to me) that people will judge them for having meat or dairy or whatever is not that different from “Will they judge me for eating this cake?” I wrote a post about this topic in my livejournal that sort’ve goes into this – I can link to it if you’re interested (although I certainly don’t mind if you’re not. 😉 )

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