By Milly Morris & Katie Oliver
In 2016, Maria Strydom died whilst attempting to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Strydom and her husband were attempting to climb seven summits in seven continents. Yet the tragedy of Strydom’s death was overshadowed in the media by her commitment to a vegan lifestyle; she had previously claimed that her expeditions would prove that “vegans can do anything” and break the stereotype of the sickly vegan suffering from a “lack of protein.” The headlines that followed her death insinuated that Strydom was foolish and arrogant to make such a statement; titles such as ‘Proud vegan climbs Everest to prove haters wrong, dies’ are laced in a smug satisfaction that can loosely be translated to “we told you so, veganism isn’t healthy or safe!” Despite the evidence showing that Strydom’s diet could not be linked to her death, her colourful life as an academic/experienced climber/wife/sister/friend were boiled down to her veganism, sparking debates about the safety in avoiding meat and dairy (Orde, 2016).
More recently, the Italian government announced a proposed plan to send parent’s to prison who “force a vegan lifestyle upon their children”, suggesting that it causes children to be deficient in Iron and other important nutrients. In the UK, many children become malnourished from a diet of processed foods (including meat and dairy) (Deardon, 2016; McVeigh, 2014), yet the news from Italy was followed with headlines such as: “can vegans ever be good parents?” and “is it abuse to put children on a vegan diet?” arguing that vegan diets often lead to children being deficient in iron (Orde, 2016)
So, why is it that veganism seemingly causes such animosity and frustration from the media and wider society?
Veganism has been mocked, dismissed, and vilified in both the media, and in wider society. Those fighting for animal rights are not seen as liberators, because their fight is too far from the norm, and perspectives are tainted with speciesist norms that put human suffering above non-human. A major (inaccurate) criticism of vegan activism is that there is so much human suffering, that we must first “sort out” ourselves before we can focus on the lives and deaths of our non-human sister species. But with an increased interest in intersectionality, theoretically and in practice, and both in academia and popular discourse, it is time to acknowledge and more deeply consider that no suffering stands alone, and that a society built upon violence towards animal bodies can never be one that eradicates human—human violence.
In June 2016, the BBC aired a documentary called “Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets”, hosted by “body-positivity queen” and blogger Grace Victory. She followed a variety of clean-eating diets promoted on Instagram and YouTube to reveal the damaging effects that they could have on the body and on an individual’s mental health. After visiting a whole foods store and gasping at the extortionate prices of certain “super-foods”, Victory states that this “clean eating, vegan thing” is about class rather than health, suggesting that it is a “very middle-class” lifestyle that is unaffordable for the majority of the public (BBC, 2016). This ignores vegan movements such as A. Breeze Harper’s ‘Sistah Vegan’, decolonial and black feminist theorist who approaches veganism from a black perspective, and expresses how it is inherently harmful to associate veganism with whiteness (Harper, 2015). When we are seeking to approach oppression holistically – intersectionally – the dismissal of veganism as a “diet”, instead of the liberation movement that it is, negates the struggle of non-human animals, and misrepresents actual vegans, as opposed to those following a plant-based diet. It is a distinction that is made frequently, even by vegans themselves. Veganism is not a diet. It is a belief system, and a liberation movement. Diet is just one aspect of that.
When we are seeking to approach oppression holistically – intersectionally – the dismissal of veganism as a “diet”, instead of the liberation movement that it is, negates the struggle of non-human animals, and misrepresents actual vegans, as opposed to those following a plant-based diet. It is a distinction that is made frequently, even by vegans themselves. Veganism is not a diet. It is a belief system, and a liberation movement. Diet is just one aspect of that.
Throughout the documentary, it becomes clear that Victory is struggling with her new diet – including a 30 day “potato cleanse” – as she becomes tired and develops bad skin (BBC, 2016). The show concludes with Victory suggesting that vegan, clean-eating is a potentially dangerous habit that can lead to eating disorders. However, Victory failed to point out the distinction between “eating clean” and following a vegan diet; an individual who eats “clean” is doing so for health purposes, whereas veganism is not about losing weight or even being healthy (although the facts show that veganism is perfectly safe and healthy). In contrast, veganism is simply about eating – and living – in a way that is mindful of the planet and of other species.
Reducing veganism to just a diet, and to being solely about the Self, and Self-body, in a confusion with those following a plant-based diet, dismisses the importance and larger message of veganism. Veganism is always already about Other, and Other-bodies, because it is a practice of non-harm, whether this originates as animal-oriented, environmental, or health-based, there is always an Other who is being affected (albeit positively) from the rise of veganism. Conversely, there is always an Other’s suffering and death involved in carnism, in eating and using flesh and animal bodies for human pleasure. The animal-as-food becomes ‘the absent referent’ (Adams, 1990). When the flesh is eaten, it is food, it is not body or being, it is not death, but instead presented as sustenance, life-full, and life-fuel. It cannot be that carnists are unaware of who they are eating, but that there is a carefully curated system in place to ensure that there is no ‘seepage’ of life, or living, in the consumed body. This has been linked to the distance of slaughterhouses, and factory farms, away from populated areas and also to the rise of the presentation of animals raised in ‘family farms’ (see, for example, Lidl’s latest advert https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsiVI6Vxikk), and a desire for a connection to our food (local food movements, British farm standards…), but it fails to show the actual truths behind what is on your plate.
Because veganism is so embodied – it is literally a bodily change and a new practice of everyday life – it is difficult not for it to become an important part of life that vegans want to share. When we see oppression around us at every meal, in all parts of our lives, how can we but use our voices to speak against this? Just as, you would hope, racism, sexism, or any other oppressive practice would be spoken and acted against, so should be speciesism. The problem that the animal liberation movement has to come to terms with, and to continue to work to find ways around, is that it relies wholly on the oppressors liberating the oppressed, and on (human) representatives enacting struggles on behalf of animals. Appealing to the moral sensibilities of carnists to disregard their own pleasure and change their own lives will always come across as “preachy”, but this should not stop vegans continuing to fight for animals, and to expose the lies of happy farm animals and pain-free slaughter that are widely believed. It is perhaps necessary to be preachy, because even if there is only one person who understands, and cannot unknow what they have come to know, it is estimated that in a lifetime, a vegan will spare the lives of 198 animals a year (PETA, 2010).
So, where has this confusion between ‘clean-eating’ and veganism arisen from?
However, social media’s obsession with ‘clean’ foods has arguably led to the conflation of veganism with dieting. One only need to type the hashtags “#vegan” into the Instagram search bar to find an array of beautifully arranged green smoothies, elaborate salads and the – seemingly infamous – avocado on toast. Alongside these images, harshtags such as “#cleaneating” and “#health” are commonplace and imply that veganism is simply a good way to lose weight. Whilst this cannot be said of all vegan cooking pages on Instagram and Facebook, many social media “health gurus” propose that being vegan is about eating solely “clean” foods that benefit the body. For example, Naturally Megan’s Instagram is strewn with arty vegan dishes that showcase her ‘#plantpowered’ life. All the images contain descriptions of the foods in the caption, such as the following: “carrot cake oats with blueberries, strawberries and vanilla coconut yoghurt” with the hashtag ‘#veganfood’, ‘#healthyeating and ‘#eatclean.’ Whilst the motives behind these uploads may be harmless, these image insinuate that veganism is a pure diet that aims to give the individual the best health possible. Moreover, many of the ingredients on Naturally Megan’s page are exotic and seemingly expensive, such as the following:
“(…) avocado on brown sourdough, strawberries and a chocolate protein smoothie (1 banana, 2 tbsp raw vegan chocolate protein powder, 1 cup almond milk and a handful of ice cubes)” (Naturallymeghan, 2016)
As Zimmer argues, social media is based upon an ‘obsessive documentation of self’; Instagram acts as a ‘highlights’ reel for one’s life to present a polished and perfected version of users to an online audience (Zimmer, 2013). All the messy and painful parts of life are cut out so the viewer sees a neatly cropped square with beautiful lighting. In this sense, it can be argued that rather than getting the message out about an alternative and potentially more ethical lifestyle, these health bloggers are showcasing their status as individual’s who can afford chia seeds and quinoa on a regular basis. It is important to note here that there is nothing wrong with buying and enjoying these products, but that taking pictures of these types of food for an online following is arguably the equivalent of inviting all your neighbours around to watch you wash your brand new Ferrari.
Veganism is classed, sexed, aged, and raced. When veganism is presented over instagram as young, white, societally attractive women such as ‘delciously ella’, ‘freelee the bananagirl’, ‘the blonde vegan’, or PETA’s lettuce ladies, there is an immediate disconnect with non-white, non-middle-class, non-conforming people who in reality are the bulk of vegans. Our animal rights/vegan movement is tainted from the inside with the same problems that can be identified in our societies. Those who are praised and held up as examples and representatives of vegan lifestyles do not actually reflect the 99% of vegans, and we did not choose these people to be our representatives and they do not even stand for what we stand for. The presentation of veganism as a fad, or a weight loss trend, is fundamentally damaging for those of us fighting for liberation, and also for those of us who do not fit the norms of society. The vegan movement is following a similar path to the feminist movement, whereby certain vegans are being held up on a pedestal, and these “stars” of veganism are not chosen by the vegan masses, but by the media and by who will “sell” the most (Freeman, 1975). We saw this most notably in Gloria Steinem in the ’60s and ’70s in the feminist movement, and we can begin to see the same patterns and backlashes in the ‘stars’ of the vegan movement, with a rise in “normal” vegans who do not fit mainstream representations of what a vegan should look like (see Facebook group ‘What Fat Vegans Eat’) taking back the power and purpose of veganism.
There is a fundamental problem in the animal rights movement with misogyny and damaging behaviours towards women which have come to light in recent years, and this is not the only problem that is plaguing veganism. There are racial dynamics within veganism whereby non-white vegans are not afforded the same visibility and reverence that vegan ‘stars’ such as the aforementioned are. There is also the exploitation and appropriation of certain representation of non-white people to sell vegan books, such as the problematic debates around the book ‘Thug Kitchen’ (Bryant Terry, 2014). Non-white people are denied access, their position as vegans is negated because they don’t look or act the part that is expected of them.
Once this is conflated with the vegan lifestyle, the important message of veganism is skewed and becomes about class, which is ultimately tied up with race, and gender (Crenshaw, 1989). Consequently, individuals take may issue with the snobbery that has been associated with veganism, the actual core beliefs of the movement; it is essential that vegans make steps to move away from the assumption that veganism is a “pure” diet that will “cleanse” one’s body. This is a process that is currently in motion; Facebook community pages such as “Fat Vegans” are dedicated to sharing recipes for vegan sweet treats, The Vegan Society’s website allows individual’s to browse “how to be vegan on a budget” (TheVeganSociety, 2016). Overall, it is essential that the movement continues to fight these stereotypes and creates an image for itself that demonstrates its inclusive nature, diverse membership and willingness to occasionally indulge in junk-food.
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