Last July, I tried an experiment. I was living with my parents, counting the days before I would be unloading a solid majority of my physical property and trekking a thousand miles north to graduate school. Most people would try to take things easy, but I seized on an opportunity. My parents took a trip to visit family overseas, leaving me free to worry about absolutely no one but myself for a solid three weeks. I took that time to see whether I could pursue vegetarianism.
I come from a very meat-centric background. Those familiar with Latin-American culture will understand that, when I say that both of my parents are born-and-raised Colombians, I mean that my gullet was stuffed with chorizo from the time I cut my first tooth. My father likes to tell stories of the old butcher shop in the tiny mountain town where he grew up, a place where the beef carcass hanging in the window was so fresh that it sometimes still twitched if you bought it early enough in the day. We understood that to be awesome.
To me, giving up meat was entirely a political issue, driven by the same concerns that caused me to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart (an abysmal workers’ rights record), protest wearing fur (animal cruelty), and recycle (environmentalism). While veganism would be the stronger choice in addressing these issues, I chose to leave in eggs and dairy to make the change easier — both for my parents, should I choose to continue, and for myself, because I believe in the accumulation of small choices over big sweeping changes whenever possible.
It stuck. I was overjoyed to find that I could live my principles and still get by in the world. It had unforeseen benefits, ranging from improved weightlifting numbers to a cheaper grocery bill. I’m comfortable with the fact that I will never knowingly consume a piece of meat again.
Often though, I feel as though I’m one of the only ones so comfortable with that realization.
I thought — with, perhaps, some level of naïveté — that the only politics that would follow my dietary choices would be those that I fastened onto them myself. I had, after all, successfully cut soda, high-fructose corn syrup, and most white sugar from my diet for fitness purposes and had received support from most everyone who surrounded me, even if they themselves were doing nothing of the kind.
Renouncing meat was another matter, however.
My mother became very concerned about my protein intake — despite the fact that she could not in any way tell me the recommended amount a person should consume or how much was in a six-ounce piece of steak. My father was convinced that I had finally gone too far with this loca mierda de salud (“crazy health shit”) and was going to seriously damage my body. He was actually red-in-the-face angry. Many of my peers rolled their eyes. Others sent me pictures of bacon and went out of their way to order even more meaty dishes when we went out to dinner, just to point at them and ask how I could stand to not eat as they were.
Let me be clear: I’ve never gotten these responses from an attempt to convert anyone. My attitude has always been that diet is something personal, and that you don’t win converts to lifestyle choices through condescension or preaching. Even my partner, who is so supportive that she will often deliberately order vegetarian dishes at restaurants despite my assurances that she need not do so, eats meat and has never heard a word from me about it. The responses I got were just what happened when I stopped consuming a food that means a lot to people.
I still have not completely nailed down what causes this shaming. Some resources I’ve looked at in the vegetarian and vegan community say that it comes out of jealousy and resentment — that my peers see me standing up and making a choice for my life that is morally superior, and they are ashamed of their own unwillingness to act so courageously. With all due respect to the community: that is the very condescension that we’re so often criticized for employing.
My running theory is that food and diets are so intricately bound to our identities that they become a shorthand for judgment. As an example, a little half-joke that I stumbled across online some weeks ago goes like this:
Q: A Vegetarian, an Atheist, and a Crossfitter, all walk into a bar. How do you tell which one is which?
A: Don’t worry about it. They’ll tell you.
I happen to subscribe to the first two of those labels, and I’m a somewhat critical but optimistic supporter of the third. And yes, absolutely, some of us within these and other movements can get a little zealous, especially early on, and forget that not everyone around us is on the same ethical journey that we are. We can react poorly to their actions. That is on us.
What is troubling, however, is a belief that rejection of one aspect of a lifestyle is a judgment against all who embody that aspect. I have at times felt like a cultural traitor for rejecting an essential element of my parents’ diet. I think people who look down on me for rejecting meat may make an assumption that I might be looking down on them myself, that I might be in concert with the condescension that comes out of my own movement.
I’ve often wondered what these folks might think if I tell them that I often feel at odds with that very community. I mentioned earlier that veganism would be the more effective choice in handling the issues that drive my new lifestyle — and I’ve been told more than once by people within the vegan community that, by continuing to eat eggs and consume dairy, I’m supporting some horrible enterprises.
They’re right. Dairy cows are strapped to machines literally called “rape racks” and regularly kept pregnant via machine-based artificial insemination; their male offspring, because they cannot produce milk, are regularly sold for veal; chickens kept for egg laying are typically kept in confined spaces and selected for laying more eggs in spite of propensities for obesity and disease.
I understand every bit of this, and I choose to continue to consume these products (albeit in a limited capacity). For the past month, I’ve been “vegan-at-home, vegetarian-in-the-street” because frankly, it can be hard to find vegan options where I currently reside. I do the best I can, but it isn’t always good enough for the hardcores of my own movement.
That leaves me as an in-between. I am shamed on both sides by peers who should view my food consumption as none of their business. Food is among the most personal choices we can make, right there with whom we love and where we live. Like each of those, it is also necessarily political, based as much on race and privilege and class and even biology as it is on our own desires and free will.
The tenets of radical self-love state that we must stand by our principles and choices in the face of any shame coming from any source, be it family or community or strangers. I choose to do so with a gleaming smile — and, perhaps, a chunk of spinach stuck between incisors. As far as anyone else is concerned, their only responsibility is letting me know that it’s there.[Headline image: The photograph features a person, shoulders down, pushing a bicycle that is carrying an assortment of fruits, vegetables, and a loaf of bread.]