(Editor’s note: Colleen Hodgetts is the senior editor of Gender Across Borders, where the Chicago-based writer posts about gender, race, sexuality and class issues happening around the world. If you’d like to write a guest post, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I began eating a vegan diet for health reasons. I don’t call myself a Vegan, nor have I ever publicly declared my dietary habits before now. I run with a very progressive crowd, but I don’t often talk about my vegan diet. I am a little embarrassed about my choices, and worry greatly that my new label will offend someone.
It’s hard to grasp the shockingly apologetic and unsure nature of that statement if you don’t know me personally. Growing up in a house where protests and labor-rights sing-alongs were the norm, I developed political opinions at a very young age. A teacher in first grade told me never to raise my hand with the answer if no boys knew the answer. I’d like to thank her for inspiring me to become a feminist before I even knew what the word meant. As long as I can remember, I have been painfully aware of gender inequality and the need to fix it.
I did become a vegan for health reasons, but I am not ignorant of the many ideological arguments for veganism. The horrible labor standards for those in the industry, the devastating environmental impact of corporate meat production, and the cheap production of food sold to millions of consumers despite known health risks are all things I disagree with and would like to stop. Then why the hesitancy?
A very liberal friend of mine once proclaimed, “I hate vegans! They are so self righteous!” The few friends I did tell I was vegan reacted in two ways: “You’re no fun anymore,” was the less hurtful of the two. “You must be rich to do that,” stung a lot more, and pointed out the privilege of someone like me who can afford to buy the (pricier) fresh fruits and vegetables necessary for a healthy vegan diet. In the same way that the word “feminist” is often associated with privilege, namely race, class, and hetero-normative privilege, the image of a stereotypical vegan is a white, wealthy woman fighting for her own rights. Well, I don’t want to be associated with that.
In order to avoid the stereotypes and negative comments, I started describing myself as “eating a vegan diet”. That way I could dissociate myself from those more radical vegans who broke into slaughter houses and freed cows at night, or threw paint on fur-wearing models. At the same time, I bought Veganomicon, the bible for modern vegans. I love cooking, and it was the first cookbook I had ever read that did not assume that the reader was a heterosexual married woman with kids. I was delighting in the healthier food I was eating, the positive effects it was having on my body, and the happiness I felt at supporting local, organic farmers and sustainable eating habits. (And I secretly admired those cow freers and paint throwers who had way more courage than me and were willing to commit radical acts to bring attention to a cause they believed in.)
Disassociating myself from the more radical members of a movement? Trying not to seem “self-righteous” while expressing ideals I believe in? Worrying that people might take offense to a label that I associated with? Whoa. Sounds like the conflicting process of those identifying with feminism. In all my attempts to fully grasp it, I had never understood the struggle to identify as a feminist because it had been part of my identity for as long as I could remember. It was my choice to stop eating animal products, of all things, that illuminated this identity crisis.
So here I am, proclaiming on the internet that I am a vegan. Unlike other posts I have written, I feel conflicted and even nervous about posting this. Will my family understand? Will potential employers see this and think I’m weird? Will my friends who now realize that I’m vegan assume that I am anti-meat instead of pro-healthy food?
Again, the similarities abound and have helped me, as a feminist, understand the hesitancy that some people have to align themselves with the movement. This does not mean that I do not believe in feminism and its absolute pertinence to everyone. Gender equality is something we should all fight for. Do I feel the same way about veganism? Not yet, but my ideas continue to develop. As with any movement, educating myself and listening with an open mind are the best ways to grow. This movement just comes with the added bonus of delicious food to munch on while processing a new identity.