Trigger warning: Food and anxiety.
The move towards meat-free lifestyles is consistently associated with increasing concerns over inevitable climate change, with agricultural industries known to make significant contributions of harmful emissions. At last years’ Auckland Climate Strike it was hard to miss signs, held by young people, that equated veganism with environmentalism. Some of those accusatory signs went as far as to claim that you could not call yourself an environmentalist if you still consumed animal products. Obviously, climate change is not the only driver of the movement towards plant-based lifestyles; the current conditions of meat production mean animals are kept in cramped and cruel conditions. Animal rights concerns are at the fore-front of vegan protests. Joaquin Pheonix’s Oscar Speech caused quite a stir, where the life-long vegan (and PETA’s 2019 Person of the Year) called out the lack of morality in factory farming processes. He specifically described the “cries of anguish” of artificially inseminated cows, with his speech receiving both praise and criticism online. Documentaries like Cowspiracy, What the Health, and Game Changers have also brought veganism to mainstream audiences, showcasing the benefits of meat-free dieting, for both the individuals that partake and the world at large.
Veganism has also spread like wildfire online, with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube granting people a platform to inform, and misinform. In the mid-2010s Instagram stars like Bonny Rebecca and Essena O’Neill flaunted bright white teeth alongside vegan products they were advertising, and Freelee the Banana Girl became an sensation with her hyper-sexualised thumbnails and aggressive call outs of woman on YouTube. The community on Instagram has a very specific aesthetic, with women posing at the beach, piles of fruit and veg on a kitchen counter and overhead shots of plates of pancakes and watermelon. It appears to be very pretty, and people on the diet seem to be thriving, living their absolute best lives. In captions, filled with cute cartoon emojis of animals, the celebrity vegans denounce fellow humans for their cruel and degrading sin of eating meat. The attempts to glamourise the diet and guilt the viewer are clear.
Personally, my diet has been all over the place. I grew up with no dietary restrictions, but, even as a kid, the idea of eating meat always made me feel a little bit weird. Red meat would especially freak me out, and I would only eat it if it had no red bits. It took quite a lot of chewing to finish those dinners. Once I reached high school, and insecurities and self-doubt became part of my everyday life, the YouTube algorithm introduced me to the idealistic and picture-perfect world of low fat, high carb veganism. These vegan vloggers stretched their bright smiles across my laptop screen, and talked about how their diets of pesto pasta, kumara chips, and chickpea salads helped them to lose weight, feel healthier, and commit to their workout routines. The young, white, slim Australian women persuaded me that issues of malnutrition, low iron, and low B-12 were completely ridiculous and irrelevant with this version of the vegan diet. They weren’t professionals, but they were beautiful and (most importantly) they were thin. Their clean images, and my existing concern for animals, were enough to convince me to make the change. I immediately stopped eating any animal products, and began to feel a sense of moral superiority in my choices. Over a few months I convinced myself that veganism had changed my life, following the e-books of the influencers I loved so much, all while I was piling on weight and testing for below normal nutrition levels.
After this dip into veganism I experienced terrible body image issues and constant tiredness. Reluctantly, I reintroduced eggs, and then meat, back into my diet. Since this experience, I have continued to try different diets, and used the ‘ethical’ concerns as an excuse to restrict myself in what I could eat. Vegetarianism and copious amounts of coffee led to quick weight loss, until I completely exhausted my body, and aggravated some scary anxiety issues. It’s fair to say that at this point my relationship with food was pretty poor. After these experiences I have been more careful with my nutrition, and started to repair my relationship with food, while maintaining a pescatarian diet. Despite the trouble I have been through, and the knowledge I have about my body and mental health, I still feel guilty about eating white meat. For me, the awareness of veganism came at a time when I was obsessed with my appearance, worried about what other people thought of me, and completely overwhelmed by looming notions of irreversible climate change. It was advertised as a quick fix for anybody willing, and came with no warnings or guidelines.
I don’t blame the vegan diet for the issues I experienced. I trialled a very specific type of veganism, with very little professional guidance. I was young, and didn’t have the intellectual tools that I have now to be critical of those YouTubers spreading misinformation, telling me to take responsibility for all the damage I was doing, personally, as a result of eating dairy and eggs. There is every chance that meat-free diets can be indulged, in a healthy and ethical manner. My concern is that simplistic, individualistic ideas of veganism completely ignore the historical contexts that do not make plant-based lifestyles available to everyone. For me, veganism and vegetarianism were adopted into the complicated contexts of gender performance, body image issues, anxiety, and lack of education, resulting in an unsuccessful and damaging experience. Before I started the diet, I felt I needed to stop taking up space, and resources. I wanted to be smaller, and this socially-learned idea completely dictated the way I engaged with food. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has leaned on restrictive lifestyles as a defense mechanism.
There are so many other factors that can affect our relationships with food; socioeconomic standing, institutionalised racism, physical and mental health issues – the list is endless. To push veganism (in our current social context) as an easy solve to health problems, climate change, and animal cruelty ignores critical complexities of power. ‘White veganism’ is a term that has been used to critique this approach, because it often erases the history of colonisation and the fact that factory farming is a colonial product. It follows trends of minimalism present in middle and upper classes (think of capsule wardrobes and Marie Kondo), where monitoring consumption is understood as an individual responsibility. Often, it also shows a complete lack of empathy for those less privileged and degrades people in a hateful manner. Focusing on and blaming individuals for their ‘choices’ of eating factory farmed meat leads to the blame game, where the poor and less powerful inevitably become the main target. This continues to push harmful stereotypes, and leads people away from thinking about pushing for collective and large-scale change.
Don’t get me wrong, I love certain aspects of what the vegan lifestyle stands for, and appreciate the sentiment of vegan protests in Countdown and down Queen Street. Factory farming is terrible for the environment and the animals that are sadly subjected to it. However, attacking individuals for their diets and spreading misinformation only alienates people from the lifestyle. Encouraging people to enjoy a ‘meatless Monday’ or start down the path of ‘flexitarianism’ allows for us to make small steps in our individual lives. Blaming individuals for their ‘greed’ or ‘ignorance,’ when they are struggling with health issues, or living in tougher economic situations, does not move the meter forward. Often people rely on meat to live, because it is what is made widely available in a late capitalist system. To make a more successful argument and encourage change, it is better to take aim at the corporations that drive factory farming. Not many people are diehard supporters of factory farming, and it is a much more inclusive and empathetic stance to take, rather than the ‘white veganism’ that feeds into stereotypes and blames the less powerful for a situation they have no control over.
So, to the young’uns on Queen Street holding signs, the people online degrading each others’ decisions and Freelee the bloody Banana Girl; the individual is not at fault here. You can make a good argument, without erasing the context that is so key to the current state of things. Factory farming cannot be removed from the historical context of colonisation and the socio-political context of capitalism. Similarly, it’s important to understand the way our diets interact with our own positions of power, and our individual mental and physical health. Veganism might be a really great choice to make, to reduce a bit of your impact, but it isn’t a choice that everyone can make. It’s time to rewrite those protest signs, and approach the argument with context, empathy and understanding.
Yeah, it sounds hippie as hell, but whatever! Peace and love and all that. Maybe the grass could be greener, if we are just a little bit kinder, to each other and ourselves.