A Facebook friend has just announced she’s no longer vegan, and I’m sad about this. I’d admired a blog post she wrote last year, about her struggles as a vegan with an eating disorder, with her disapproving dietician, and with fellow “vegan feminists” who’d greeted her wobbles with guilt-tripping. Despite the setbacks, she was clear that being vegan “helped”; and since my own eating disorder (teenage bulimia) had also been tempered by veganism, I’d cheered her on.
I scrolled through the comments. Everyone was pleased for her: apart from one guy, who left a petulant “Good bye”. Although he added that he wished her well, but didn’t think stopping being vegan would “help anything”. This saw him challenged by a few people (vegans included), for being “dogmatic” and having “strict” and “rigid views”. For my friend, it was the final straw: “I wouldn’t identify as vegan now even if my diet remained vegan”, she replied.
Whoa, that was a strong statement. Why so down on the vegan identity? I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, or indeed, to the news itself. I didn’t think quitting would help either, but didn’t dare suggest this. And as a peripheral, online friend, I wasn’t sure it was my place. So I commented that I was “Sad to hear this”, and interested to read more about her change of heart in the blog post she promised.
But it bothered me that no other vegans had voiced reservations when my friend had been vegan for 9 years. Why not?
I teach exercise, and occasionally meet clients who appear to have anorexia, which carries a risk of heart attack and bone fracture. I’m obliged to raise concerns, even if it’s experienced as intrusive (and s/he leaves for a less ‘confrontational’ teacher). Because sometimes, to do the right thing, we need to do the hard thing. Boundaries help: they might be what that person needs in order to find a firmer footing, at that point, or further down the line.
If being vegan is a positive thing: why wouldn’t we want that for our friend? Couldn’t we ask how we might support her to stay vegan? I decided to send my friend a private message, just to put it out there. Maybe others did too? I hope so.
My friend’s reasons were mainly nutrition-based, and complicated by her condition. But the disproportionate focus on nutrition whenever vegan diets are mentioned worries me. We fixate on this. Forgetting that standard diets are supplemented too, with ‘fortified’ foods, that have nutrients added – in some cases, by law – to reduce the risk of serious deficiencies. There’s an unconscious bias that needs acknowledging before we can look at the issue objectively.
I also question the “recovery” narrative of many former vegans. For how do you “recover” from compassion? I think there’s something else at play.
The vegan identity isn’t the first to be disowned. Feminism was once a byword for militancy, prompting many women to publicly disassociate themselves from it. Feminists were “extremists”. (Hmm … where have we heard that before?) Happily, in recent years, feminism’s good name has largely been restored, thanks to the efforts of younger feminists like my friend. The stigmatising stereotypes exposed for the sexism they are.
We’ve learned to distinguish the message, from the messenger. By which I mean, to value the idea of equality for women, irrespective of our feelings about its most vocal proponents. The same will happen with ‘vegan’ too, one day.
For vegans are not unique in critiquing the behaviour of others – a defining feature of social change. The difference with veganism, of course, is its practical expression: the daily boycott of animal products. A practice some find easy, while others undoubtedly struggle.
I wonder if it isn’t quite common for vegans to struggle, or have the occasional blip? Sadly, it’s taboo to talk about this – for fear of letting the side down, I suppose, or being told off (e.g. by vegan feminists). I struggle myself at times. Not least with finding food I want to eat, when I want it – like a sandwich at the train station. It’s frustrating to be constantly thwarted in the simple pleasures others take for granted. But far worse, for me, are the social consequences of being vegan. Welcome to the role of party pooper!
Cake, the great staple of celebrations and social occasions, is a particular flashpoint. As cakes are rarely vegan in these situations, you find yourself excluded from an experience that’s essentially shared and participatory. Unless there’s two cakes: but that feels weird too, since lines are still drawn. It’s exposing. You can’t just be.
I don’t blame my friend for doing what she feels is best for her, or indeed anyone who can no longer cope with being vegan. It happens. The pressure to conform is enormous. Is it any wonder people crack? But I do think it’s important to acknowledge the toxic context that might move someone to relinquish and reprove a hitherto heartfelt practice.
“Spoiled identity” nails it for me. A term coined by the sociologist Erving Goffman, a specialist in stigma: the “process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity”. The stigmatised are the “socially abnormal”. According to Wikipedia: “Those who are stereotyped often start to act in ways that their stigmatisers expect of them. It not only changes their behavior, but it also shapes their emotions and beliefs”. This is “internalised stigma”.
We can be multi-stigmatised too: in my case, an ‘illegitimate’ child become a childless, vegan adult. Stigmas are myriad: attached to disability, sexual preference, eating disorders, political views, belief, bereavement, hair colour, and many more. They mount up, and take their toll. And in response, we create coping strategies. A common one is to conceal the spoiled identity, another is to reject it. Since the vegan identity isn’t easily hidden, it tends to be renounced, which also brings relief from its practical demands. I guess it’s vulnerable that way.
But it isn’t all bad news. The feminist identity has prevailed, giving us hope. And the more we become aware of internalised stigma, and its impact on us, the more we can challenge it. I find stigma fascinating: a strange map of the human psyche.
For anyone struggling with food and/or veganism, I recommend Always Too Much, And Never Enough, the recent memoir by Jasmin Singer. A bullied “fat kid”, who went on to lose weight as an adult, and noticed a dramatic difference in the way the world treated her. She wrote a blog about this that went viral, and eventually became the book. (Read an interview with Jasmin here).
My friend’s decision gave me pause for some soul searching. It’s made me reflect on how we can best support others contemplating the same. And what we might say to them.
Curiously, this has culminated in a Peter Gabriel lyric popping into my head – from a song I haven’t heard in years (his duet with Kate Bush). I remember feeling conflicted when it was released, over it being sentimental. I realise now, it’s not: just a profound expression of solidarity.
Then I found a quote from Gabriel, about the song’s intention. “The basic idea” he says “is that handling failure is one of the hardest things we have to learn to do.”
So, at the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ll leave you with the great man’s words. Dedicated to anyone who is struggling – with veganism, or with life.
Don’t give up, ’cause you have friends
Don’t give up, you’re not the only one
Don’t give up, no reason to be ashamed
Don’t give up, you still have us
Don’t give up now, we’re proud of who you are
Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy
Don’t give up, ’cause I believe there’s a place
There’s a place where we belong