I'm just gonna leave this here:
Full story over at Sociological Images.
VVCIII: Veganism, Body Image, Self Esteem, Eating Disorder Recovery, and How Blogging and Reading Blogs Can Influence All of the Above, by Lacy J. Davis
Lacy J. Davis is the founder of SuperStrengthHealth.com, a blog and health & wellness cooking service, as well as co-host of the Rise & Resist fitness empowerment podcast.
Lacy described how social media was a huge component of the negative feedback loop in which she found herself trapped at the depths of her Eating Disorder (ED). Food blogs were especially negative for her, especially many ‘healthy living’ blogs, which are thinly disguised diet blogs. However, Lacy was also able to turn social media around from a detriment to a tool of empowerment on her road to recovery.
Lacy’s disordered eating started in her mid-20s when, after having her heart broken, she went through a rough patch where she couldn’t eat or sleep and was crying all the time (girl, been there. Too recently). As might be expected, she lost a significant amount of weight, and in our skinny-obsessed society, immediately began receiving compliments. “I felt terrible, unloveable, like there was something wrong with me,” she said, and yet “people I vaguely knew started to validate [my eating habits], telling me how good I looked.” The validation was addicting, and as a result Lacy became extremely orthorexic, obsessing about her food.
Orthorexia is not talked about a lot in relation to EDs or even within the ED community (or vegan community, for that matter). As Lacy’s ED worsened, the group of foods she deemed ‘healthy’ enough to eat continued to shrink smaller and smaller. It wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid foods in order to lose weight; rather, it was because she was genuinely fearful of these foods. At the same time, even though she was not living her healthiest life, she was told by exercise friends that she was “so good” for restricting her food intake, and expressed a desire to have her ‘convictions.'
In response to the extreme hunger her orthorexia generated, she began to obsess over food blogs. At one point, she says, she had over 1,000 recipes cataloged and stashed, none of which she ever used. The Army did a study of men who were deprived of nutrition, and found they began to exhibit similar behavior- obsessing over recipes, foods, and eating. As Lacy describes it, it wasn’t the food she was hungry for- she was hungry for the life of a person who truly enjoyed food. For Lacy, at this point, food and her body represented only fear.
Like many sufferers of ED, Lacy was isolated by her disordered eating. She couldn’t go out to eat with friends because she was terrified of the food. She slowly lost all her real-world connections to people, and all that was left was the blog world, in which she was very interested, but for which she was creating nothing.
When Lacy began getting involved in various recovery communities, she was able to take a break from social media in order to deal with her phobias surrounding food and body image. Those recovery communities helped her reconnect with people and make new friendships. EDs involve shame, secrecy, and isolation, so having person-to-person connections is a crucial part of recovery. As Lacy said, “when my time was occupied, I wasn’t looking at food blogs on the internet all the time."
With her emotional health in recovery, Lacy was able to re-engage in social media on her terms, and in a way that was healthy for her. In stark contrast to her earlier experiences, approaching social media with honesty felt fantastic. Many of the blogs and accounts with which she began to interact were people who had healthy relationships with their bodies, and Lacy began to draw inspiration from blogs that "focus on stuff other than pretty food." Some of her early inspirations include:
When Lacy began blogging, herself, she says, "it was a pivotal element to my self-esteem. The mental switch to liking myself was the last to come." Before her ED, she'd never liked her body; it was incidental to her existence. Post-ED, she says, she realized that you don't need any change in order to like your body- you can like it exactly as it is. Of course, she acknowledges, it can be risky to put out personal content, especially that concerning physicality. But the important thing to remember is that there is a community out there, and you can find support in it.
Overall, the blogging community can be powerful or detrimental- it all depends on your approach to it.
What do you say to people suffering from or heading towards ED?
I get emails like “I hate myself and I don’t know what to do.” That situation is different from witnessing someone who appears to have an ED- people with EDs themselves have "ED radar," but it's not always the appropriate judgment. Making a judgment based solely on appearance can be shitty and misleading. Usually someone will drop hints- if it's someone I know, I will take notice of things they say and how they talk about themselves, and try to comment on self-deprecating patterns in their speech. I take different tactics depending on the situation. Sometimes people will drop hints to me without knowing how to come out and say they’re struggling. The way to any kind of change whatsoever is small steps, but it’s scary. If you’ve gone down that rabbit hole, there are so many coping mechanisms you’ve created, you think you need to do them to survive either physically or emotionally. Just offer yourself as a constant form of support and a listening ear. Say to them, “I know it doesn’t feel like there’s another option, but there is."
What advice would you give to health professionals dealing with these issues?
I remember when I first starting my drastic weight loss, and I went in for a check-up. My Nurse Practitioner noticed, and said “you’ve lost so much weight.” I immediately asked “is that bad?” and she said “no, you look great!”
That was horrible. If someone has an ED and they don’t want to talk about it, to a certain extent you can’t make them. But again, there are hints and openings that health professionals should notice in a consultation. Health professionals shouldn't qualify weight/body issues by, for example, asking about BMI, the specific quantity of weight lost/gained-- they just need to listen to their patients. Nobody will recover without wanting to, and some people aren’t ready to hear they have an ED. But there is a real problem with physicians telling people they need to lose weight in order to be healthy- that's not okay, and it's not correct.
How do you tell your story in a relatable matter without seeming like you're looking for sympathy?
People are adults, they can handle themselves. They are capable of having boundaries. I have conversations with people who are easily triggered, and that’s okay when they assert those boundaries. There’s a lot of shame and guilt, especially for how ED affects our loved ones. Getting rid of that guilt and shame is helpful for everyone. All I am is honest and a lot of people have told me that that’s helped them. Nobody should feel bad about their story.
I recommend the book The Buddhist Brain- it reinforces the idea of putting out the energy you want in your life until it becomes genuine- ie, 'fake it till you make it'. It's about re-carving new cognitive pathways in your brain.
As a fellow survivor of ED, I am very appreciative of the fact that you focused on the emotional aspect of it, rather than the details of how you did it. At the lowest point of my ED, hearing other survivors talk about their coping mechanisms and disordered behaviors only gave me ideas to fuel my own disordered behavior.
How do we as content creators be inspirational rather than aspirational?
It’s the shared responsibility of both blogger and reader. It’s not bad to share your cool stuff that happens! Conversely, don’t be shy to share things that you struggle with. For me, I try to think of that responsibility around comparison more as a reader than as a writer. Never say anything is ‘clean.’
“Clean is for underwear, not food!” (everyone, starting using this hashtag posthaste)
Our society is so food-centric; moreso in veganism because our community is based around a dietary choice. While it’s important to be honest with your struggles, I want to know if you have any negative experiences with honesty?
I get trolls sometimes! I am really invested in blogger communities in a positive way.
"People really hate when women try to love their bodies.” (at this point the talk was paused as the room exploded into raucous applause, I may have heard [or shouted] an 'Amen' or two)
I am fairly normative so the hate I get is about stuff like the length of my shorts, but there are body positive bloggers whose images are not so normative and they get tons of flak, so I try to support them and make connections with them.
Like Monique said, it’s okay to delete the comments. Or save looking at them for a good day when you’re feeling like having a laugh. Your audience wants to support and love you, so it’s okay to delete.
Thank you, Lacy! That was so inspiring, I came out of conference room A/B READY TO KICK SOME SERIOUS ASS. And anyone who knows me knows how much I love kicking ass.
Monique Koch is a vegan blogger, cookbook author, and vegan 'transition' coach who is the brains behind The Brown Vegan.
Monique began the transition from vegetarian to vegan in 2010- but it wasn't just her. As the sole grocery shopper and chef in her family, it also meant that like it or not, her husband and their three sons would be going vegan, too (at least at home). As Monique stresses, her honesty comes from her family- her 13 year-old, for example, made no secret of the fact that he would much rather be eating chicken nuggets.
She wanted to make the switch to a plant-based lifestyle as simple as possible for her family. Her husband was supportive, but was still hoping she'd cook two meals every evening- a vegan one for her, and a meal with animal products for him and their children. Monique knew there was no way that was going to happen! When she looked online to find support from other vegans experiencing similar transitions with their families, but didn't come away feeling like anyone was having the same experience as her. What she's realized since, however, is that plenty of people have these experiences- it's just that not enough of us are talking about it. We're suffering in silence!
When Monique started blogging in 2011, she did so out of the need to find other vegans with which she could empathize and identify. As a new vegan, she felt isolated and overwhelmed by the number of anti-soy, anti-sugar, and anti-oil beliefs. She says she also felt isolated as a brown woman, not seeing herself represented by the vegan bloggers she found online. However, she soon realized that she had the power to keep herself out of isolation- she knew she couldn't be the only one feeling like she wasn't skinny enough, vegan enough, or whatever enough.
She quickly learned that people gravitate towards you when you are honest and transparent! It's a Pinterest world, if you're not careful every image you consume is presented perfectly and beautifully. It's refreshing to talk candidly about issues or struggles we as vegans may have.
Monique underlined this point by providing an example in her YouTube video "True Life: I'm a Chunky Vegan." When she first went vegan, she lost a lot of weight- but then she learned more about cooking and shopping vegan and her weight returned to what was typical for her. She began getting rude comments online for not being "skinny" enough as a vegan, representing veganism poorly through her body image. So she simply turned on the webcam and started talking. When the video went up, viewers reacted extremely positively: many commented to say that Monique's video had given them the strength to stay vegan and ignore the rude comments.
Another example Monique provided was a blog entry she wrote about a particularly difficult day, and how that lead her to "emotional eating" and a cheese pizza. Although she was incredibly hard on herself, so many of her readers resonated and identified with her experience. After experiencing Monique's honesty, they knew it was okay to get up and keep going after the occasional stumble. To Monique, this underlined the ethos that it's not about perfection but progression. It also reminded her that although we show compassion to animals, we rarely show compassion to ourselves.
Of course, where there's honesty, there can also be trolls. Monique says she'll often schedule a post or video that she knows will be controversial to publish in the middle of the night, and then take a few days before reading the comments. She saves comments for days when she's feeling strong and emotionally well. As for harsh criticisms, she understands it can be difficult, but just try to remember it's not about you- and it's 100% okay to delete comments. At the end of the day, she says, "my mom taught me very well how to ignore people!"
Another thing to save for emotionally strong days is looking at what other vegans are doing online. Support your fellow vegan bloggers, but don't let their vision cloud yours. It can be scary to put yourself out there! But it’s important to share your story, to be clear about it, and to own it. It can help you grow in your own journey. As Monique herself says, "it took a long time to get to where I am today. I'm still not where I want to be, but I'm certainly not where I was 5 years ago!"
Feminism and Veganism: a panel with Nicole J. Georges, Jojo Huxster, and Anika Lehde; moderated by Julia DeNoto
As you may or may not know, vegan feminism is my jam. Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat was The Book that made me go vegan fifteen years ago. And I personally think that Nicole, Jojo, Anika, and Julia are all incredible badasses, so wild horses couldn't drag me away from this panel. Let's get into it!
I'll type the panel as it was presented- a Q&A, with Julia's questions as orange titles and panelist's answers below.
What is patriarchy, and what does it have to do with animal exploitation?
Jojo: Things like milk come from grieving mothers. Women within the food system are the most enslaved. Intersectionally, most slaughterhouse workers or meat packers are low-paid women of color.
Anika: I recommend the book The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner! Animal husbandry and the rule of men over women has allowed humans to oppress other humans and non-humans. It's important not to use those same tactics when liberating others.
What is feminism, and how does it apply to animals?
Nicole: What's that saying- "feminism is the radical notion that women are people." It's equality at the very least. It's different things to different people, though- for me, it's saying nice things to or about other women. Take one day where you don't tear down another woman or judge her. Be compassionate instead of taking the easy opportunity to tear someone down.
Anika: down with patriarchy!
Let's take a look at some examples of how women are portrayed in advertising; specifically vegan or AR-related media
Jojo: Sorry to curse, but I fucking hate this billboard. How dare they. It's preying on people's insecurities and tearing women down.
Nicole: It's saying 'women, your worth is tied to your body. A small body means are you worth attention and approval; here's an ad to reinforce that and keep you in your place."
Jojo: Again, preying on insecurities, saying that 'skinny' is the ideal to strive towards, for women. Women already face a barrage of this; we don't need it on food as well.
Nicole: Why does the chip have to have a body size or body type? Why not just 'delicious' chips?
Anika: This is just the latest in a long line of examples of women's bodies being segmented into edible components for men. Women are portrayed as meat foods, or 'sexy' vegetables.
Nicole: When do the ends justify the means? If this gets some dude to go vegetarian, is that a good checkpoint? People justify these types of ads by saying that women have a voice whereas animals don't. I don't think we should have to choose, though.
Jojo: No, we shouldn't have to choose. Our veganism shouldn't be at the expense of degrading women. When I was a new vegetarian I was very involved with PETA, and everything was about nudity. As a young woman, that wasn't good for me. They wanted me to cover up my tattoos, feel bad about my body. It's not an acceptable approach or byproduct to getting that Animal Rights message out there.
Anika: If the AR movements continues to put out such specifically-appealing ads (for, as one speaker whose talk I attended described it, "douchebag cis men"), then our movement will be full of those types of people. Why do we want that? The ends still don't justify the means in this case.
How do you address women who see no problem with these types of images?
Nicole: It's fine, it's not my place to tell another woman how to live her life. I do feel I can live by example. I respect people to give them the information and let them decide what to do with it.
Anika: They should decide for themselves. That said, not a lot of people have those resources to begin that conversation. It's important we bring people along with us on our path rather than fling accusations. We're comfortable blaming PETA rather than the women who are involved in their ads or demos.
Jojo: I try to influence people gently.
Nicole: they're just tying to get extreme. It worked, we're talking about it. But are we talking about the right thing? Is this impactful beyond "vegans are a bunch of freaks who want attention"? I'm not questioning the practices of the dairy industry through this ad- what's the point?
Let's talk about gendered food.
Anika: Flame-grilled is for men, lettuce is for women. This is just as detrimental to the men in our lives, too.
How do we analyze and address these images? How do we start noticing and continue noticing?
Jojo: Men are faced with a barrage of lots of advertising, but women are barraged with calorie counts.
Nicole: Calories are just energy. They're saying women don't need as much energy as men; just be skinny and sit there and look pretty. Some stuff you just have to say 'whatever' and turn the page, which I do a lot with PETA. I teach media literacy to children, adults, and seniors, and you don't see a lot of unique individuals reflected in the media you consume. I also make my own media. You need to decide what to focus on because it's just overwhelming.
Anika: You develop an overall media critique. I get used to it, and it's a habit, but you do learn to ignore these micro-aggressions. I like to point them out and demand alternatives- we don't have to do/buy/believe in anything we don't want to.
Can you describe/weave intersectionality together?
Anika: The concept of intersectionality arose from women of color and their relationship to the feminist movement, and those things cannot be parsed apart. That can be applied to any other oppression on this planet, what we do to each other as well as what we do to animals. What happens to a female cow or male chick is very gendered, and violence in that industry is often gendered. All oppression is related- intersectionality just means that we can't parse that apart. When we are single-issue vegans, we miss the chance to make change.
Jojo: When I first learned about intersectionality, it made sense to me. But living those ethics is not as easy as it seems. I'm taking a closer look at my own buying behavior and pondering what 'cruelty free' really means. For example, chocolate picked by child slaves- how is that 'cruelty free'?
What can we do to make a difference?
Nicole: I would like to pose the question, if there are animal rights/liberation groups of which we are critical, how can we support what they do right while still critiquing what they do wrong?
Jojo: I try to reach out to vegan companies and let them know I care where their chocolate comes from, rather than blast them on Twitter or other social media. I want to give them a chance, to let them know there's something I don't agree with. Kindness ad compassion are important.
Anika: There are individuals in groups who are maybe just missing information, and that's a good place to start. Or give your time/energy/money to an organization that supports your ideals and intersectionality. We shouldn't infight, but we should hold each other to a higher standard. Keep your foot on the pedal and don't let up. If we continue to make it challenging to be a woman or to be different, this movement will stay really tiny and be made up just of really tough people and 'perfect' people.
LazySmurf asked: I talk to so many women who are all down with intersectionality except for speciesism. How do you handle that?
Anika: Compassion fatigue is a real thing! I'm amazing anyone goes vegan sometimes because we don't see or embody what we're fighting for as much as other liberation movements. We have to show that vegans do that work also. We have solidarity with other movements, we can move across all these movements. Single-issue vegans are also very common. Lead by example- what doesn't work is lecturing everyone on veganism.
Nicole: I'm the only vegan in my feminist/queer activist circle. I have to ask myself what is the greater good for me? They see me eat and eat well, and I try to make an impact by example. Even when people fall off the wagon, they've got that veganism in their head still.
Jojo: I am involved in many groups. I think being seen as a vegan who is also involved in anti-racism or other social justice issues disproves that all vegans are single-issue.
What about white vegans answering 'Black Lives Matter' with 'All Lives Matter' or 'Animal Lives Matter'?
Anika: This comes from a place of privilege where they don't have to be making that fight, and they want to stay in their individual 'track.' I think personal contact (ie, "calling in" vs. "calling out") is the best first resort.
Nicole: Anyone with privilege needs to take a breath and recognize when it's not their time to speak. Part of being a good ally is just knowing when to shut up and listen. Also, knowing how and when to apologize without defending yourself- just a simple "I'm sorry."
Dan asked: We VVCers have thousands who read our collective blogs. What is one campaign our readers should know about?
Nicole: Palm oil
Jojo: The Food Empowerment Project
Anika: The Sistah Vegan conference
What are your feelings about people who make comparisons between animal abuse and domestic violence or The Holocaust?
Anika: If you're putting our your personal opinion or experience, it's one thing, but it's difficult to make parallels between animal rights and non-personal issues.
Nicole: I made Holocaust comparisons when I was young. Now, as an adult, I know it's not my story to tell, I'm not Jewish, I have no relations who were victims or survivors of The Holocaust. People's families and history in the world's continued violence is not my place.
Jojo: We all have our own 'thing' that we can relate to animal rights, it's best to draw on that.
Anika: There is a lot of discussion about the wisdom of using words like 'slaves' and 'prisoners' to describe animals in the food industry. It does a disservice when we are myopically involved in animal activism and not considering the impact our language has on others.
What a fabulous panel- I would love a 2-day conference just on the topic of feminism and veganism! But alas, we only had 45 minutes. There is an extensive list of further reading and resources that they will be sending me, so I will update this entry when I have it. Thanks!
Five years ago this August, I was newly unemployed and trawling Craigslist for jobs. I saw an ad offering the opportunity to work on the campaign to fight the newly-added ballot proposition that would strip Californians of the right to enter same-sex marriages. "How totally cool," I thought. "I could fight for something in which I passionately believe, while also potentially paying my rent." I applied for the job, an office manager position, and got a call back a day later to come in for an interview.
That's how I joined No on 8, the historic fight to save gay marriage in California, which later became part of the fight to create marriage equality across the nation. It will remain, until my dying day, one of the proudest moments of my life.
The day of the interview I was a total mess. I got the address of the campaign office wrong and was about ten minutes late. I was seized with a sudden panic when I walked in the office that I would be perceived as an interloper in someone else's struggle. After all, I was privileged enough as a straight person to go out and marry the next rando dude I found on the street and have it be perfectly legal and recognized by all authorities. What would these organizers, for whom this battle was very real and very personal, think of some straight girl "slummin' it" in the gay marriage movement, with so little personally at stake for her?
Despite my passionate feelings about the subject, I almost didn't take the job. It paid less than half of my previous job for significantly more time commitment, and I just wasn't sure if I could make it work. My boyfriend at the time, with whom I am still very close, reminded me that an ethical opportunity is worth more than a little spending money. He encouraged me to go for it, and for changing my mind I am forever grateful to him. He's one of the first people I talked to when the ruling came down today, and he's just as happy as I am.
My fears about being aloof at No on 8 were, naturally, completely unfounded. The welcome I received and the near-daily thanks I was given simply for being a straight ally were, to say the very least, deeply humbling and honoring. My friends and colleagues reminded me that no movement succeeds without the help of allies, and I came to understand that I wasn't just fighting for someone else's rights. I was fighting for human rights.
The three months I committed to No on 8 were, to make a gross understatement, hectic and wonderful. I worked about 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. I was somehow designated to answer all generic emails from the campaign website for the entire state, which led to some epic reading and sometimes had me questioning whether our supporters were more detrimental than our detractors! I still have saved somewhere a 23-page sci-fi novella depicting the dystopian near-future after the passage of Prop 8, with Schwarzenegger's Death Squads actively hunting California's marriage equality supporters. Sure, the author could have spent her time, say, phone-banking, or collecting donations, or raising awareness, but no, clearly the muses of Jr. High Creative Writing class are harsh mistresses. I guess I should just be thankful that, despite the (temporary!) passage of Prop 8, Schwarzenegger kept his Death Squads on ice.
The actual election was, to use a horrible cliche, a rollercoaster of emotions. I was overjoyed to see an African-American president not only in my lifetime, but before the age of 30! In California, Prop 2 passed with flying colors, guaranteeing a slightly less miserable life for "food animals" in the state's farms. But Prop 8 was too close to call, and it wasn't looking good. By morning it became clear that the scare tactics, lies, and outright bigotry perpetrated by the Prop 8 campaign had eked out a narrow, 4-point victory. The day after the election (which was also my 29th birthday), I sat in a large circle with a group of people who had, over the past 90 days, become my second family, as we consoled each other over our common loss. This was far beyond some theoretical ideal for the majority of the campaign workers. For most of them, their fellow citizens had been given the opportunity to vote on their most basic of human dignities- and what's worse, their fellow citizens chose to treat my friends as less than equal. Less than human, even. It was the most bitter of defeats, because it was personal.
Although I was completely wiped out by the campaign, many of my colleagues continued to fight, joined by those who had heretofore felt secure and compliant before the wake-up call of Prop 8's passage. My family dispersed across America and the globe, to New Jersey, Iowa, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and beyond, to prevent a repeat of California's tragedy. Here at home, lawsuits were filed and the long trek towards today's historic announcement began.
Although today is, without a doubt, one of the happiest moments of my life, I have to say with enormous regret that there is someone who played an enormous role in all of this who is not here to enjoy her victory. Hannah LeBlanc, who was the San Francisco campaign manager, died in a car accident only last month. Hannah (who was Hannah Johnson when I knew her) was a marvel and a force to be reckoned with- to this day I still don't know how she accomplished what she did and managed to sleep and eat in the 24 hours a day that she had. She coordinated a massive staff of dozens of campaigners and volunteers around an incredibly emotional topic and did it all with remarkable aplomb, amiability, and charm. Hannah, who, like me, was "straight but not narrow," met her future husband, Matt, at No on 8. Love begets love- how beautiful and poetic is that? Hannah was one of the people who, in the face of defeat, simply packed up and moved on to the next battle, in New Jersey. Today, I am thinking of Hannah, and the dozens just like her, who were instrumental in marriage equality but had to leave us before our final victory dance. I know that wherever they are now, they know, and they're happy today, too.
Just the fact that this had to go to the Supreme Court to begin with shows us that we still have a ways to go as a society. But something we often forget to do as activists, humanists, or just plain ethical people is to take a break and reflect on the progress we've made. Today, we have all clambered to the peak of a lofty summit. There are other peaks to climb, to be sure, and some of them are higher and craggier than this one. But right now, we're catching our breath, giving thanks for finishing this arduous leg of the journey, and surveying the magnificent view ahead of us. Today is a day for unfettered joy, for gratitude, and for dancing in the streets.
Edit: I'm thrilled to say that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has started Hannah's Fund, a scholarship project for straight allies doing incredible work towards LGBTQ rights.
One more Edit! I forgot I had this picture of the original No on 8 San Francisco crew. Don't even try to find me, you won't recognize me!
OK, maybe I promised that I was done with the Vida Vegan Con posts, but that was before Leigh-Chantelle posted a video- thank you, Leigh-Chantelle! This was another panel in which I was a participant, titled Ethics Beyond the Plate. I was thrilled to be joining Leigh-Chantelle, Jamie, Laura, John, and Jason for this discussion. Enjoy!
Disclaimer time! This panel/discussion actually arose from the proposal I submitted to VVC 2013 way back last year. Since I wasn't exactly able to sit in and take notes, what I can put up right now is the text of my brief address to the audience as well as the handout we passed out (and ran out of- how flattering!).
But wait, there's more! My co-presenters Maeve Connor and Jamie J. Hagen and I are committed to expanding the dialogue initiated yesterday into a semi-permanent blog/web project that addresses the intersectionality of veganism and AR with other social justice movements. And we want participants and contributors! We haven't nailed down any firm details yet, but we will be updating the Vida Vegan Con Facebook page as well as maintaining an e-mailing list of interested contributors and readers. If you weren't able to attend but are interested in participating in this project, please drop me a line and I'll make sure you are in the loop! My email address is:
Veganism and Social Justice: May 26, 2013, 2:45 p.m.
Download/View Handout (pdf)
Food is an emotionally and politically charged issue- it’s hard to think of any element necessary to human survival as fraught with meaning and currency as that of obtaining, preparing, and eating food. Whether we like it or not, we as vegans are making an enormous political statement via our diet- one that, as we all know, can be interpreted very differently by different people. As the politics of food are interwoven with all aspects of life on this planet, we as vegans inevitably find ourselves in stories like the ones truncated on your handouts. However, like these stories, our perspective is just one facet- our goal in moving veganism forward is to inspect the other facets of those stories.
Despite the unavoidable reality that our ethical choices are inevitably political ones, there are a distressing number of those who would use the cause of ethical veganism or vegetarianism as an imperative to say and do things that insult, demean, or exclude other vegans, future vegans, and vegan allies [handout]. It’s our imperative as vegan activists to be cognizant of intersectionalities between our movement and other social justice movements, and to check that kind of exclusionist thinking in our own community through constructive and mature dialogue.
But why? Even though we’ve embraced a lifestyle that, through its political nature, often thrusts us into situations with various minority or so-called “outlier” communities, why is it our responsibility to validate or connect to those other communities? There are two very simple reasons, and they’re same two reasons why many of us went vegan in the first place: Firstly, the ethical belief that it’s the right thing to do. Secondly, the strategic belief that it’s the most sensible thing to do.
Speaking ethically, it is my personal firm belief that the fundamental conceit behind most forms of oppression is the institutionalized belief that an aspect or attribute of one form of life is inherently superior to that of another—be that aspect gender, race, sexuality, wealth, or species. Therefore, it is our moral imperative as able and ethical people to say “No” to that conceit, and to challenge it at every opportunity. As vegans, we can recognize the ethical approach- many of us are here today because we examined our own ethics and adjusted our lifestyles accordingly. As vegans we recognize the dignity and autonomy of sentient life- and this includes our fellow humans.
But in addition to just plain being the right thing to do, integrating veganism with social justice movements is a winning strategy. The best that a movement in complete isolation can hope to achieve is to sustain itself. When movements are open to all, including and especially allies, we can be more successful together. For example, Betty Friedan is known for being instrumental in kick-starting third wave feminism- but she is unfortunately also known for being dismissive of or downright hostile to queer women, working class women, and women of color. Third wave feminism could not grow, develop, or affect real change in society until it was propelled by a true spectrum of women and male allies. Similarly, veganism can only go so far if we insinuate that all other struggles are secondary to those which our ethics have deemed important to us.
Unlike other movements, veganism has an unusual advantage in that our allies have the opportunity to actively join us by adopting an ethical diet and compassionate lifestyle. Which is why it’s that much more important that we are good ‘ambassadors’ of veganism. And as we all know by now, we are de facto ambassadors of veganism to most of the omnivores who meet us, whether we like it or not. If we act our ethics- and our ethics are compassion- we will demonstrate that veganism is a natural extension of the social justice that our allies and ourselves seek. If, however, we make derogatory statements or take actions which “other” and alienate those around us, we paint all of veganism in a negative light.
You may not personally espouse all the beliefs that each of your allies do, and that’s okay- just as there are many reasons to be vegan, there are many reasons to join or support another movement. As long as you find the one that works for you, then the only thing that matters is your consideration and support. You may also make mistakes- although you may never say something like our ‘bad vegan ambassadors’ did, you may make a faux pas and insult an ally. That’s okay, too- just like veganism, being an ally is a journey, not a destination. What’s important is that you apologize, learn from your mistakes, and move forward. Being an ally is not just about giving support, it’s about acknowledging that you are there to learn from others, and showing humility accordingly.
Ultimately, when in doubt, you can always ask yourself: is this helping the animals? It’s kind of a vegan joke, I know, but it’s also a pretty good way to gauge whether you’re taking yourself too seriously and whether your open-mindedness can spark an interest in veganism in your new friends.
_"The great thing about veganism is you barely have to lift a finger to offend people!"
_"Just because you can't do everything doesn't mean you should do nothing."Ryan Patey (R), of T.O.F.U. magazine.
Yet another discussion I was eagerly anticipating, Biting Off More Than You Can Chew was a free-form dialogue between audience members and moderator Ryan Patey of T.O.F.U. Magazine, who incidentally lost his 2011 title of Furthest Distance Traveled to this year's smattering of British and Australian attendees.
Working from his Very Official list scrawled on an Air Canada cocktail napkin (I like his style!), Ryan threw out a few topics for us to muse upon and explore with each other. Let's review some notes, shall we?
The first topic of discussion was the "cruelty-free" label and descriptor: we all know that a product described as cruelty-free does not involve the murder or exploitation of non-human animals, but what about our fellow humans? Is cruelty-free chocolate really "cruelty-free" if it contains no animal products but contains cocoa harvested by slaves? Thankfully, there are a lot of great companies out there (as least with chocolate) creating truly compassionate alternatives- if we support and thank those companies, we can encourage ethical commerce. The companies who aren't truly "cruelty-free" can be encouraged to change and find alternatives. Vegans are a passionate, considerable online presence, and by using that presence patiently and kindly, we can really influence how companies work.
Another hot topic was the recent lawsuit filed by Eden Foods founder/CEO Michael Potter to avoid paying for birth control and erectile dysfunction drugs for Eden employees. I may or may not have uttered a too-loud "ugh" when this topic came up, so I was the one who got to explain what was going on to those who were out of the loop (and in case you're out of the loop, too, here ya go). The only concession I'll give Potter is that at least he's unilaterally consistent in describing both birth control and Viagra as "lifestyle drugs," but as you can imagine, many of the women in the room expressed quite firm feelings in the opposite direction. Above and beyond the established basic premise that the decision if and when to have a child is a personal choice, many women take hormonal birth control for a host of other medical reasons, including to mitigate excessively painful or irregular menstruation. Because Potter's stance allegedly comes from his aversion to putting "chemicals" in the body, the discussion moved further to envelope the use of other medications and how to balance one's ethical impetus to improve the world with the obligation to keep oneself healthy and, most importantly, happy.
Ultimately, one audience member said, not everyone can afford organic chocolate or American-made clothing. It's awesome when you can, but the focus should be on reduction, not elimination. Jumping right in can be alienating or intimidating to new vegans- why would anyone take that first step when it's actually 100 steps?
I'm well aware that every time I step outside the door, I affect someone else, said another observer. It's important to differentiate between animal cruelty and human cruelty, as we ultimately can't try to incorporate everything under a Vegan umbrella. At the same time, however, we must recognize that it's all one fight.
It's easy, when you're in a community, to assume everyone shares the same values as you, but really, it's only one value you share. We can feel angry or disappointed when we hear another vegan express something sexist or racist, especially because their eyes have already been "opened." But remain open to the idea that they just "don't know," and take the opportunity use it as a learning experience. It can be difficult for us as vegans to find humility and admit we don't know something.
Another significant issue addressed was body image and fat-shaming: the vegan movement is frankly doing a terrible job with body image. Individual vegans, celebrity vegans, and vegan advocacy organizations are all using a lot of triggering words and images. Obviously, that can be very alienating to people. Sadly, a lot of people come to veganism through disordered eating or to disguise or justify disordered eating. One woman's experience writing a nurition blog was very upsetting- she ended up having to resign from that blogging community because people were posting calorie counts, before & after body pictures, and so on. "It's an unusual situation where the people who are turning you on to that aspect of the community are simultaneously isolating you from it," she said. Some people, however are empowered by fitness blogs to make healthy and informed choices about food and exercise. Ultimately, if you are a blogger, be clear and honest about what you are putting out there, and create a comfortable space for all readers. Celebration of food culture is such a huge aspect of veganism- but that is not appealing to all of us, and we should remember that.
The Final Word: Sometimes it can feel stifling, like you will offend someone no matter what you say. Be confident in what you say, but be cognizant of how it affects others and be open to discuss how it might offend others.
Recommended reading from Barb Troyer of All Things Vegan Radio: Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson.
Terry Hope Romero and Mo Martin
Now this is one of the panels that got me instantly excited when the VVC 2013 schedule was released so many months ago. Not only is it a long-overdue dialogue addressing multiculturalism in the vegan movement, but it was moderated by Terry Hope Romero and Mo Martin! Plus Terry and Mo brought VVC into the late 20th century with 'virtual panelist' Doris Lin, who sadly could not attend VVC but still shared her experiences and wisdom with us via video.
So, why a Vegans of Color panel? As we all know, veganism is a multicultural thing- there are vegans all over the world, just as there are vegan foods in just about every culture. However, there is only one face of veganism that many people see in mass media, and, as Mo remarked, "it's not necessarily a face that looks like mine or Terry's." Listening to these three talented women talk, it became evident that they often straddle two communities, that of their familial or cultural background, and that of compassionate veganism.
How is veganism interpreted in your ethnic/racial/cultural communities?
For Terry's family, her ethical vegetarianism and subsequent veganism could be alienating and baffling. Her father, who grew up in Venezuela with very little, interpreted her ethical choices as a refusal of the opportunities he had worked so hard to give her, and which he would had greatly desired as a young man himself. With meat holding high status in Latin American cultures ("Pork is who we are," a Dominican woman once told Terry), the decision of a Latina to abstain can cause others in her family and community to feel offended and defensive. "Food is very much tied to cultures. How do we do the dance of asserting who we are and being understood by the people we care about most?" Ultimately, Terry says, the people she cares about upsetting through her ethical choices aren't "some troll on the internet," but her family. "Be compassionate to them- they're the ones who are being challenged."
Mo, too, experienced how her ethical choices were interpreted as a blatant denial of her racial identity. Once, after turning down fried fish at a family barbeque, her uncle told her 'you don't eat fish? You're not Black!' "[My] veganism made people in my community want to deny me my Blackness," Mo says.
Doris, presenting an alternate experience, described how her Chinese heritage facilitated her transition to veganism. Chinese cooking tends to use less meat than the standard American diet, and, as many of us know, there is a long tradition of Buddhist vegetarianism in China. A person in mourning traditionally eats vegetarian for a year after the death of a loved one, and tofu and seitan are common ingredients in Chinese cooking, whether the final dish is vegetarian or not.
_How has your cultural/racial/ethnic identity affected or informed your veganism?
Terry wanted to emphasize that there is a lot of veganism available in other cultures- just because it doesn't appear in Whole Foods doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Believe it or not, Terry's first experience with a completely vegetarian restaurant was in Venezeula! It's not just us in "the global north" or at Vida Vegan Con who are involved in veganism. Speaking further to that experience, an audience member recollected his own story of finding a nondescript, humble vegan restaurant in Mexico. Speaking with the owners, he learned that they were reviving pre-European, traditional Mexican food as way of reclaiming their cultural heritage and identity. Although they were often accused of not being "proper Mexicans" by others in their community, they stuck to the ideal that beef and dairy were forced upon the native cultures of Mexico by the Spanish invaders, and that running the restaurant was a way of reclaiming their native heritage.
Mo's experience as a vegan of color arises from the phenomenon of "bad hair" and "good hair" in the African American community. What is commonly referred to as "good hair" is chemically straightened, whereas "bad hair" is natural and kinky. At 16, Mo made the conscious decision to no longer relax her hair with harsh chemicals and grew an afro. As a vegetarian looking to go vegan, Mo was frustrated by the dearth of vegan products available for Black women. "I devoured vegan magazines, and I could never find any makeup darker than an olive skin tone. I had to scour the internet for vegan hair products when dreading my hair." These experiences inspired Mo to blog about the issue on Vegan Pop and Loc.
Doris has noted that whenever an entire nationality or ethnic group is unilaterally condemned for animal cruelty, it's most often people of color who are being condemned. "So many will condemn an entire culture for eating whale, cats, and dogs, but it reeks of speciesism and cultural imperialism as well as racism; I see this [cultural condemnation] directed only at people of color. When I call it out for being racist, the response I often receive is 'people really do those things; you're only offended because you're Asian.'"
So how do we move forward to address these issues in a positive, constructive, sustainable way?
What does it mean to navigate our own cultures as a vegan? Food is such a centerpoint of cultural identity, and the choice to be vegan can be interpreted as elitist. But everyone has the potential to be better off than someone else- once we recognize that, we can move forward with the discussion, and recognize that other people have had different experiences than you have.
Naturally I found all this very edifying, and was happy that these issues were, at long last, being discussed in a large arena. So what are the next steps? And, more importantly, I wanted to know what I could do, as an ally who is not a person of color, to ensure that veganism remains welcoming and accessible to as many as possible? As Mo and Terry advised, pretending we live in a post-racial society is the worst thing we can do. If you hear or witness something unacceptable, say something. Recognize that there are racial issues, contexts, and experiences, and honor them.
Thank you, Terry, Mo, and Doris!
I remember the moment when, last year, it became evident to me that despite the promising breadth of coverage received by Russia's feminist artists' collective Pussy Riot, the point of their activism was flying over a lot of heads: a man in his 60s, who I know through professional circles, approached me to ask where I thought he could buy a Pussy Riot costume for Halloween. My initial thought was that he was probably thrilled for a semi-legitimate opportunity to say the word "pussy" to my face (several times). My second was to despair that someone had so little imagination as to hope someone else would pre-package a dress and balaclava for easy consumption.
The third, as this piece by Tom Megginson touches upon, was to ponder the sad state of affairs that exists when a brave act of religious and/or political defiance becomes diluted through media exposure to be little more than a meme.
Case in point is the German lingerie company Blush, which recently commemorated the first anniversary of Pussy Riot's now-infamous protest concert at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior by marching a scantily-clad model through Moscow in -15 degree (Celcius) temperatures. Here's a video:
Although the lingerie company promotes the freepussyriot.org fundraising site, the disingenuous paradox of a model prancing in expensive underwear in support of political prisoners enduring horrific conditions can't help but evoke comparisons to "pinkwashing"-- the process whereby a corporation purports to fund the fight against breast cancer while simultaneously manufacturing and selling products using known carcinogens. As Blush recognizes the injustice of members of Pussy Riot being in jail with one hand, it uses the other to push the same patriarchal, consumerist paradigm of which Pussy Riot's music is critical in the first place. The video even uses the Headless Female Body trope (with the exception of the last frame) to drive home the point that for women, fashion is about drawing attention to their various (and apparently disarticulated) body parts and how best to manipulate that attention into what we need/want in life. As Megginson states,
This is no Femen action, in which women’s bodies become weapons of protest. It is a commercial for sexy underwear that pays for its appropriation of a radical feminist cause by directing people to that cause.
Blush is not the first company to conflate inspiration and franchise. Gerlan Jeans closed its Spring 2013 fashion show with a runway tribute to Pussy Riot, Hot Topic has a Free Pussy Riot T-shirt you can buy (with vague allusions to Amnesty International), and here's a helpful news article on how to buy a colored balaclava-- but of course, ladies can always opt for "classic, slimming" black.
Surprisingly, the New York Times Magazine has the best coverage of Pussy Riot's fashion style-- because they bothered to interview Bullet, an actual Russian woman and member of the Pussy Riot collective. Bullet explains how the colorful dresses and balaclavas create a uniform of solidarity while simultaneously bringing an idiosyncratic splash of celebratory hue to somber, and, often, dangerous protests. She continues:
“The principle of our image is that no personality should stand out in the show, and no identity of a particular girl can be recognized,” Bullet said. “It’s close to the ideas of Guerilla Girls, who had nicknames and masks. It’s very important to us that there are no designers or labels to fetishize around us, because we do everything ourselves.” [emphasis added]
Now that's what I call Doin' It Your Fuckin' Self. It's a shame that the aggressively independent ethos of confidence, fearlessness, and initiative championed by the members of Pussy Riot ended up becoming nothing more but another T-shirt slogan in the west.