“Just to be clear — I want real meat and real cheese on mine.”
An eyebrow raised emphatically, gaze pointed in my general direction — just vague enough to keep the dinner from becoming hostile, but sharp enough to convey that my order had disappointed my companion. I wondered again why I had gone out with this person. The food monitoring was constant, the little jabs anything but convivial.
When our food arrived, we ate in silence. Every so often, they would look up at my dish and scoff. I thought it looked great, personally. A tantalizing ocean of spicy black beans flowed between delicate trenches of cumin-laced rice. On the lucky bites, there was even a bit of garlic-covered spinach! I was quite pleased. My friend, meanwhile, audibly sighed and reached for their phone. There’s nothing quite so palpable as vague aggression. Who knew black beans were such a hot topic?
Going out to eat can be really exhausting. And that’s not surprising, since there’s so much that can go wrong. Service can be dicey; food can be hit or miss. Random charges happen. People whose company you thought might be enjoyable over a glass of wine suddenly reveal themselves to actually be royalty, demanding obscene levels of service, not to mention totally embarrassing to everyone else at the table. When, at last, the merciful bill comes, it’s inevitable — “Can you split that six ways?”
But the Worst Case Scenario of any given meal multiplies exponentially once your tablemates discover that you’re vegan. And if you’re vegan and fat? Locate the emergency exits.
The politics and intersections of being vegan
I stopped eating meat as a young child. And while the choice was obvious the minute I learned that dead animals were in my food, avoiding animal products wasn’t easy — especially not growing up in the ’90s in the foothills of Appalachia, a rural place where meat is served in multiple forms for every snack and meal. Not even the vegetables were safe: rogue chunks of pig or cow were always hiding in the beans, floating around at the bottom of the steamed baby carrots. Beef fat was even once hiding in an apple pie. So I ate noodles, basically, with ketchup, for like the first 18 years of my life. But I never regretted my decision, not once. Shudder if you must, but I still eat noodles with ketchup when options are slim. Having no part in the animal agricultural industry has always mattered to me. It is a huge part of who I am.
Friends in the Body Positive community often wonder aloud (always in that delicate, non-committal tone that masks conviction as curiosity) if my lifestyle is a diet. After all, what could be more diet-ish than choosing to live in a way that makes so much of the food available off limits? Strangely, these lovingly phrased inquisitions began only after I transitioned to being a full time vegan. The life of a vegetarian seemed far less controversial. Who could question someone for ordering a three cheese pizza, right? But ordering pizza with zero cheese, that had to be dieting. Didn’t I know better?
Suddenly, lectures on how food should have no morality peppered every conversation, every potluck. “Gentle” accusations that veganism, and myself by extension, are collaborative with fatphobia, the patriarchy and more were not uncommon. People would casually weave “concerned” suggestions into our conversations that limiting food choices at all, for any reason, was antithetical to self-empowerment. Generally, I listened to these thoughts and only responded if forced. I know that there is nothing that I can add to these conversations that won’t fail one or many of my principles, as the dichotomy is already carefully laid out on a circular path, the winding vortex of which zeros in on a tiny, interpersonal vision of hell.
Meanwhile, there is nothing diet-like about the way I live. I eat all the same foods that I did before transitioning to a vegan lifestyle — literally nothing has changed except the ingredients derived from animal products have been swapped out for ones that aren’t. I’m still a happy fat person and I’m still body positive — and, as far as I can tell, there is no magic type of cuisine that is specifically reserved to empower anyone. I understand the appeal of celebrating foods that have been discouraged or vilified our whole lives. I understand that we have lived with diet culture shaming our food choices, attempting to limit our consumption, and moralizing food from the cradle to the grave — believe me, I do — but whoever decided that healing from that trauma has to look any particular way?
In both the body-positive and the vegan communities, there is a lot of essentialist thought as to who we all are and why. Many people in the world do not have easy access to a wide variety of food, and many more lack the ability to truly have a choice as to what they eat. Some people may be so traumatized by diet culture that practicing veganism might not be something that they feel capable of engaging with.
Veganism must consistently and vocally address racism, classism, misogyny, body hate and labor exploitation to be an effective movement. The reality that food is a political issue and that the political is personal has to be met with compassion and engagement. Certainly as long as the image of veganism (at least in the United States) remains as is — that it is a diet for people with access — the real concerns of the movement will never be heard or recognized as truly intersectional. And the onus to change that image is on vegans themselves.
That said, the intersections of food production and social justice are real and the discussion should not be shut down on the basis of maintaining the neutrality of food at all costs. The act of eating is neutral, but food itself is not. Who gets to eat what, where and at what cost are worthy questions to ponder. Who is making the food, and do they have even basic rights, is equally worth asking.
Why is it that choosing not to engage with one particular industry makes it so difficult to eat — and why is the frustration with this reserved solely for those who want to avoid that industry, rather than those who have made one business so ubiquitous that to avoid it is viewed as tantamount to elected self-deprivation?
Furthermore, why is it acceptable to exploit the bodies of others simply because they were unfortunate enough to have been born animals? The last question is usually the place where most decline to continue the conversation. But why? Why is it that we can seriously discuss the greater social implications of everything from the Teletubbies to sexting, but the one thing we must never touch is the topic of who and what must suffer for our consumption?
I’m Vegan — Not Dieting
As the aforementioned meal dies down, my friend clears their throat and asks if my order was “sufficient.” I nod and begin stacking plates. We close out the check and find ourselves standing in silence in the parking lot, a lone fluorescent light flickering weakly overhead. Cars are speeding past on the road beside us, and I wish that any of them would throw open their passenger door to take me with them, the two of us moving away from the restaurant at an impressive rate. I picture a spaceship parting the clouds with urgency, sending forth a beam of light to collect me like a wayward child. I beckon the earth to open its mouth and swallow the parking square upon which I stand — anything would work that could end this night as quickly as possible.
“You probably think I’m a terrible person.”
“Why would I think that?”
“Because I don’t care about animals.”
“I think we’re all doing the best we can. Whatever that is doesn’t make anyone terrible.”
“You know that dieting doesn’t work.”
“Good thing I’m not dieting. Have a nice night!”
On the drive home, I think about how much I wanted to say. How I felt pressured to list off every doughnut, slice of pizza or burrito I’d eaten that week, eager to prove my ability to decide for myself what to eat without feeling pressure from body-negative thinking. I felt like naming my weight, proving that it hadn’t changed much since going vegan, validating my experience as a fat human being. But through the anger, it struck me that these feelings were really not so different from what it was like living in Diet World — the pressure to produce proof of righteousness, feeling the burden of doubt for one’s worthiness growing steeper with every step away from the predetermined narrative.
I’d been judged my entire life for being fat; being judged for being the wrong kind of fat would be kind of hilarious if it weren’t so frustrating. I thought about how snidely my friend had asked about my helpless beans, with the same tone I had heard over and over again for as long as I could remember whenever I ordered something too rich, too decadent, too “fattening.” I thought about the way they examined my body for signs that I might have lost weight whenever they saw me, the same as others in my life would scrutinize me if I had gained even a single pound. I wanted to scream. Was there no escaping the Food Panopticon?
Another friend once asked me if I judged people who eat meat. I asked her if she judges me when I buy fast fashion or gasoline. I don’t know if it’s possible to live in a way that does no harm. But I do know that it is possible to care about more than one issue, and that doing so does not make less room in your heart for everything else. I really do believe that most of us are doing the best we can with the energy and resources we have. But engaging with the reality of what systems frustrate our ability to live our truths without depending upon one form of exploitation or another is not something to condemn or feel threatened by — and choosing to distance ourselves from those institutions, whatever they are, when we are able or willing to do so, should be respected.
We can be critical of the finer points of how to live according to our principles without tearing each other apart. We can recognize all of the places where our struggle to live independently of systems that perpetuate harm is complicated, conflicted or prevented — and rally against them. For me, becoming a vegan has been one quantifiable way for me to confront some of the horror that is happening on this planet. And its consistency in my life has given me strength that I can put toward everything else that I’m fighting for. But for you, things might look differently, and that’s OK. I can be body-positive and vegan. You can be whoever you are. We are all valid. But we must support each other’s struggles for liberation. One way to start is to release ourselves from stereotypes and prosaic notions of what’s best for everyone, and believe each other when we say that we know what we are doing.