At one point at the CSWIP conference on the weekend, I reached over to the dessert tray to grab some sort of chocolate coconut square. I kind of bumped someone at the same time (once I had made the decision to go for the chocolate square, I was on it!) and said to her something about how I was cheating.
She looked kind of shocked to hear me talk about “cheating” because of course I am vocally and publicly anti-diet and had just talked about the harm of dieting the night before.
It became clear to me that she had mistaken my reference to “cheating” for the usual cultural meaning–as going off our “diet” usually by “succumbing” to a high fat dessert. In fact, that’s not what I meant at all. I don’t talk that way about desserts. Nope. I have great respect for them and think people can eat them if they want them and when they want them. Period.
But I’m vegan and the chocolate square wasn’t. I’m all for vegan desserts, but there weren’t any at the conference. And after a few days, and a keynote, and great company, and excellent papers about food, well, I just wanted something other than fruit! So I “cheated” in the sense that I (confession coming right up) set aside my vegan principles for a few minutes to eat dessert.
This whole incident made me reflect upon the notion of food, eating, and cheating. What’s the difference between using “cheating” the way I did instead of the “cheating on my diet” way? I think they’re a bit different, but that probably it’s not quite the right word for what I did either.
Well, let’s think about what it means to cheat. Cheating is associated with rules. We usually say we are cheating if we are breaking the rules and trying to get away with it. We can cheat on an exam (scribble notes on our forearm, for example), cheat when we’re playing monopoly (grab some cash when no one is looking), cheat on our taxes (“no need to declare THAT little bit of extra income, right?”), or cheat on a partner.
The idea is that we’re *supposed* to be doing one thing but instead we do another.
That’s why my friend and colleague was so shocked to hear me talk about cheating in relation to food. I’m all about food being beyond good and evil. I’m really opposed to dieting. So in my view there is no particular way that we are *supposed* to eat that would restrict desserts in a way that makes eating them akin to “cheating.” Diets attempt to control us by imposing rules from the outside–we externalize the legislation of diets (even if we eventually internalize them, as I’ve discussed here in my view about tracking). I’m especially not partial to a rule-governed approach to food and eating.
My choice to be vegan is different from all of that. It’s an ethical choice based on what I see as a principled objection to contributing to the needless suffering of animals. It’s not about rules as much as it’s about principles. These are not principles imposed on me by anyone; I do not need to externalize them as a legislative force in my life to see them as legitimate and worth respecting.
Yes, going against my principles is an issue, but it’s not exactly right to call it cheating because I’m not trying to get away with anything, I’m not breaking any strict rules, and I’m not (exactly) compromising an explicit or implicit commitment I’ve made to others (the way cheating in monopoly does). No one else much cares, in fact, because it’s a matter of my own personal moral commitments and integrity.
I had some interesting conversations through the weekend with fellow vegans about how we handle different situations, and it made me realize that it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. I do consider myself vegan despite the occasional lapse. And I think, much like wandering away from any “plan,” it’s best not to think of lapses in terms of cheating.