eating · fitness · Guest Post

When Herbivores Attack: Weight Stigma and the Vegan Movement (Guest post)

by Marla Rose

Image description: Marla, a dark-haired woman hand feeds a black goat with a white patch between its horns. Background of grass, a barn, trees in the distance and a blue sky.
Image description: Marla, a dark-haired woman hand feeds a black goat with a white patch between its horns. Background of grass, a barn, trees in the distance and a blue sky.

Vegans can carry a lot of baggage. No, this is not a fitness brag. I am speaking of baggage of the metaphoric nature. In fact, I can already see the comments in the Facebook share of this post, calling vegans holier-than-thou, obsessive, pushy elitists and a bunch of other variations on this theme. I can predict it not because I’m psychic but because I have seen it play out so many times on social media and comment threads when the “v-word” emerges. Vegans are really not liked much by society at large. As a longtime vegan, I will admit that we have a bit of a PR problem.

I will also admit that we have had a hand in some of this bad PR.

Much of it is not our fault; it is the consequence of our mere presence in a world replete with carnism, which often elicits a knee-jerk defensive response, sometimes even before a vegan has said a word. It manifests as people saying “Mmm…bacon” even if it’s a bizarre non sequitur, which it usually is. It manifests as the many bad jokes we’ve heard a million times, like “Vegetarian is an old Native American word for ‘bad hunter.’” [I won’t even address the idea that there is a single Native American language but, yeah, we’re supposed to laugh unless we want to reinforce the stereotype that vegans are angry and humorless. Ha. Ha.] It manifests as people who expect us to defend PeTA even if we are most definitely not supporters. It manifests as people thinking we’re judging them simply by co-existing in the world as vegans.

Despite this, I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision to go vegan. I believe it is the best decision I ever made and I work hard to buck the stereotype while maintaining my commitment to its muscular ethical basis. I will say, though, that since my early days of standing outside of circuses with protest signs and outside of fast food chains with pamphlets, things have changed considerably in the animal advocacy world. Many of those changes have been really positive. With the Internet, people are so much more aware of the unjustifiable reality of what happens to other animals behind closed doors. Concurrent with that, there are also so many more options in grocery stores and restaurants as access and affordability to plant-based foods continues to increase. I remember racing through Oklahoma in 1995 with a car full of nutrition bars and a sincere hope that I didn’t starve to death with my dog-eared vegetarian restaurant guide book on my lap. Those days are behind us and things are just a lot easier.

What we do have today, though, is something I never observed as a young activist. In fact, I never saw it until social media started becoming widespread. In those nascent days of my veganism, my mentors were primarily older women in Keds sneakers – one of the few leather-free shoe brands back in the day – who would be out, rain or shine, doing outreach for the animals; they didn’t care about anyone else’s BMI, they cared about creating a more just and compassionate world. They didn’t inspire me with their impressive abs; they motivated me with their hearts, brains and spirits.

With social media, there is another breed of vegans: the body-shamers. Thankfully, they are not the norm, but they are loud and seem to be growing in number. These body-shame peddlers may be someone’s first exposure to a vegan and they leave a lasting impression. They condemn and attack vegans and non-vegans alike about weight and size. If the focus of their scorn is a vegan who is not slim enough in their estimation, they claim such individuals are doing a disservice to the animals by not providing a “good example” to the public, as if superficiality and self-absorption were inspiring traits. If those in their sights are not vegan, well, they are losers who deserve to suffer and die. You will hear shamers claim that such individuals are a drain on our health care and a plague on our society. The fact that shaming does not work as a motivator and that weight-stigma itself has proven negative health outcomes matters little: getting their digs in is what matters to them.

The body-shamers may be pushing a diet for any number of reasons. Maybe they have a financial interest in people feel bad enough about their bodies to join their program. Maybe they are “influencers”  looking for followers on YouTube or Instagram. Maybe they are ride-or-die acolytes of a particular dietary plan and they “just want to help,” whether or not their help has been solicited. Or maybe they are simply unkind people who get a cheap little thrill out of making other people feel shitty.

Whatever their reasons, let me apologize on behalf of these vegans. The body-shamers do not represent us. Vegans, like omnivores, come in all shapes and sizes but the bottom line is veganism is based on core values of compassion, justice and equality and is not a platform for abusing people with stigmatizing attitudes. Veganism is a social justice movement and there is no room for cruelty or bigotry. If you are someone who has been demeaned by a vegan for your body size, please accept my apology by proxy. There are many deeply compelling reasons to go vegan but being considered an acceptable size by a body-shamer isn’t among them.

I am proud to be vegan, and these individuals do not reflect my beliefs or what I have dedicated my life to promoting. Please remember that diet culture has its tentacles wrapped around many of us and vegans swim in its murky depths as much as anyone else. Don’t be shy about calling out weight-stigmatizing attitudes when you see them but remember that we are all susceptible to its many displays of bigotry, vegans and non-vegans alike.

Marla Rose is an author, journalist, co-founder of VeganStreet.com and co-founder of Chicago VeganMania. She lives in the Chicago area. 

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