Archive for the ‘Vegan Conversion Narratives’ Category
Yesterday a reporter asked me why so many athletes who went vegan found themselves feeling weak and sick. It’s a narrative that, as a runner, I hear a lot. My first–and I think the most sensible–reaction is to explain that many vegans simply do it wrong. They replace calories once obtained from animal products with processed junk food rather than nutrient dense plants. And they feel like shit.
I tell them about my vegan friend Yetik, with whom I’m currently training for a 50-mile race that we’re doing at the end of September. At 80+ miles a week in hot/humid conditions, our physical and nutritional needs are especially intense. I’m adding a lot of legumes, peanut butter, root veggies, and quinoa to my diet–and feeling great. Yetik, though, was flagging for several weeks. But when I suggested adding some more B-12 and quinoa, and he did, he had a noticeable rebound and is feeling strong. Fact is, he’s a running demon.
But still, there are cases in which athletes eat a smart vegan diet and still feel like something is missing, that some level of energy has been lost. And it is also very likely true that a piece of lean meat or a bowl of yogurt would ameliorate the situation for that runner, even if the affect was more placebo than real. In these situations, I find myself less able to offer advice that will be realistically accepted.
Going vegan is a wonderfully pragmatic way to respond to the myriad ecological and ethical problems endemic to the American way of eating. Do it. But it’s also a radically counter-cultural thing to do. Those who make the transition, and see the benefits, as I have, are far more likely to embrace and stick with veganism than those who are asked to not only make a socially-ostracizing counter-cultural shift but, at the same time, suffer a physical consequence, however seemingly minor, as a result.
This scenario raises many interesting questions. To what extent is an individual obligated to sacrifice a personal sense of physical health in order to stick to the moral ideals of veganism? Is there a point at which an individual’s sense of physical well being becomes so compromised that the morality of eating meat changes, whereby eating a piece of lean salmon once a week becomes more justifiable than it would be for a non-compromised person?
I have no answers, but I’m in an inquisitive mood as I contemplate a return to daily blogging here at the Pitchfork. Looking forward to your thoughts.
The latest conversion narrative comes from Jennifer Molidor, PhD. She is a staff writer at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. I’m very pleased that she sent it to Eating Plants.
In my heart, I’ve always known meat-eating was wrong. When I was child, I wanted to become a “Forest Ranger or Veterinarian or Zookeeper,” because I thought those would be jobs that would let me work with animals. I loved the animals in my life and even the animals in my imagination. When I wasn’t playing with my dog, my bunny, or the neighbor’s kitty, I was creating my own world with my stuffed koala, my teddy bear, my stuffed chimpanzees. And when I read about Jane Goodall, that was who I wanted to be. One by one, however, I gave up on those dreams. Primatology in Africa would require me to be so far from my family. Zoos aren’t very nice places. Veterinarians put animals to sleep. And forest rangers carry guns. And so I became an English teacher.
But nagging in the back of my mind was the knowledge that meat-eating wasn’t right. I visited my family in England when I was in college. I remember we went to a recreated Renaissance village, where they were roasting a sheep, as in olden days, on a spit. Near the spit, at the foot of the dead animal roasting over the flame, was a baby lamb in a basket. I knelt down to pet it, looked up at the humans waiting for their meal, realized that this sad little baby had been placed by its mother’s murdered carcass, and that nobody seemed to see the horrible irony. That was certainly too much for me.
I returned to America, ripped out a bunch of images from PETA and other organizations of undercover factory farm investigations. I put them on my bed, all over my walls, spread them everywhere. I refused to allow myself to leave for four hours. As I worked on my homework, I felt the terror lurking in those images, the torture and the pain, staring at me. I never ate meat again.
I did that because I know the objections to a plant-based diet all too well. “I know all that bad stuff, but meat is so delicious.” My favorite meat was lamb. I knew I needed to let it sink in, to allow the torture, the terror, the grief, the cruelty of what we do to animals to smack-down any selfish resistance. And it worked. Faced with reality, I think it almost always works.
And yet, my journey wasn’t over. For fifteen years I ate a vegetarian diet. Eggs, fish, cheese… those things aren’t that bad, I told myself. And I moved to the Midwest. Many people asked me if chicken counted as vegetarian, or made fun of me. It wasn’t easy being green.
But I always knew in my heart my evolution had slowed its course. I knew that I really wanted to have the courage to be vegan, to live in ways that work hard to best protect animals, help the environment, and encourage others to do the same. But boy I really love cheese… and yogurt, and convenience. I convinced myself that I was doing enough. My own arguments seem so silly to me now.
Two months ago, when I became a writer for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, I knew it was time.
And eggs, fish, cheese? Those things are that bad. My position requires and allows me to see so much that others don’t want to see, and the mass cruelty in the egg and dairy industries are some of the worst. Meanwhile, the environmental degradation we inflict upon our seas and marine life is hidden because it is at such a remove from most of us. But it’s there.
It was time for me to stop consuming any animal product. And I am grateful that I have.
I am excited about the new life and the new diet I’ve taken on. Veganism, really, is more than just a diet, even more than a set of conscious decisions. It is a way of life. And it’s the right one.
Today’s vegan conversion narrative comes from Dianne Wenz, a holistic health counselor who blogs at Veggie Girl. A recent conversation I had with Jasmin Singer, on her and Mariann Sullivan’s Our Hen House podcast, led to me realize how critical these narratives are to the larger project of vegan activism. Essentially, they help us avoid burnout because, living in the carnistic world that we do, every small victory—such as a single vegan conversion—reminds us not only that we all take our own journey to veganism, but that this is a movement ultimately rooted in the raising of an individual’s consciousness. Witnessing an individual change on the personal level thus reminds us that collective change is more than possible.
My sincere thanks to Dianne for her beautifully told story (replete with reference to my all-time favorite band, REM):
I’m not exactly sure how I figured out that meat came from animals, but I remember being very little (probably about 6 or 7) when I asked my mom why we kept cats and dogs as pets and ate pigs and cows. To my little brain an animal was an animal and I didn’t see why some were for snuggling and some were for eating. I don’t remember the answer, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “Because that’s the way it is. We need to eat them to live.”
I was probably in 8th or 9th grade the first time I saw the word “vegetarian” in print. I’ll be honest and tell you where I saw the word to – it was in an interview with Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, and he had said he would be a vegetarian if he didn’t love steak so much. I’m not even sure if I had know that a “vegetarian” was a thing before that, but I remember thinking “A vegetarian! That’s what I want to be.” I never really liked meat and I didn’t understand why we had to eat it. I was would always scarf down my broccoli and then be stuck at the dining room table, forbidden to leave until I finished my pork chop.
After graduating from high school, I went to art school in New York City. I was happy to find that there were actual vegetarians at school, so I decided to give it a try. Once again, music was my influence. I knew that R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who I absolutely loved, was vegetarian, as were the members of another favorite band of mine, the B52s. I gradually went vegetarian, first by removing beef and pork from my diet, and then phasing out tuna, turkey and chicken. Of course, I now know that chickens suffer my most of all factory farmed animals, but for some reason back then it seemed that by phasing out the larger animals, I was doing less harm.
In June of 1992, my grandfather took me to visit my aunt in California. We ate most of our meals at restaurants, which was probably the most I’d ever eat out in my life. To my surprise, there were vegetarian options everywhere we went! There were even veggie burgers! For lunch one day we went to a little dinner that served dozens of different flavors of burgers, and they could be made with a beef hamburger, turkey burger or veggie burger. I ordered a teriyaki veggie burger, which came topped with grilled pineapple, and I was hooked. There was no need for meat anymore. “This is going to be easy, I thought,” and I gave up all meat at some point during the trip.
When I came home, I realized that were even places in New York and New Jersey where I could buy vegetarian food! I used to live on pita melts with broccoli and cheddar cheese at the Land And Sea diner in Fair Lawn, and my favorite meal in New York City was Dojo’s soy burger dinner.
Back then the market wasn’t saturated with the vegetarian convenience foods that we have now. I used to have to go to the little closet of a health food store in the mall to get my favorite Yves veggie burgers, which were very expensive and only came in a two pack. Green Giant had frozen burgers that I could find at the local grocery store, but I’m pretty sure the box they came in tasted better than they did. Like most people who grew up in the 70s, I grew up eating food that came from bags, cans and boxes. Most vegetables weren’t fresh and those that were, weren’t very good. (Iceberg lettuce, anyone?) When I changed my diet, my mom would buy a bag of frozen cubed carrots, corn and cut green beans and try to serve it to me as a meal, and she didn’t understand that beef flavored Rice-A-Roni had meat it in. Family meals became a problem. So I subscribed to Vegetarian Times, bought a copy of Peta’s The Compassionate Cook and taught myself how to make vegetarian food.
I was vegetarian for 9 years when I met Dennis. I had been looking around online, trying to find a vegetarian group to join, when I stumbled upon VeggieDate. On a whim, I placed an ad. (Hey, it was free!) I was really just looking for veggie friends to hang out with because I was tired of being asked “well, what do you eat””, and “where do you get your protein?”. After a few months, Dennis answered my ad, and even though I told him that I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, we started dating a month or two later. Dennis suggested that I start a website as a vegetarian resource (there weren’t very many veggie sites around at the time), and Veggiegirl.com was born! While researching the site, I read about the egg and dairy industry and couldn’t believe how horrific it was. Dennis and I decided to go vegan together. I had already given up eggs, after reaching for a hard boiled one a salad bar and then suddenly realizing exactly what it was. (I was horrified! How could people eat that?) I have to admit that giving up cheese was much harder for me than it was for Dennis, and I still snuck some when he wasn’t around. It happened to be a particularly humid summer that year, and I had one long sinus headache. Regular medicine wasn’t helping, so I decided to try acupuncture. The doctor told me that I needed to give up all cow’s milk because it was mucus forming, and my desire to be headache free, along with my new knowledge of the dairy industry helped me kick the cheese habit for good.
And that is that! I’ve been vegan for 11 years, and now I help others go vegan too.
When I learned that the vegan author and social psychologist Melanie Joy had written the text of a wedding ceremony for a vegan couple, I immediately asked her if I could see it. Not only did she oblige, but—after absorbing my outpouring of effusion—she granted me (with the couple’s consent) permission to publish her talk on Eating Plants. Couples who discover authentic love around shared values are fortunate souls indeed. To have the whole love articulated so beautifully is an even rarer gift. Personally speaking, I find the words below immensely moving and inspiring, and am honored to be able to share them with you. -jm
By Melanie Joy
Petrina and Kevin first approached me to request that I officiate their wedding ceremony because I am a vegan author, because they’d read my writing on humans’ relationships with nonhuman animals and felt my work reflected their core values. What they didn’t realize was that I am also a relationship coach—I work with couples to help them create empowering, loving relationships.
How perfect that I could speak to the two forces that bring them together here today: their philosophy of veganism and their love and commitment to one another. And perhaps not surprisingly, these two forces are intimately interconnected: the very qualities and values that form the foundation of veganism are the same qualities and values that form the foundation of a loving marriage.
Veganism and marriage are so interconnected because veganism is not simply a diet, but a way of life; some might say it’s a spiritual path. Veganism is based on a set of guiding principles that determine how we think of and relate to ourselves, other animals, and our world. Veganism, like marriage, is ultimately a practice, a path one commits to daily and practices in order to grow. To practice veganism, in the true sense of the philosophy, is to practice being the kind of partner that helps create a deep and fulfilling marriage—an empowered marriage.
To honor Kevin and Petrina’s union, I’m going to briefly give words to the dual nature of empowerment that has brought them to this moment of public commitment, in this beautiful sanctuary for rescued farmed animals. To honor Petrina and Kevin’s union, I ask that you witness the nature of their love for one another and their love for other beings, through witnessing their practice of an empowered marriage and of veganism.
In an empowered marriage partners practice empathy. To empathize with another is to truly place yourself in their shoes, to do your best to see the world through their eyes—whether that other is your partner with whom you’re in the midst of a heated argument, or a piglet who was born into captivity.
In an empowered marriage partners practice compassion. To treat another with compassion is to treat them with genuine kindness. It’s to be able to say you matter, you have a life that matters to you, and, therefore, you matter to me—whether you are the person with whom I’ve chosen to share my life or another being with whom I share this planet.
In an empowered marriage partners practice mindfulness. When we practice mindfulness, we authentically reflect on our choices; we strive to be thoughtful partners and conscientious consumers. We examine the impact of our actions on others and try to act in a way that causes them the least harm.
In an empowered marriage partners practice commitment. True commitment means doing what’s right rather than what’s easy, being willing to sacrifice your immediate desires for the greater good of the relationship, or for the Earth.
In an empowered marriage partners practice courage. Courage is being able to admit you’re wrong, being open to hearing painful truths, and remaining true to your values in the face of pressure to stray. And courage means being willing to share power rather than wield it over another, to control yourself rather than control someone else, whether that someone else is the person you wake up next to every day or has four legs instead of two, wings instead of arms, or swims rather than walks.
In an empowered marriage partners practice love. And love, as writer Joanna Macy points out, is a verb. It is not merely a feeling, but an action. Love is acting in the best interest of another.
And it is love that is the hub of the wheel of both marriage and veganism—indeed, of life. Love as a verb requires us to call forth our highest human qualities, to become our best selves. Love as a verb nourishes our minds, hearts, and souls and makes us grow into better partners and better people.
As I came to know Petrina and Kevin, what emerged was a picture of two people who truly strive to espouse the values of an empowered marriage—and an empowered life. Empowerment ultimately means practicing integrity, and integrity by definition is the integration of values and practices. It is clear that Kevin and Petrina, as individuals, practice integrity toward each other as well as toward the animals with whom we share the planet. And it is clear that their relationship—an entity unto itself—is also one of integrity.
Some of the statements the people in their lives sent me shed light on this trio of Kevin, Petrina, and their relationship:
Theirs is a very wonderful love…[a love] of two people living on either side of the Atlantic, bought together by vegan food and a meandering walk through the suburbs of Bristol.
[Kevin] truly is a good person and a perfect match for Petrina. The two of them have rekindled my belief in true love. I like the way they look at each other when the other isn’t watching. I hope they have kids because they have an amazing gene pool.
[When Kevin met Petrina] he seemed instantly smitten.
They say food is the way to a man’s heart, I think it could be the other way round too.
Veganism plays a very important role in their lives and to be married at an animal sanctuary is perfectly fitting.
It has been fantastic to see [their] love grow over the years.
And finally, Petrina’s mother says that Petrina “is a beautiful person” and “Kevin is a kind, gentle, and supportive man.”
What a gift to have a partner who truly “gets” you, and who truly sees the world through your eyes, especially when your core philosophical orientation is shared by so few others. Looking at the world through vegan eyes is like looking at the world from the outside in, or like taking off dark sunglasses so that you see everything in a different light. Looking at the world through vegan eyes you see a planet replete with unspeakable suffering that is invisible to most others, and that daily offends your deepest sensibilities: what others see as food you see as a once-sentient being; what others see as sport you see as cruelty; what others see as something you see as someone—someone whose soul you can see when you look into their eyes.
What a gift to have found a partner to assuage the loneliness that comes with being one of the less than one percent of vegans in the world, truly validating your experience. A partner who respects your sensitivity, who honors your grief, who celebrates your passion, who sees your compassion for other beings as a reflection of your personal power.
What a gift to have found a partner who will walk by your side down the road less traveled, who will remind you that you’re not alone, whose camaraderie will help you not to become embittered, judgmental, and despairing in a world that you find so deeply challenging and chronically confounding and where genuine love has become a radical concept.
What a gift to have found a partner who can share in the joy of creating a life of love-as-a-verb and abundance of spirit.
It is clear that Kevin and Petrina have given each other a great gift—the gift of a partner who will bear witness not only to them, but with them. When we bear witness, we are willing to see the truth, with our eyes as well as our hearts; to bear witness to another is to say I see you. I truly see you.
Both marriage and veganism require that we bear witness, to each other, and to other beings.
You have been invited here today to bear witness to this wedding ceremony, which is the mission statement for Petrina and Kevin’s marriage.
I was thrilled when JL Fields agreed to submit her vegan conversion narrative to Eating Plants. She described it as “short and sweet.” It is that and, as you’ll see, so much more. Fields, Vegan Lifestyle Coach, shares plant-based education, recipes and cooking techniques, as well as animal rights information and resources, on the blog JL goes Vegan and in her weekly online column “I Eat Plants” for the Life Style section of The Journal News.
I’m in love with a goat named Clover. I met her at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (WFAS). But our love affair started long before she was born.
Nearly ten years ago I was in Kenya for work. We were in a small village in the Rift Valley. There was a celebration held for an auspicious occasion and my colleagues and I were guests of honor. Early in the day an elder from the community brought a goat to the site of the celebration – a true demonstration of generosity. The goat was presented and subsequently killed and boiled. That evening, we were offered the goat for dinner. To refuse it would have been an affront (or so I told myself?) Essentially I met a goat, shook his hand then ate him. I became a vegetarian the next day.
Eight years later I became a dietary vegan. Shortly after, while skimming the Meet the Animals section of the WFAS website, I clicked “goats” and met Clover through a charming video. I immediately clicked “donate” and I am now a monthly sponsor of Clover.
And what clicked for me? My veganism is no longer about what I eat; it’s about the animals.
I became vegetarian because of a goat. I remain vegan because of a goat.
This piece comes from Jo Tyler, an artist living in Massachusetts and a reader of this blog. -jm
I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be vegan. For me at least, it means that I no longer take pleasure in the suffering of others.
Back before I was vegan, I didn’t think of it that way of course — that I was taking pleasure in another’s pain, or more precisely, the products of their pain — but that is exactly what I was doing. I enjoyed eating cheese and chicken and eggs, and didn’t really think about how the experience was for the animals who were “providing” me with these treats. I didn’t think about what happened to the baby calvesborn on dairy farms, or what chickens went through before they were scalded and dismembered for my “wings” appetizer.
I didn’t think about it mainly because I didn’t want to know. I certainly wasn’t encouraged to think about it by friends and family, since they were equally invested in remaining blissfully ignorant. I was lulled into complacency by advertisers who assured me that cows and chickens were happy — and even wanted to be eaten. And, like most people, I mistakenly believed that eating animals was necessary. Which, of course, it’s not.
Besides...the food tasted good! (As though “taste” were an acceptable justification for harming others. As Peter Singer once remarked, human babies likely taste good too if properly prepared, but that doesn’t mean we should eat them!) When I hear the “taste” excuse, I can’t help but see it as evidence of a culture that celebrates self-indulgence to a very unhealthy degree. We are encouraged to “follow your bliss” and “do what makes you happy.” Come on…live a little! Mangia! Enjoy!
I mean, why should we be bothered with the suffering of others – even if we are directly causing it – when there’s pepperoni pizza and cheez doodles just waiting to be eaten? Why be a Debbie Downer and worry about animal suffering when we can have “fun” at Friendly’s instead?
Years ago I made the mistake of reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I remember feeling so disheartened when I read her flippant remarks towards the end of the book about how, despite her spiritual teachings and concern for nonviolence, she could just never be a vegetarian because, well, animal foods taste great and life’s too short to deprive oneself of such “pleasures.”(How fitting, then, that she ranks “eat” before both “pray” and “love” in her title.)
It seems we are conditioned and encouraged to consider only our own pleasure and to block out the pain of others. But I have to wonder: can there ever be real pleasure, real happiness, real enjoyment when it’s rooted in misery, injustice and violence?
I think real pleasure comes from a deeper, less selfish place. Real pleasure comes from being kind. From showing compassion. Having empathy. And from not harming others needlessly. Sure, I still take a lot of pleasure in food (too much maybe, judging from my waistline!), but I no longer take pleasure in the products of suffering. And that’s made all the difference in the world to me — and to those I no longer harm.
So says Scott Jurek, who also happens to be a serious ultra-marathoner (anyone who has run over 26.2 miles in a single outing)—as in the world’s greatest. I’m reading Jurek’s brand new book Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I’ve never been prone to hero worship, but I really, really admire Jurek (although have never met him). And it’s not just because I too am a vegan and, although in an entirely different league, an ultra-marathoner. I just like the way the man lives life. I like his attitude. I admire his combination of humility and unfathomable accomplishment. His book is an honest, inspiring, and at times quite touching account of becoming an ultra-marathoner and a vegan, both of which are now central to his identity. Never preachy, Jurek nonetheless makes it as clear as it can be made that vegans do not, when we eat well, have a protein issue. Well, he actually does a lot more than that in this wonderful autobiography. Read the book.
This eloquent piece came into the comments sections and it grabbed me enough to post it, just in case readers missed it. The account resonates with me because I know people such as the sister-in-law (“SIL”) mentioned below and I worry about their acidic approach to spreading the message of veganism. Clearly, though, this aggressive no-holds-barred attitude can backfire, as this account suggests. At the same time, as vegan advocates, we are whom we are. Perhaps this account, in an indirect way, is just another reminder that we have to hammer away at the habit of eating animals with the hammer we have. We must be ourselves, play to our strengths, and be honest. Better than silence.
Note to readers: If you’d like to include your own account of becoming vegan, or staying vegan, or getting others to go vegan, please send it to me as a separate e-mail and I would love to post it. The feedback I’ve gotten on these pieces has been very positive. -jm (email@example.com)
By “Emma Wilson”
|I’ve been vegan for a decade myself. I was always healthy and exercised. I did not become vegan for health reasons, although I know it can be healthy. I did it because I was an animal lover and just couldn’t rationalize eating a live, thinking being, able to feel pain and pleasure, any longer. It was not in parallel with how I lived my life. My story is similar to thousands.But for a long time, I wasn’t vegan but lived among them. My SIL, who I was close with, was vegan and a strong advocate for the animals. She was also obsessed with conversion. So much so that she did not think of others feelings or the impressions she made. She was caustic, self-righteous and unbecoming. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved her, but it was difficult at times. She was adamant that she was doing the right thing and blazed forward. She made many vegan friends and they advocated together in their lovely vegan world, exclaiming that they made each other better. But she lost friends. Good people who cared about her and enjoyed her company over the years. But they weren’t vegan.
One day when we were chatting, I mentioned something about how long I had been vegan. And I realized something important, but never told her. I realized if I would have become vegan sooner had I not known her. Imagine that? The person in my life that I knew who was the greatest advocate for animals was the reason I became vegan later? Yes, that’s right.
I tell this story to remind everyone that we are role models, whether we like it or not. No one wants to join the cool club if the members are caustic and critical. In fact, the cool clubs are usually short-lived, trendy places filled with people and celebrities looking for the next trend. I didn’t want to hang with them then and I really don’t want to now. I actually dread when I hear of a new celebrity-turned-vegan because who knows why they did it. For the next movie promotion…to drop 20 quick pounds? And who turned vegan just because their favorite celebrity did? Well the next month that favorite celebrity is driving drunk or at a pig roast. Then what? You are correct, it is easy to be vegan, if you do it for the right reasons, which are only for you to decide. Then it’s cool.
This post is from Chris Lukas, who blogs at From A to Vegan (see blogroll here). Here is Chris’ bio:
Chris has been in the bookselling and publishing industries for nearly 20 years. She started looking for alternative ways to ease her allergic symptoms when her asthma flared up several years ago. A family trip to Farm Sanctuary in 2008 helped her change her perspective on animals and food, opening her up to a vegan lifestyle. In December 2009, Chris and her husband Jim began Bucks County Vegan Supper Club out of their home in Pennsylvania. In the winter of 2011, along with Jim, Lydia, and Mauro, Chris became a co-founder of fromatovegan.com as a way to help inspire and motivate other people interested in adopting a plant-based lifestyle. In addition to enjoying food, Arrested Development, traveling, and books, Chris is interested in decreasing her ecological footprint on the planet. In the spirit of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, she “speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
And here is her narrative, which I appreciate her agreeing to let me post:
In my first year as a vegan, I feel as though I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself and about other people. As I’ve heard many people say over the year, there was a time in my life when I never could have imagined myself living this lifestyle—but then again, I really had no idea what that even meant! I think I’ve proven to myself that following my heart and instinct is always the right way to live.
Over the course of the year, I’ve co-founded this blog with my husband and friends. I started writing for the first time since I was a kid, and I’ve read several important books that helped me to learn more about the treatment of farm animals, our skewed dependence upon them as a food source, and the desperation of food producers to sell these animals as commodities. I’ve put a lot of these things together in my head and on paper for the first time in my life, and I realize that this path to veganism was always how I was meant to live.
I’ve had the opportunity to be more reflective on all of my choices as a consumer. My family and I have decided this year is the perfect time to join a CSA; and I bought a refurbished Vitamix to help me blend up some smoothies with some of the bountiful produce we’ll receive as members. I feel as though I’ve been fairly conscious about my choices in the past—but now I read food labels, and I’ve taught my teenage daughter to do the same.
I’ve also modeled the behavior that I expect from my daughter. Four years ago, we decided to follow my husband’s lead and become vegetarian. I’ve made an effort to include her in our discussions and interviews and help her decide that veganism is best for her as well. I’m not one of those parents who’s going to let me kid dictate her diet to me; while she lives here, she will consume a plant-based diet free from animal products. She is a tremendously compassionate person, and very aware that her choices can influence companies and her friends as well.
I’ve done more cooking and baking, and I’ve tried to share this food with non-vegans whenever possible. I don’t throw my veganism in people’s faces, but I don’t hesitate to tell someone that the brownie they’re eating isn’t made with eggs or answer their questions about food substitutions. I’ve shared recipes with many people and have seen my mom change her eating habits after so many years of struggling with her weight.
I’ve lost about 15 pounds and I’m exercising more than I have in the past. I’ve felt run down a few times (especially this spring, with my allergies) but I haven’t been sick or gone to the doctor for antibiotics for the first time in many years. I’ve successfully cut down my asthma medication and I’m working on continuing to do that in the next year. My lungs and throat are generally clear and I’m not struggling to breath. The single best thing I’ve done, as a person with asthma and allergies, is to give up milk products. I believe this has lead to having clearer lungs and slow, steady weight loss. I’m not trying to lose weight—I have learned to listen to my body.
I also feel as though I’m part of a community. Most of the people I’ve met during this journey have been refreshingly bright and friendly—and unfortunately, I’ve seen and heard many negative comments and attitudes towards my lifestyle as well. That’s where a strong community helps to support me when I run into these obstacles. A few people have asked about tips on going vegan or even just changing their lifestyle. Off the top of my head, here’s a general list of things to keep in mind if you decide to become vegan or change your lifestyle. Please feel free to share things that have helped you along the way!
1. Try not to be overwhelmed. Everyone does this at their own pace and in their own time. It may take you more time to cut out dairy than your friend, but sustained change is what you’re seeking. This isn’t a sprint to see who’s fastest–it’s a marathon.
2. Ask for what you want—speak up! So many restaurants will do their best to accommodate your needs. The food may not be gourmet, but you’ll be able to partake in it.
3. Make the best decisions you can and don’t beat yourself up. Everyone can think of something they could do better. The important part is that you got started.
4. Create a support system. Friends are so important to this process. Find a meetup group or create your own. It’s really important to have people who know exactly what you’re going through and can listen to your struggles.
5. Keep gathering information. Find great blogs and listen to podcasts. You’ll learn things you’ve never known and that will help you continue to make good choices.
6. Learn to talk to non-vegans. Even though it can be difficult, it’s important to know some facts when talking to people who don’t understand why you’re vegan. It’s also ok not to know everything.
7. Plan for future goals. You don’t have to clean your closets out the second you become a vegan. The Vegan Police do exist, but who cares? The point is that you can always make better choices. That’s part of the process.
8. Make a commitment to become better at food shopping and cooking. It’s empowering to make your own food and you also know exactly what you’re putting into your body.
9. Support animals and good health every day. Retweet great articles or post them to your FB account. You’ll be surprised how many of your non-vegan friends will comment.
10. Become active. You’re now an activist, get used to it. Even if you don’t go to Veg fests or farm sanctuaries, your food choices are a political statement. Along with your political activity, remember to include some physical activity as well. This is a vital part of creating a healthy lifestyle.
Thanks to everyone for your support throughout this process. Please know that I’m here to support you, too.
This post features the first in an ongoing series of posts on personal conversion experiences. I envision these accounts as diverse reminders that–no matter how cogently we present an intellectual rationalization for going vegan–everyone approaches conversion through specific emotional angles and personal histories. Gena has written what I hope you will agree is a moving, honest, bold, and articulate account of her transition to veganism. I’m deeply appreciative for it. I encourage readers to share this post–and future ones–with anyone you know who is thinking about embracing veganism. As well as those who are not. -jm
Gena Hamshaw is a certified clinical nutritionist and the author of the blog Choosing Raw. She is a regular contributor to both VegNews magazine and Whole Living magazine, and her work has been featured in O Magazine and Glamour magazine online. A former book editor, Gena is now a pre-health science student at Georgetown University.
It took me almost four years to become vegan. I say that not because it took me four years to eliminate all animal foods from my diet–that took me only a few months. I say it because it took me nearly four years to refine my understanding of what veganism meant to me, and to feel a sense of philosophical clarity about veganism as a lifestyle choice, rather than a diet.
People become vegan for many reasons: some go vegan because they’re hoping to prevent or reverse health conditions. Some are looking to lose weight. Some want to reduce their environmental footprint. Some–a small number, maybe, but they’re out there–are simply curious. And a great many people go vegan because they believe that it’s unjust to breed, kill, and hold animals captive.
I became vegan for two reasons. First, I was hoping to improve my health. After years of living with IBS–irritable bowel syndrome, a condition that is relatively commonplace among young women but no less irritating for its prevalence–a prescient GI doctor advised me to experiment with eliminating dairy from my diet. The results were quick and undeniable. Since I had stopped eating red meat almost entirely in childhood (a matter of preference) and since I didn’t care for eggs, I realized that, in a post-dairy world, veganism would be within my reach. Curious about its many reported health benefits, I decided to give it a try.
There was another reason, this one less straightforward than the first. At the age of 11, I’d developed a subclinical eating disorder. I restored my weight quickly with the help of my physician and my mother, but I spent the next thirteen or so odd years at war with food. Two relapses (one clinical, the other subclinical) later, I realized that standard eating disorder treatment methods–including the popular idea that one had to be comfortable eating anything and everything in order to qualify as “recovered”–had failed me. I decided to abandon the conventional wisdom that women with eating disorder histories should not consider veganism as a lifestyle choice because they’ll abuse its “restrictive” qualities, and instead explore what a diet that is animated by a sense of justice and compassion might mean for someone who had always felt guilty about eating.
As it turns out, veganism was ideal for me. My IBS all but disappeared, my health was vibrant, and my disorder finally receded from my life. I loved being part of an idealistic food movement, and I loved the nutrient density and overall quality of a whole foods, vegan diet. By the time I started exploring raw foodism–a lifestyle I now embrace part-time–I realized that I had finally learned to relish the act of eating.
Though I certainly wanted to be associated with the shiny ideals of a vegan lifestyle–compassion, eco consciousness, and so on–I had yet to fully own the moral dimensions of veganism. Animal rights still freaked me out, in part because I shared most Americans’ unfair stereotypes of “animal rights vegans” (weren’t they all “militant” and “judgy”?) but mostly because I sensed in my heart that they were actually onto something, and that I was too conventional to join them.
It seems outrageous to describe myself, then or now, as “conventional,” given that I’ve spent my whole life protesting the assumed worth of convention, and the powers and privileges that arise when we value it too highly. I’ve identified as a feminist since high school. I was active in my high school’s multicultural awareness group. I’ve championed gay rights in writing and in words. I’ve never believed that conventional familial arrangements are any more valid than unconventional ones; indeed, I’ll be the first to say that I think I benefited substantially from being the child of a divorce. But for some reason, when it came to the convention of eating animals, I hesitated to cast doubt. It was all well and good to say that I wouldn’t or couldn’t eat animal foods for health reasons. But to say I thought it was wrong? That felt…extreme.
Or did it? The truth was that it didn’t seem all that extreme to me, but I knew that, once I took an ethically consistent stance against the captivity, breeding, and injury of animals for human consumption, I’d have to make some difficult changes in my lifestyle. When it came down to it, it hadn’t been all that hard for me to stop eating animal foods. Maybe it’s because I knew I’d feel better once I did it; maybe it’s because I was a good cook; maybe it’s because, after nearly 14 years of constant food restriction and dieting, a well rounded and inclusive vegan diet didn’t actually feel like a sacrifice to me. But leather riding boots? Pantene Pro-V? Cashmere? Abandoning little privileges like those actually did feel like sacrifice. And that scared me.
And so it went for the first few years of my vegan lifestyle: I was a vegan for health, with some vague lip service paid to animals. But when I made my first visit to an animal sanctuary in 2009 to volunteer at an event, everything changed.
I spent two days wandering around the grounds and observing the joyous, beautiful lives of animals who are free to roam and flourish. I got informed about the reality of farming–both factory farming, and so called “happy farms.” As I served plates of vegan hors d’oeuvres to donors and guests, I listened to the heroic Nathan Runkle catalog just a few of the atrocities that befall farm animals each year. I’d heard it all before, of course. But for the first time–illuminated by the experience of feeding, touching, and observing farm animals closely–the grim statistics hit home. By the time Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary founder Jenny Brown took to the stage and said, “veganism isn’t just about perfecting your bowel movements. It’s about the animals!” I knew both that she was speaking directly to me, and that it was time for me to reframe my veganism.
Nowadays, I like to say that I became vegan for health reasons, and that I remain vegan for the animals. I am as passionate as I ever was about the health benefits of veganism, and I share them–as well as a bevy of delicious recipes–every single day on my blog. I’m also a champion of eating disorder awareness within the vegan community, and I’m hopeful that my voice and others might help to modify the traditional bias against veganism as an option for women in recovery. But I’m also a champion of animals, and I no longer hesitate to identify with “animal rights vegans.” The phrase raises eyebrows sometimes, sure, but that’s because people are slow to shed stereotypes. Over time, I’m confident that the animal rights movement will ultimately become as recognizable and respected as have other initiatives to battle arbitrary privilege and oppression.
Looking back on my years as a vegan thus far, a couple of things become clear. First, that all motivations to go vegan are worthy (well, OK–I don’t love it when people treat veganism like a two week diet plan. But even two weeks might teach consciousness and compassion about food choices!). If you want to improve your digestive health, maximize your consumption of micronutrients, and increase the likelihood that you will not succumb to a disease of affluence, veganism is a wonderful means of securing those goals. If you want to tread lightly on our planet, giving up meat and dairy is probably the single most effective change you can make. And if you want to stop participating in the death of approximately 10 billion land animals in the United States each year, or speak out against a worldview in which animals are held captive and bred forcibly for no reason but to service human tastes, you can choose to be vegan.
Obviously, my veganism was enriched and given new meaning by my choice to include animals in my personal calculations. But in my years as a health-oriented vegan, I was still doing good for myself and others, sharing simple suggestions on how to overcome digestive disorders and to develop a peaceful, pleasurable relationship with food. My passion for caretaking crystallized in those years, and it gave rise to my desire to pursue a career in health care. Had I remained vegan exclusively for these reasons, it would have been worthwhile. It just so happens that my veganism would take on new dimensions.
Which brings me to my second point: veganism is not a static, unchanging lifestyle. If you’ve just gone vegan, or even if you’re thinking about it, there’s a good chance that your veganism today will not be the same as your veganism in a year, or five, or ten. When I went vegan, I was so excited about my shiny new lifestyle that I failed to consider the big picture: the many, many years ahead of me. It didn’t occur to me that my veganism might shift and evolve and develop in unexpected ways. But it did, and there’s a good chance yours will, too. Look forward to a future that is full of intellectual growth and personal revelations. Look for things to stay interesting.
Finally, my story reminds me that, as activists, we must remain committed to reaching out to others in a huge variety of ways. One of my activist mentors is my friend Jasmin, Executive Director of Our Hen House who constantly reminds people to “find your own way to change the world for animals.” Activists–and by this I mean all of us who want to make a difference–need to approach different people in different ways. If you have a family member who is struggling to fight diabetes or high cholesterol, try to share the benefits of plant-based diet in a gentle way. If you know someone who cannot make peace with food, try to show her or him that making compassionate, considerate choices may help to confer confidence, and even joy, at mealtime. And if there’s an animal lover in your life, try to help her or him to make the connections between our domestic companions and farm animals.
Remember, too, that what might help someone to go vegan initially won’t necessarily be the thing that motivates them in the long term. I know plenty of people who have gone vegan to lose weight or help to manage a chronic health complaint, but who connect to animals along the way. I also know many animal rights vegans who have become more interested in whole foods and healthy eating because they went vegan. The path is full of twists and turns; as people who are committed to sharing veganism with others, we need to remember to stay agile, and to highlight all of the many benefits of this lifestyle. One of the most beautiful things about the vegan lifestyle is that it offers us so much: wholesome nutrition, delicious, varied cuisine, the chance to better our environment and feed more of earth’s inhabitants, and, finally, a compassionate relationship with our animal neighbors. No matter how you find your way to veganism, I hope that it will improve your life, and the lives of others.