Vegan Conversion Narrative #1: Gena Hamshaw
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.