I went vegan two years ago after discovering that the persistent stomach aches I had been experiencing all of my life were due to a severe dairy sensitivity that no testing for lactose-intolerance could seem to locate. The minute I stopped eating the goat cheese and chocolate milk I had savored all my life, the clouds parted, the sky cleared, the sun shone, and I no longer spent inordinate amounts of time with the Porcelain Gods (TMI?).
But the longer I spent exploring the internet for vegan recipes to feed both a hungry tummy and a curious mind, the more I began to see a disconcerting trend among the vegans of the internet. Skinny white girls with smoothie bowls had taken the once ethics-oriented community by storm.
There are a lot of benefits associated with going vegan. Your carbon footprint can be reduced by almost half when you switch to a diet without meat and dairy. You lower your risk of heart disease, multiple forms of cancer, and diabetes. Reduced symptoms of allergies , PMS, and migraines have even been reported. Lastly, you are reducing your negative impact on the lives of the creatures living with us on this earth, if we want to get all kumbaya up in this blog post. And of course, when you switch to a diet of mostly whole grains, fruits and vegetables, you lose weight just from lack of cholesterol and high fat foods. Completely unintentionally, I guesstimate that I lost about five pounds in the first few months after I went vegan, which was never a goal but interesting to observe.
Unfortunately, the true benefits of a vegan diet, that of overall health, lowered environmental impact, and increased ethical consumption, have been overshadowed by its benefits for weight loss. I think some of us may remember the controversy of Essena O’Niell, an Australian Instagram star and outspoken vegan who eventually, for lack of a better term, broke down due to the pressures associated with the body image she forced herself to maintain for her social media fanbase. She eventually went back through all of her Instagram photos, describing the real story behind the hugely popular images that young girls would look to for inspiration.
I follow a girl on Tumblr named Ally Sheehan who posts delectable vegan recipes but every day contends with a flood of messages from girls as young as 12 and 13 worrying about whether the piece of cheese that they ate that morning might “make them fat”, or if the bit of chicken they accidentally had in their soup might make them gain weight. Or Bonny Rebecca (featured image), a big name in the vegan community, whose Instagram has an impressive amount of photos of her holding beautifully orchestrated vegan foods in such a way that you can see her flat stomach and thigh gap. Clearly, there has been a disconnect between the actual reasoning behind this movement and its most avid followers.
Veganism has become a grey area of eating disorders and false body positivity, in which appetite can be left uncontrolled but nevertheless restricted and the end goal is the now “quintessential” vegan body, white and “fat-free”. Susan Bordo describes the condition of anorexia nervosa as a “punishment” of the female body’s desires and appetites (Bordo 8). So what can we make of veganism?
And what can we make of the fact that the bodies posing in these popular photos are most often white? Numerous cultures are vegan to begin with, such as those who follow Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Eating an affordable, vegan diet is surprisingly easy when one buys in bulk, shops seasonally, and avoids the popular health foods toted by the vegan community (most often appropriated from another culture’s staple crop coughquinoacough) and has been shown to actually save
families money. Therefore, there is no aspect of veganism that should inherently exclude anyone from joining in, for economic reasons or otherwise. However the dominant narrative among the popularized vegan community, that of skinny white girls holding watermelons and smoothie bowls against a backdrop of their flat stomachs, creates a space that excludes both people of color and vegans of differing body shapes (of which there are numerous), leaving their voices conspicuously absent and ignoring the real ethical issues that veganism addresses.
I am just now wrapping my head around the true depth of the complexities involved in popular vegan culture and the inequalities and body normativity it promotes. As someone who found this way of living out of desperation for freedom from endless stomach aches, I am fascinated by the discourse that can be created by studying this community. I am very eager for your thoughts on this issue, and submit this blog post as an open question to the class: So what is the deal with this new, popularized veganism?
Bordo, Susan. “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.” University of California Press. 1993.