Why I struggle with the term ‘vegan’.

The word ‘vegan’ was coined by animal rights activist Donald Watson in the 1940s but of course abstaining from eating animals has been the way of life for many, way before then. His label has survived decades however, to be a term used by a growing population of people wanting to abstain from animal products. It is a useful term – when buying beauty products, food, ordering in restaurants etc, we need something to give us the information to ensure that we are not using or consuming animals but it has its limitations.

I have been what you would call ‘vegan’ for around 4 years now, but every time I tell someone (if they ask) and I say ‘I’m vegan’, it doesn’t feel right. Is it because I’m uncomfortable with stating my opinion through a word so openly (people pleaser issues alert) or is it because the term ‘vegan’ is no longer conveying how I really feel and want to act in the world.

A few issues spring to my mind that might explain my discomfort:

  1. Known sometimes as ‘white veganism’, it now has this association of white skin, blonde, slim, able bodied, yoga loving (postures only), smoothie devouring, cis woman. Lacking in inclusivity, veganism as a movement is and will continue to pay for this ignorance by not opening its arms to all for too long. When I say ‘vegan’ to someone, I feel like I’m part of this elitist club full of entry requirements and I want out!
  2. As with anything in this world – especially one that relates to our food choices and can therefore be monetised, capitalism without compassion has it’s firm claws into veganism. Supermarkets are now partially stocked with vegan or plant-based labelled food products as they ride this money making wave of more and more people cutting down on animal products. They do this whilst also making plenty of money through factory farming and causing misery to millions of animals and the planet. Whilst it is good that there are more plant-based options available and perhaps that will encourage more people to try them if they are more accessible – it makes me feel uneasy. I’m not sure the planet can really benefit under any oppressive capitalistic model, plant based options or not.
  3. The term vegan is unclear when it comes to things like avocados, almonds, cashew nuts.. Can these foods even be called vegan? Although a plant-based diet is often the best for the planet than another it is not wholly without cruelty to the environment, bees and humans. Of course veganism is about avoiding harm to animals where possible. No one can live their life without doing so in many ways unfortunately and perfection is definately to be avoided. Yet it is a conversation worth having and being open about if you do label yourself as vegan. As then more conversations with the emphasis on sustainability and compassion can be had that consider the entire supply chain. I am in a privileged position that I can choose where the above foods come from, and I am surrounded by great shops that offer loads of other delicious options. But right now that comes with an extra financial cost that many are not privy to.
  4. I feel like when I use the term ‘vegan’ the reaction from the person in front of me is a silent but wholehearted ‘yikes!’. I make them uncomfortable instantly. I feel like their defences shoot up with just hearing the word. Whilst I’m not opposed to a little discomfort in myself or others when choices that are harmful are made (it is a pre-requisite for social change) the defensiveness is a tricky one. It’s like a big barrier that is hard to soften. (Likely thanks to the above points – I told you veganism would pay!) I wonder if other terminology (‘plant-based’ doesn’t work for me as I associate it with solely a dietary nature and more of that thin blonde woman-ness) could sometimes be useful. Perhaps something along the lines of – “I try to make choices where I can, that minimally impact animals, people and the planet”. Iye of @Iyeloveslife uses the term ‘collective liberation‘ alongside ‘vegan’ which I really like as it ensures a more holistic way of looking at the world.
  5. By nature, labels cannot be all inclusive of course. If you label something as a thing, then something else is not a thing. You have created separation when your intention may have been to create compassion and unity. You have instantly told someone you are something and they are not. I guess no label can ever provide what I’m looking for. And so veganism and vegans must acknowledge that it does not have all the answers by itself and the only way it will, is by forging connections with other social justice movements and learning from one another.

I want to be part of a different movement – one that does it’s best to be compassionate to all peoples, all species of animals and all that the planet encompasses. I want to say no to the ingestion of an exploited animal, give to organisations who financially and emotionally support those in need, to vote for a government that is dedicated to equality. Veganism for me needs to be compassion for all otherwise it will be ineffective – from gratitude for the tree outside my window, for the luscious soil that feeds my plants to practical financial reparations for those who have been taken from. It is somewhere between or encompassing animal rights, social justice and spirituality.

It means when I’m gardening and I see a worm I carefully move them to safety.
It means when I’m holding a handful of soil I appreciate that I am made of the same elements but created in a different form.
It means if I see a line of ants I step carefully over them, feeling the importance of their little life too.
It means when I see families of cows in a field my heart aches for the life that is owed to them.
It means when I’m eating I am grateful for what is in front of me – for those who planted it, tended to it and transported it to me. For the sun, earth and air that gave it life.
It is not a diet or a lifestyle, it is a way of being.

What would you call that?

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