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Most of us have heard the joke: “How can you tell if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you themselves.” In the three years I’ve been a herbivore, this has always confused me. Why on earth would I want to tell you given your invariable reaction, which ranges from polite contempt to downright distrust?
Meat-eaters love to hate on vegans and vegetarians. When Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle appeared on British TV show Mock The Week, in a skit called “Things that would change the atmosphere at a dinner party” he quipped – “There is of course a vegetarian option: you can f— off!”
Let me tell you, nobody wants to be that person. Credit: iStock
When it comes to being herbivorous, if I’m not bothering you, I’m teeing up comedic content at my own expense. I’m Frankie Boyle’s difficult dinner guest, the one who’ll make you feel uncomfortable – unless you’re that one friend of mine who will wave his prosciutto at me as he claims it “sucks to be vegan”.
Let me tell you, nobody wants to be that person.
I had been vegetarian for four years when my partner said he wanted to try a plant-based diet, yet I still responded as though he’d just proposed that we join a cult. “You want to stop eating chocolate?” I exclaimed, seeing my Tim-Tam-filled life flash before my eyes. Thankfully, my chocolate grief was quickly assuaged by many delicious, dairy-free options, but it took me a lot longer to come around to openly embracing my new label as a “vegan”.
The obvious reason for this is that I feel I lose a large degree of control over people’s narrative of me the moment they find out. A common scenario will go like this: my company will subtly raise their eyebrows, express feigned interest, and then quickly move on as my mind starts to race. “What are they thinking?” I ask myself, as the distance between us begins to grow.
My brother says to me, “You shouldn’t care what other people think”, to which I can only ever reply: “I’m sorry for being human.”
You see, while I wholeheartedly believe in this life choice, I’m acutely aware of the fact that my life would be simpler without it. As humans, it’s instinctive to want to belong to our social worlds. Historically, an individual’s survival depended on acceptance into tribes that would protect them, and a lack of connection is linked to higher mortality rates in modern society as well. The terms “majority group” and “minority group” exist because we can’t help but filter the world into those who are like us and those who aren’t.
Being vegan means belonging to a unique sort of minority group that is based on choice. Now, I don’t mention this believing that vegans have been oppressed in any way comparable to other groups (although one study found the only minority viewed more negatively than vegans was drug addicts). I say it to shed light on the sometimes deep discomfort I feel by choosing not to conform to the majority.
Anthropologists have written about the significance of food in culture for decades, but it is only when you find yourself planning your own meals on a weekend away with the girls that the reality becomes inescapable: sharing food is a sacred bonding ritual, and if you can’t partake in the spread then you are undoubtedly missing out on a certain level of connection.
This is even the case with me and some of my closest friends. Aside from one of them being routinely incredulous every time she eats and enjoys something I’ve cooked – “That can’t be vegan,” she will say – few of my close friends have ever asked me why.
As someone who delights in being honest with loved ones, I feel the loss of those meaningful conversations – the kind my partner and I have frequently, but only with each other.
With meat being deeply ingrained in Western culture, and food so inextricably a part of our identities, perhaps my friends feel my veganism criticises who they are. Perhaps their not asking stems from a reluctance to start a difficult conversation that will put us at odds, and spotlight the parts of us that not only don’t relate, but are in conflict.
Most of the time I’d rather ignore it too, but I don’t think we should.
As research continues to prove that plant-based diets have a significantly reduced environmental impact and can provide sufficient nutrition, more and more people (who can) will begin to change how they eat, and this means we have to start understanding each other’s perspectives more fully.
Laughter is a good start, so keep the jokes. I’ll join in when my dad warns my brothers to eat before coming to mine for dinner, but let’s try some real conversation too.
Isabel Doraisamy is a London-based researcher and writer at social psychology think tank NOUS.
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