Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Veganism 101: Back to the Basics

I think it's pretty clear that most of the posts on My Face Is on Fire are written for folks who are either already vegan or who are, on some level, already making the transition. I don't spend a lot of time writing persuasively about the basics of going vegan, though, and it's something that's nagged at me for a while now. I can't help but wonder if spending so much time writing for people over the past few years who are generally close to being on the same page as I am on many advocacy issues -- people who are at the very least conscious of the pervasive speciesism in this world -- has led to my stumbling into fewer discussions with people who are curious, but for whom "vegan" is still a strange and misunderstood word and for whom going vegan may seem daunting.

Writing with a vegan or already-moving-towards-vegan readership in mind has left me not spending as much time as I should reminding myself of what it's like to be taking those initial steps towards going vegan, and of the bumps and obstacles sometimes encountered during those initial stages. It's easy for me to forget the wide range of questions -- from the simplest to the most complex -- that sometimes creep up at the strangest of times for new vegans, particularly since my own veganism has sort of become second-nature to me over the years. At this point, family and friends have at least a basic understanding of my needs and if not always an understanding, at least a begrudging
acceptance of my choices. Between this and my spending a fair amount of time engaged in online discussions with other vegans, I think it's become too easy to forget what new vegans walk into as they begin to make the changes in their own lives to reject animal exploitation and often find themselves answering to others about those choices while sometimes looking for answers, themselves.

do have ample opportunity to have the same types of run-ins with non-vegans and it does indeed happen, but answering many of the same questions that pop up over and over again (e.g. "Where do you get your protein?") has left me pretty much tossing out answers almost by rote. Situations that used to feel awkward or even confrontational are no longer a big deal. I live in a mostly rural Canadian province whose forests and streams ensure that most who grow up here take it as a given that killing non-human animals is "fun". Even with the increased frequency of the word "vegan" coming up in mainstream media, I still get a lot of blank looks when I drop the word, and even more blank looks if I mention my reasons for being vegan. More often than not, I just get labeled a big softy who's too sensitive to deal with what's regarded as the "normal use" of other animals. I can shrug that off now, but I realize that I need to remind myself of what this experience is like for someone who is newly transitioning to veganism in what sometimes feels like being under a microscope with the people you love most and the people who are in your daily life expecting you to have a perfect answer to each and every question they throw at you -- and sometimes promptly challenging or discounting your answers.

The truth is that I say that veganism has become second-nature to me, but I mean this more in terms of knowing basic questions to ask or certain items or activities to avoid when situations arise. In terms of dealing with other non-vegans, when I
do let someone new into my life on a level which surpasses the occasional crossing of paths over a cup of coffee or plate of food -- someone I'd like to actually let in and maybe consider keeping in my life for a spell, I do get a sharp reminder of what it's like to have to introduce someone from scratch to the idea of my being vegan in a way that elicits memories of the tentative awkwardness with which I used to sometimes field queries from non-vegans around me when I'd first gone vegan. It's a damn good reminder.

A few months ago, I'd picked the brains of some fellow vegan friends and acquaintances to ask them what, in hindsight, they'd wished they'd been given as bits of advice when they'd first gone vegan themselves. It was interesting to find myself reading some things I hadn't consciously weighed in many years (as well as of a few things I'd never really weighed at all). The responses covered a wide range of aspects of transitioning to veganism and reflected common-sense, a wizened sense of rolling with the punches, and in some cases a little bit of shared self-deprecatory humour. I figured I'd take some of those results and weave them into a
series of posts, starting with this one.

Taking the Plunge?

So you've spent some time mulling over what's involved in the human use of non-human animals and you've decided that the only choice you can make at this point is to go vegan. Maybe you'd been wondering what motivated a friend or family member to go vegan, or you'd been wrestling with and weighing the arguments which may have been presented to you by a vegan you know. Maybe you'd come across a story about a specific case of animal abuse in a newspaper and decided to explore things further, only to have it hit you that the specific case was actually reflective of the more wide-scale horrors in fact inherent in animal exploitation. Maybe it was something as simple as ending up at the vet's with a non-human family member in crisis, and suddenly thinking to yourself how strange it is that you could adore your cat so much and feel so much distress over his potential loss, yet think nothing of grabbing a hamburger and milkshake on the way home while stressed out over Fluffy's being in surgery. Regardless of what brought you to this point and of how long it took you to get to it, you've made the decision: You're committing yourself to going vegan.


Going vegan can indeed be fairly easy once you've made the decision to do so, and that decision is without a doubt the right choice. The thing is though, that as with any sort of significant change in consumption habits of any sort, it does require that you do your homework and inform yourself about nutrition. It's also important
that you actually follow-through on what you learn -- that you apply that knowledge. It also requires that you consciously re-examine various aspects of your life to identify where animal exploitation occurs and how you can refrain from being a participant in it. What's funny is that what may seem very obvious to some may not be so clear to others at first. Remember that when each one of us goes vegan, we undo a lifetime's worth of generally taking most animal use for granted.

Track down a book, web page or shmancy app for your phone that can provide you with a list of hidden (and not-so-hidden) animal ingredients. Familiarize yourself with some of the more common ones and get into the habit of reading the ingredients listed on items at the store. This may seem time-consuming at first, but you'll find it getting easier as time progresses.
I used to carry around a little copy of the E.G. Smith Collective's Animal Ingredients A-Z. To make life a little easier and to dodge a huge chunk of those hidden animal ingredients, try opting for more unprocessed foods -- whole grains, legumes, fresh produce, nuts and seeds. Experiment with these with or without the help of a few good popular vegan cookbooks. Spend some time reading vegan food blogs.

Spend some time learning about other forms of animal use. Contrary to what the mainstream media and some PETA-adored celebrities would like you to think, veganism isn't just about what you put in your mouth; going vegan means eschewing all forms of animal consumption and exploitation, where reasonable and not just those animals whose flesh and secretion some call "food". Animals are used to make clothing and furniture, they're exploited for human entertainment, they're used for the testing of a wide range of ingredients that end up in things like household products and cosmetics. Animal use is everywhere and the more you learn about when and where it does occur, the easier it'll be for you to make the transition. It may feel overwhelming at first, but arming yourself with information is key to making a smooth transition.


Look around to find a vegan group in your area. Barring that, find an online vegan forum or Facebook page or group where you can go and actually talk to other vegans about whether certain ingredients are vegan, whether certain less obvious activities involve animal exploitation, and where you can get tips or information on substitutes from others who've walked in your fabulous new non-leather shoes. There are many animal advocacy organizations right now offering vegan "kickstart" or "pledge" programs where for a limited period of time, they will hook you up with a vegan mentor of sorts -- a go-to person for any questions you may have -- and set you up with everything from nutritional info to meal plans for anywhere from 1-4 weeks. The Vegan Society has its Vegan Pledge program, for instance. For those living in the Philadelphia or Phoenixville areas in Pennsylvania or near Baltimore, Maryland, Philly's Peace Advocacy Network (PAN) offers a similar program, but with a focus on "in person" meetings, cooking classes, guest speakers along with the meal plans and mentoring. The Boston Vegan Association (BVA) offers newcomer orientation sessions and monthly meetings, guest speakers, invaluable information resources on its website and a discussion forum for the exchange of further information. The bottom line is that there's information out there and that there are vegans who are ready and willing to help you make the transition. Make contact with them! Heck, if you have any questions about any aspect of going vegan, feel free to drop me a line. If I don't know, I'll at least know where to look and would be glad to help.

Oh, and...

Cravings (if you have 'em) will subside. Better yet, if you do get the urge for this or that dish that you used to enjoy, there's a good chance that some fabulous food blogger has long-since veganized it and that the non-vegan main or secondary ingredients which would have been used in a given recipe have tasty vegan equivalents available on the market or are even altogether unnecessary. Hopefully, as you settle into being vegan, you'll also learn to look beyond the notion that most non-vegans hold that meals need to revolve around a chunk of animal protein and you'll learn to explore recipes which don't require vegan facsimiles of those chunks of animal protein. That being said, there are tons of substitutes for most animal products available on most store shelves right now, particularly for meat and dairy and whether or not you choose to use them is up to you. Whatever you do, if you poke around, you'll see that there's what seems to be an infinite number of scrumptious vegan recipes to be discovered, whether online, in cookbooks or by word of mouth in vegan discussion forums. Get out there and explore!

Cut Yourself Some Slack!

Nobody expects you to be an expert overnight. You may choose to start shuffling animal products out of your life gradually or you may clear your fridge, closet and medicine cabinet and go vegan immediately. Chances are that you'll fall somewhere in-between those two scenarios and the thing is that regardless of how quickly you decide to transition and of how determined you are, you may very well slip up and find yourself inadvertently and unintentionally consuming an animal product. You may miss an obscure ingredient on a package and suddenly find yourself noticing and identifying it as you're throwing the balled up plastic away. You may end up taking a huge bite out of one of the cookies a coworker's brought to the office after hearing assurances that it's vegan, only to find yourself then hearing "You eat eggs, don't you?" just as you've swallowed that bite. Accidents happen. Don't beat yourself up, but instead, learn from them and move forward.

To learn more about veganism and animal rights, please visit the Abolitionist Approach website.


Heidi said...

I agree, as abolitionist our most important task is vegan education. To that end we should now concentrate on producing resources that reach out to non vegans and give them a consistent vegan message - unlike so much other "vegan outreach" material. I have found in my own Facebook postings of links to vegan material that non vegans will not click or comment on anything with "vegan" in the title, but will read other material that gives the same message. Angel Finns posts are good for this.

Nicola said...

Loved this :-)

I've been vegan for 2 months now and although I've never been happier, there are times when it feels a little lonely, so the best piece of advice anyone has given me so far is to find a local vegan group. I only done this a few days ago and already it's made a massive difference, I've discovered vegan eateries and shops in my area that I didn't know existed, got in touch with activist groups and joined a potluck. With support like that there's no way you can fail to stay vegan and promote veganism. Absolutely essential!

DemiiPoet said...

Lovely read. I've been researching veganism (and its effect on the environment) for a couple of months now, but I've recently moved to Japan as an exchange student.

Would you happen to know of any good vegan sites/blogs about going vegan in Japan? If it matters/helps, I'm in Oita (Kyushu island).


M said...

Heidi, I agree. Angel and Gentle World (the group with which she is associated) definitely do clear and consistent abolitionist vegan outreach work. "Vegan" isn't a dirty word. :-)

Nicola, thank you. It's incredibly important to find some sort of support, especially when you have no other vegans in your life. Sometimes all it takes is one other vegan who can at least commiserate with you and share experiences. I'm glad that you managed to find a group.

DemiiPoet, there is a Vegan Society of Japan, but I know nothing about its politics or what kind of information resource it is. You could do a Google search for it.