Monday, March 04, 2013

Hey Lardass?

A few weeks ago, I had someone misinterpret something I had written in a vegan group email exchange. (Yes, I know: OMG! Something was misunderstood on the internet!) I'd cracked a pathetic joke about your average non-vegan man probably relatively packing away more animal products than your average non-vegan Hollywood starlet (i.e. strictly by virtue of their relative overall food consumption). I'm only ever accidentally funny, so it didn't surprise me that the attempt at lightheartedness fell flat. What did surprise me, however, was when someone took off on a tangent, pointing out to me that veganism and weight are unrelated (I had not suggested otherwise -- we'd been discussing two non-vegans). This somehow led to someone else's mentioning overweight vegan friends in a manner that conveyed that he was assuming the previous person's response had indeed been to my perhaps having suggested that non-vegans weigh more than vegans.

The funny thing about that is that I'm usually the first person who will pipe up to object when vegans sometimes lapse into diatribes about the supposed chronic obesity of those who consume animal products, or worse, who insist that going vegan will invariably lead to a 20-50 lb weight-loss. Not only have years gabbing it up online with other vegans shown me that this is in no way "invariable", but I can speak from experience about it. You see, I'm one of those vegans who didn't lose 10-50 lbs upon going vegan. Nope, I am one of those people who went vegan and actually gained weight. After years mired in my vegetarianism, though, I hadn't gone vegan for health reasons. Some friends and family members assumed as much, since my going vegan coincided with the death of my father following his short battle with cancer. And although at the time I certainly wasn't skinny, I most certainly hadn't gone vegan to lose weight. I'd gone vegan for ethical reasons, because a clear vegan message had left me unable to do anything but permanently connect the dots and make immediate (and permanent) changes to my overall life habits. Wandering into my late thirties may have been a contributing factor. An official "bum thyroid" diagnosis just a few years earlier may not have helped. Starting an office job where I sometimes work 10+ hours a day glued to my desk? Sure. The bottom line is that veganism was no panacea for the weight I ended up gaining.

I was left with it, internalizing comments and advice from friends, coworkers, family and romantic interests who made it a point to let me know that the weight gain had been noticed or that the weight gain was deemed unattractive. Eat less, exercise more. That's what the first person I dated after a lengthy years-long relationship's break-up advised on our first (and last) date. So I ate less. I counted calories for the first time in my life, shuffled a lot more raw fruits and vegetables into my diet and would juice for several days a month. I counted calories to the point of spending most of my day tracking every single thing going into my mouth. We're talking hours of plugging ingredients into online databases, or of crunching numbers factoring in the nutritional information on the backs of cans of food. Hell, I spent so much time crunching numbers that I had little time to eat -- or even exercise! Further disincentive to eating came from knowing I'd eventually have to spend an hour documenting a salad it might have taken me a mere 20 minutes to make and eat. I bought a bike and used it daily. I actually lost a lot of the weight... and when I went back to eating ordinary vegan meals, a lot of it just came right back. Life went on. The raw fruits and vegetables were reincorporated into my diet, albeit to a lesser extent during the long cold off-season months when a small head of romaine lettuce can cost as much as $4 at one of the local supermarkets. I kept bicycling. I kept working, blogging, dating -- basically living and loving, but no longer counting calories. I still found myself -- still find myself -- perpetually aware of my shell, even more so than I do of my perpetually over-thinking, introverted and existentialist inner-self. And although I no longer count calories, I still watch what I eat every single day, as if each and every item I put on my plate could possibly amplify that miserable hyper-awareness I've developed of my shell.

It was a strange experience to have found myself dealing with what became an almost painfully raw self-consciousness about my body -- whether of how I moved or how much space I occupied, and of how others around me observed me and judged me at the time. I'd grown up with a family member with body dysmorphic disorders and had a roommate in college who'd suffered from anorexia. As a child, I'd always felt awkwardness watching my mother pick at her food during bikini season and over having anyone and everyone constantly fawning over my older sister's "petiteness" at 93-95 lbs up into her teenage years, and in college I'd watched my roommate leave behind her a trail of broken-hearted college boys. I always felt that I was an observer and that I somehow managed to keep my emotional distance relatively unscathed. Let's face it, though: We live in a society which, if we cannot admit glorifies thinness, we can at least admit vilifies not-thinness and does so particularly with girls and women. I've watched my sister refuse to eat, heard my college roommate regurgitating her meals, have listened to my size 2 coworker verbalize the loathing she has for her rear (which she refers to as "Lardass", her purported "dating nemesis").

One of my own last relationships was with someone who constantly criticized how much I ate at the table, not because I ate too much around him (I didn't -- I was uncomfortable eating anything at all around him), but because he felt I should eat a lot less to bring my weight down to something comparable to that of his lifelong-thin marathon runner ex-wife's. He used the word "fat" as a weapon in arguments, but then it's hard not to think of the word as a weapon when it's used by anyone who isn't. And as someone who's well aware that she would still not be described as "thin" if she lost 20 lbs, hearing the word tossed around by loved ones -- family, friends, lovers -- invariably leaves me feeling as if that weapon is pointed directly at me. I've been in relationships with other men who've either referred to themselves with disgust as "fat" and who've fingered other women in public as such with equal amounts of disgust. It's no unless unnerving to see that weapon pointed at another.

This same body size fixation seems to permeate vegan circles but with a twist, since it's almost always tied to criticism of non-vegans. Even now, after years of observing it, it still sometimes astonishes me to see or hear the derision with which some vegans rant about omnivorism (non-veganism, really) and obesity, as if the two are inextricably linked. Aside from the ridiculousness of vilifying non-vegans when most of us who are vegan now once-upon-a-time weren't, and when most of us have loved ones who are non-vegan, it's jarring to hear people who concern themselves with others speciesism linking speciesism with a sort of discrimination which, more often than not, is wrapped in sexism or misogyny. It's also ridiculous since far from all vegans are thin and, as I've both seen and experienced, veganism is in no way guaranteed to lead to weight-loss. Less saturated fat? Possibly? Less bad cholesterol? Sure? But less calories? A more efficient metabolism? Nope. It's not in and of itself a 100% guaranteed panacea.

Aside from being off-the-mark in terms of the assumptions it carries with it, this vilification by some vegans of the overweight thus leads to a shaming of overweight vegans. Whether or not that shaming is inadvertent is irrelevant. Isn't it enough that vegans walk around expected by non-vegans to be exemplars in terms of having super-powered immune systems (e.g. if you get the sniffles, it's because you don't eat steak). Do we now need to drag body image into the equation when thinness is no more the vegan default than being overweight is for non-vegan omnis? What vegans should have in common is a rejection of animal exploitation. What abolitionist vegans should have in common is the rejection of speciesism and of other forms of discrimination. What sort of sense of community are we fostering as vegans when we perpetuate the wrongheaded belief that eating animal products = being fat, while not eating animal products = being thin? Also, what sort of message are we sending to young girls who choosing to reject speciesism and who find themselves teetering on the edges of a vegan community that tosses at them the same old body loathing messages they're already hearing from society? What are we reinforcing? Think about it.


Alex Chernavsky said...

Heh, I'm another example of someone who gained weight after going vegan. I did discover an interesting diet to lose weight. I wrote about it here:

That page is overdue for an update. My weight has continued to creep upward, and I'm currently around 202 lbs. But, I'm very sedentary, and I eat way more carbohydrates and junk food than I should.

hervor the howler said...

Thanks for sharing your story. One of the things I love about veganism is the promotion of compassion and non violence, but I have been surprised at how often those things are missing from vegan spaces.

Body policing and shaming with the vegan community is much the same as the nutrition policing that you wrote about last week. Using veganism to discriminate against sections of the population is digraceful. As a movement we need to promote inclusivity and be honest about the choices available to people within a vegan framework.

If we keep our eyes on the prize and say 'Hey, your veganism might look different from mine, and your choices might make no sense to me, but your veganism isn't about me and isn't it great that we are working toward this amazing, better world.' we have a much better chance of helping people become and stay vegan.

Vanilla Rose said...

You could try the lines, "I'm pleased I gained weight when I became vegan. I now really love my food and never feel bad about it."

Kerry said...

Catching up with the blogs Ifollow and I'm only just seeing this. Beautifully and eloquently written, and wonderful food for thought. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and I couldn't agree more with this.