Hello and happy Monday, all! I hope you’re doing well. Lately I’ve had some thoughts swirling about my head regarding veganism as an identity. I’ve written briefly on the topic before, inspired by bell hooks’ attempts to de-center the self, challenge our culture’s prevailing individualism, and emphasize feminist struggle as a political commitment by using the phrase “I advocate feminism” instead of “I am a feminist.” Perhaps applying this linguistic and conceptual shift to veganism would help to re-frame vegan consumption as something practiced as an extension of a political consciousness of anti-speciesism, rather than as a practice of consumerism designed to benefit human vegans by shifting the market in their favor.
This notion of conceptualizing veganism not as an identity but as a practice has prompted me to reflect upon my identity as it relates to food in general. Throughout my long-fraught history with food, I gauged my worth as a person by the amount I ate (or, perhaps more accurately, didn’t eat), how “healthily” I ate, and the manner in which I ate (at certain times of day, slowly or in a rushed state, etc.). Exceeding the arbitrary caloric limit I set for myself, consuming minimal amounts of refined sugar or white flour, and eating dinner at 5:50 instead of 6:00 resulted in feelings of unworthiness, and lack of willpower and self-discipline. These self-hating feelings suggest my internalization of a Western form of governmentality that seeks to produce healthy and fit bodies able to act productively in service of the state, and that does so by encouraging a mode of self-policing in its citizens through institutions such as schools, hospitals, the criminal legal system, and beyond.
I now actively stray from labeling myself in food-related terms like “salad-eater” and even “vegan,” largely because I seek to define myself beyond what I put into my body, which is exactly what I did for years to the severe detriment of my physical and mental well-being.
All of this is to say that I currently view the conceptualization of food-as-identity as potentially harmful to developing a more broadly articulated politics of anti-speciesism (as opposed to consumer-based veganism), as well as to my own holistic health (and perhaps others with histories of disordered eating can relate).
However, I do want to also emphasize the importance that food has had for the identities of marginalized people throughout history. Indeed, such peoples have used “[r]esistance to and through food as the exercise of power […] [in] spectacular public displays of starvation or everyday actions,small gestures of rebellion located in (un)authorized or (in)appropriate spaces where they did not quite fit” (Cooks 94). For example, in much of African-American culture, “food-centered gatherings are a forum wherein the history, wealth, spirit, creativity, resilience, and collective ethnic identity of the community is perpetuated” as a testament to the “wealth” that food provided to slaves when “it was available for them to share and enjoy when no other tangible resources were truly their own” (Liburd 161, 162).
This food-based form of maintaining cultural integrity and autonomy in the face of white supremacist racial oppression contributes to my immense discomfort with issuing blanket statements that frame vegan consumption practices as “the most ethical” or “healthiest” form of eating (for challenging white racial superiority by maintaining connections to cultural heritage through food that may involve the consumption of animals could certainly also constitute an ethical matter, while health conceptualized holistically may take the maintenance of such connections into account). This lack of cultural sensitivity that I often see in vegan rhetoric I think also points to the need for advocates of other animals to focus on speciesism as a social justice issue, rather than on vegan consumption as an end goal and moral imperative. In this context of food-based cultural connections, I see the latter focus as continuing to suggest that people of color are morally inferior to white people, and thus perpetuating the colonial mindset that began and proliferated the African slave trade.
So, while I no longer wish to define my own personal or political identities by what I eat, I understand that others of different life experiences may seek to establish food as an integral aspect of their identity in order to maintain autonomy in the face of white supremacy. And I, as a white vegan of upper-middle-class status, want to find ways to advocate for anti-speciesism without de-legitimizing such identity-based struggles. The best way I can think of to do this is to support the leadership of those at the margins of advocacy for other animals — the vegans of color, the queer vegans, the trans* vegans, the differently abled vegans — and to let them define the trajectory of our movement.
No recipe for today, but hopefully enough food for thought.
In solidarity, Ali.
Bisogni, Carole A., Margaret Conners, Carol M. Devine, and Jeffery Sobal. “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 34.3 (May-June 2002): 128-139. ScienceDirect. Web. 8 February 2015.
Cherry, Elizabeth, Colter Ellis, and Michaela DeSoucey. “Food for Thought, Thought for Food: Consumption, Identity, and Ethnography.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 40.2 (April 2011): 231-258. Sage Journals. Web. 8 February 2015.
Sneijder, Petra and Hedwig te Molder. “Normalizing Ideological Food Choice and Eating Practices. Identity Work in Online Discussions on Veganism.” Appetite 52.3 (June 2009): 621-630. ScienceDirect. Web. 8 February 2015.
Stead, Martine, Laura McDermott, Anne Marie MacKintosh, and Ashley Adamson. “Why Healthy Eating is Bad for Young People’s Health: Identity, Belonging and Food.” Social Science & Medicine 72.7 (April 2011): 1131-1139. Science Direct. Web. 8 February 2015.