Kermit said it first, but it bears repeating: it ain’t easy being green. I’m referring here specifically to eating vegan.
I live in a major Southern city and although the vegan fare here isn’t as awesomely abundant as it is in other cities like New York, Philadelphia, or LA, it’s a universe away from the rural South from whence I come. There are a few specifically vegan restaurants and bakeries, and most other restaurants will veganize on request. Vegan items are increasingly easy to find in grocery stores. Even still, it’s not always easy to find suitable food options because they aren’t as readily available and plentiful as standard animal-based eats.
This kind of ease of access is just some of the resistance I regularly encounter and have therefore come to expect with regard to my plant-based diet. I also experience it in other ways, such as lack of familial or community support for the diet. Interpersonally, I’ve endured good-hearted teasing from friends, mostly around specific food items. Quinoa, for example, has been referred to as “birdcage in a bowl,” because it apparently resembles bird droppings or bird feed. (I’ve never had a bird or any real experience with them, so I have no frame of reference for this). Because they’re not made of meat, friends have speculated that phallic Fieldroast sausages are really “tree penises.” I’ve encountered earnest and sincere concern that my dietary needs aren’t sufficiently being met through vegan food. My rural Southern parents have expressed outright confusion and some of the snarky hipster foodies I know who think both meat and Anthony Bourdain are synonymous with “gourmet,” most often react with passive aggressive disparagement.
As a sociologist by training, I am endlessly obsessed with human behavior–understanding why people do what they do and what motivates them. Add to that the fact that I obsess about food and regularly wonder why more people don’t share my passion for healthy eating, I can’t help but wonder what fuels and facilitates obstacles and resistance to eating vegan. The evidence is unequivocal and mounting: plant-based diets offer remarkable and innumerable benefits for human health and are necessary for preserving both environmental and human wellness. In spite of all this, obstacles and resistance are commonplace.
This is due, in part, to the way that animal-based foods are marketed to consumers and represented generally. Because animal-based foods comprise much of most of our traditional meals, they are considered wholesome, delicious, well-balanced, full of endless options. More recently, some of them are being marketed as humane and/or sustainable as well. For these reasons, animal-based foods are seen as appropriate for everyone.
As a sociologist, this is as clear as day to me. In many ways, our society is built on opposites. Virtually everything is constructed, and therefore understood, in antithetical terms–black and white, poor and rich, fat and thin, male and female, straight and gay. One can’t–and doesn’t–exist without the other. Because of the aforementioned ways animal based foods are commonly regarded, vegan fare is largely contrasted as unappetizing, restrictive, nutritionally limited, and a deviation from the norm suitable only for select people.
It goes deeper than this, though. Food is more than a theory or an idea. It’s something we partake of daily, and usually more than once. It’s something we associate with love, care, celebration, solace, and comfort. It’s deeply intimate and intensely special, and critiques, amendments, or overhauls may be experienced on some level as personal affronts. This too, I think, helps account for mainstream resistance to plant-based diets.
Vegan foods are not only appropriate for some, they’re ideal for everyone. Regardless of whatever differences define or characterize what and how we eat, everyone wants their food to taste good; they want to enjoy it. Done. When done right, vegan food–just like everything else–tastes great. Even if I had actual mathematical skill or ability, I doubt I could count the number of times over the years that someone has expressed surprise over how tasty whatever vegan goodness I had was. There is virtually no animal-based food anyone could want to eat that doesn’t have a comparable and delicious vegan version or alternative. Based on the universal criteria of taste alone, plant-based foods are fitting for everyone.
Of course, vegan does not necessarily equal healthy, but the fact remains that even the worst vegan foods (e.g., cupcakes, pizza) are healthier than their non-vegan counterparts, with no cholesterol or saturated fat and almost always having far fewer calories. Add to that the unmitigated environmental advantages of a plant-based diet and it’s really plainly obvious: eating vegan isn’t just for some bodies, it’s for everybody.
It’s been argued that it’s unrealistic for everyone to adopt a vegan diet, and this may likely be so. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic for the numbers of people who do so to continue to grow, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic for people to reduce the amount of animal-based foods they regularly consume. The way to achieve this is the way any social progress is made–through education.
Both macro and micro education are important. Broadly speaking, the amount of supportive research and celebrity exposure shows no sign of stopping. On a micro level, those of us whose diets are plant-based must continue to be open and accessible to others about it; in a sense, we must continue to minister about it. Knowing or being acquainted with someone whose views or lifestyle are different from one’s own helps grease the wheels of social change by personalizing difference. Obstacles to the mainstreaming of veganism will be more successfully countered when we understand how and why they exist.
Brook Bolen: Born and raised in Appalachia, Brook Bolen is a bona fide country girl who now lives in the heart of the Dirty South. When she isn’t growing heirloom tomatoes as red as her hair, she is pursuing social justice and videos of baby animals online. A freelance writer and proud pitbull mama, Brook eats like a rabid vegan wolverine.
Image Source: Madeleine Ball/Flickr