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my vida vegan con 2013: body image

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This is going to have to be the first of a few post, methinks, because my Vida Vegan Con weekend was a rather full one. There’s bound to be a nice little reflective one, a la my 2011 posts, but I want to dive right in to one of the panels I spoke on, because the issue sort of rippled throughout the conference: Body Image Acceptance & Veganism.

Coincidentally (or thanks to some heads-down hard work), T.O.F.U. magazine released its Body Image issue this same weekend, which includes articles by myself and co-panelist Chelsea Lincoln. And a few other classes touched on social issues including body-shaming tactics and other not-so-compassionate speech used in support of the vegan cause. This conference setting was perfect for the discussion of this relationship between body image and veganism for a few reasons: We were a huge cross-section of vegans (socially, physically, and globally), we were there in a spirit of community, eager to bond with others involved in our common cause of a cruelty-free life, and as most of us were bloggers, we would ideally put this dialogue into our work, reaching thousands of others.

Since I was so busy with the rest of the conference, I didn’t overthink this session as I normally would have. No, aside from a couple of quick emails from moderator Laura Beck and co-panelists Chelsea, Gabrielle Pope, and Nicole Sopko, I was just ready to answer some questions and be honest and, well, uncomfortable. In front of a packed room. Like, more-people-than-seats packed. Like, so-glad-I-was-exhausted-or-I-would-have-been-way-more-nervous packed. OK, so anxiety may have started to creep in after both Laura and Gabrielle mentioned my T.O.F.U. article—I felt a little less anonymous and a lot more exposed. And we were going to be using words like “fat” and “skinny,” words that mean different things to different people, in front of strangers who maybe didn’t know where we were coming from.

But this was an important discussion to be had. Remember the body image survey I set up a while ago? (It’s still open, by the way, and I have more plans for the data, so if you’d like to add to it…) The response and results have really sparked something in me. We, as vegans, are inherently activists and ambassadors, and the more internal issues we have the less effective we’re going to be. Aside from that, simply as people living together on our planet, we must spread compassion in all forms, and that includes toward ourselves.

For those of you (most of you) who were not present at the panel, I just want to give you a snapshot of each speaker:

Laura is a fat vegan. She has tried a gazillion diets and forms of exercise and keeps coming back to the same shape. She has gotten to a place where she can embrace herself, eat what she wants, do what she wants, and say what she wants—and if you don’t like it you can piss off. She owes you nothing (but is still so sweet and caring).

Gabrielle is a skinny vegan. She has recovered from her eating disorder, partially thanks to veganism, in that her food choices are less about her now and more about the animals. She urges people to open up and talk about disorders; as we feel less alone we are better able to break that focus on ourselves.

Chelsea is a fat vegan. She is very physically active and monitors her health (it’s good!), and her weight/shape is her set point. Having put up with bullying for most of her life, embracing “fat” has been the key to her happiness. She works hard to clean up animal activism, calling out people/campaigns for their shaming language.

Nicole is a skinny vegan. A yoga instructor and student, her bodywork is directly connected to her spirit/mindwork. While she is in what could be seen as a fitness industry, she is not striving for any particular body shape—such attachment goes against her teaching. She urges us to listen to our inner dialogue, as it guides us throughout life.

Then there’s me. I’m something in between. I’m just big/loose enough to not be comfortable in a swimsuit but just small enough to not be chubby. I’ve fought with my body in the past, through illness (remind me to tell you about that sometime), and now I’m sort of striving for maintenance. Or something.

So each panelist was coming from a different place, but we all agreed on one thing: Shaming has zero place in our world, especially when it comes to activism. Whether it’s fat-shaming or skinny-shaming, you’re putting someone down to raise your cause, and that’s pretty messed up.

When this type of thing—the “real women have curves” movement—popped up, people were quick to embrace it. As if holding ANY one body type over another is positive! Why is it acceptable to shame a size-zero lady? Because they have it easier? Do they? I pulled this image from MoveOn.org, and the title is “anorexic.” It was used to spread awareness of eating disorders, implying that these women in the top row have eating disorders. Either way, why would it be OK to shame them?

After the “Save the Whales. Lose the Blubber. Go Vegetarian” campaign blew up in its face, PETA has pretty much stuck to male fat-shaming billboards. Seriously, this is available on the media center page of the official website, along with a bunch of others. Because men don’t complain as much? Because men don’t have issues with body image? False. Men also worry about being too fat, too skinny, too old—you name it.

And what does this mean for veganism? Do we all have to look like the right kind of healthy to serve as ambassadors? Do we even have a responsibility to be healthy? Some of the panelists and attendees echoed the sentiment that we do feel pressure to represent vegans in the best light possible. Whether that means changing ourselves (by either masking or modifying our bodies, and appearing vibrant and healthy) or simply being another face of veganism and a source of compassion is a tough question for many. Unfortunately, our society has this ideal so firmly in place that regardless of what you do—whether you’re a politician, a doctor, a teacher, or an activist—your authority and level of respect is linked to how closely your physical being matches up to this ideal. To fight against that is very difficult.

Obviously, I’m not going to cover our hour-plus session completely here (and videorecording the conference would have cost more than my car, so that’s not an option), but I hope I gave you a flavor and a starting point for discussion. And here are a few takeaways:

  • Regardless of how you categorize your body, know that there are others who share this label. Within this group, some are beat down by it, some have embraced it, and some don’t see the point in feeling either way about it.
  • Be mindful of your language and image use. Even if you are using it for what you see as a greater good, it could be a horrifying trigger for someone else. You can’t control or take responsibility for everyone’s baggage, but a little mindfulness and compassion go a long way.
  • Vegans get sick too. We are affected by disease and misfortune, and our vegan diet may or may not have anything to do with it. This is a private matter, and your journey through it is your own.
  • Be a face of veganism. We are all valid. Whatever someone’s singular image of a vegan is, let’s widen it. We are people. We look like people. Be one of the people.

10 thoughts on “my vida vegan con 2013: body image

  1. This is great and I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had more often – and obviously is starting to be out there on vegan blogs. I read JL’s post on stopchasingskinny.com the other day about people at the conference basically health-shaming the conference organizers over the “lack of greens” and how this talk made others feel. My comment there applies to your discussion here as well: the more we let some people make vegan/vegetarianism about certain ideals (of “health” or body style or even a certain image of what “should” be on a plate at any given meal – not all vegans eat kale three times a day!!), the less the wider public will want to be associated with it. As that happens, people, the animals, and the earth lose.

    • I’ll have to check out JL’s post. (Not for nothin’, we made sure there were raw, gluten-free, soy-free, and nut-free options at every meal.)

      But yes, we eat seeds and greens, middle-ground foods like seitan and soymilk, AND ultraprocessed fakey meats and the occasional Oreo. Like real people.

      I so wish I had a recording of the session–we talked about the pros & cons of “health vegans,” much more about the responsibility of vegan ambassadors (even as to whether it exists), and general hurtful behavior (like saying things such as “I’m so ashamed I ate two brownies last night.” As if anyone really judges you for how much you ate…other than wishing they hadn’t missed out on those brownies). I couldn’t have asked for better panelists. These ladies were so open and willing to share. I would also love to have men get in on the conversation. My survey results from men prove they have very similar issues.

      • I wish you had a recording too, for those of us not there. If you find anyone who has it, I’d love the link. Thanks!

  2. You are so awesome. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful recap of the Body Image panel. I was really sorry to miss it. So many interesting ideas here. I love “We are people. We look like people.” !! I’ve been thinking about that lately… just marveling at all the shapes and sizes and faces out there in the world. Love to you

    • You are! And it’s so important to have a broader view of what a vegan looks like, beyond body shape. I wish I could have gone to Terry & Mo’s Vegans of Color talk — how can we blast this image of the cookie-cutter vegan? Even the covers of VegNews & Laika, the NYT Best-seller author photos, they all look the same. While that could inspire some veg-curious folk, it does a lot more harm than good.

  3. Great insightful summary of a talk that I wanted to go to but missed. I am happy to hear that all sides of the issue were discussed, particularly the aspect of “skinny shaming” which generally people don’t tend to think can be hurtful. The ideas you present here are definitely something I am going to be more mindful of.

    • Nicole was hesitant to be on the panel because she said she often feels like nobody wants to hear from the thinner ladies–as if they’re not a valid voice. Proof that it’s a necessary voice, right there. Every voice is valid in this fight for respect and compassion toward all.

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