vegans & body image: gabrielle

Welcome to the second installment of Vegans & Body Image, a biweekly series in which vegans share their stories and thoughts on body image in general, and what effect, if any, veganism has on it.

Gabrielle Pope is a writer, a thinker…and a Canadian. I’d say I’ve been lucky to present sessions at both Vida Vegan Cons with her, but luck had nothing to do with it—I totally planned it that way. Curl up with a mug of tea (or a glass of cider) and read what this smart lady has to share.

gabrielleGabrielle, 31, female, thinnish

I’ve been vegan for ten years now, vegetarian for seven before that. I stopped eating meat as a teenager because I’d always hated it, but as teenagers tend to do, I became obsessed with this new part of my identity (The Vegetarian), and I read up on a lot of harrowing and awful things about the meat industry. I was horrified and vowed never to ever touch meat again, despite living in a redneck prairie town where friends’ families owned cattle feedlots. I definitely ate too many bagels with cream cheese, and I remember the day Burger King (the dining option of choice next to my high school) implemented a veggie burger. It was a revolting burger, but it was totally the best day of my life.

I went vegan at 20, after thinking about it forever (I knew the horrors of the dairy industry), but also because I’d just moved to a much more vegan-friendly city (Victoria, British Columbia), where there were vegan muffins on the university campus! It was such an easy transition—the only nonvegan thing I ever really liked was cheese, which I didn’t crave at all once I stopped eating it—and was actually really budget-friendly for a student. I still ate rather poorly, and at the time developed an eating disorder that became severe, but that had nothing to do with veganism and everything to do with a self-loathing and perfectionism that had haunted me my whole life. Even during hospital stays, I was offered vegan burgers and soymilk, so I thank Victoria for that! When I recovered (at 24-ish), I worked as an organic produce manager and became hyped on cooking and have loved vegan cooking ever since.

Today, I am pretty healthy, reasonably strong just from hauling things around at my job, but I am on the thin side as of late, and have a small appetite. I am completely disinterested in gyms and traditional fitness, but I do try to stay reasonably active just by walking, yoga, hiking, and swimming (actually, I am a terrible swimmer and I just let the whirlpool push me around while I gossip with friends). Because of my history, I get my back up when friends and strangers obsess about their bodies (because every body is beautiful) and punish themselves for whatever transgression has led to whatever they look like at a given moment. I have patience and understanding for it, because I’ve been there, but it makes me extremely sad that our culture encourages this obsession with weight and appearance.

I also really dislike it when people comment on my body. I would much rather they engage me in conversation, because though my body is important, my SELF and my mind could be encased in anything, and it’s like spending weeks criticizing a present-wrapping job rather than opening the present and finding something special from someone who cares about you.

Veganism does affect my body image, in that I feel healthy and passionate about cooking both healthy and totally unhealthy (but all vegan!) foods. Learning to cook was a huge bolster for me in finding acceptance with my body. I think so much more about what I’m eating instead of distractedly and shamefully shoving food in my mouth. I would even go so far as to say that my eating disorder was a direct result of my total and complete disconnect with food (due to oversensitivity and self-loathing, but still, food was just my drug of choice).

Healthy to me means happy. If I were on a no-oil, no-sugar, no-booze “plant-based” diet, I would be miserable. I need balance, and I need those rich Indian curries and that fried Buffalo seitan as much as I need huge salads and soups. In terms of diet, I think healthy means listening to both your body and your mind. Like maybe my body doesn’t need that bag of potato chips, but they are REALLY good chips so I’m going to eat them because I deserve it and they aren’t going to negate the healthier things I’ve eaten that day. I am vehemently against labeling certain things (oil, salt, sugar, booze) as evil.

The vegan ambassador question is interesting. Currently, I am very anemic (it runs in my family), and my coworkers who know about my veganism are quick to blame it on my diet. It makes me feel ashamed to be heralding veganism when I’ve recently lost a bit of weight and have very visible bruising along with fatigue, but it’s absolutely confounding that people are allowed to blame any health problem on a diet and lifestyle choice. When would I shame someone for being obese because they eat at McDonald’s every day? Never! We all get sick, and we can’t control genetics. Our bodies are all imperfect. Veganism is about spirituality for me just as much as it is about the animals. And I get to eat really delicious food. The End.

Thank you, Gabrielle!

 Read others in the series, and please share your story. Find more info here or email me at VegtasticVoyage@gmail.com.

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my vida vegan con 2013: body image

vvc2013 wideshot

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.