Confession. I used to be a vegan and then I fell off the wagon, big style, following a bite of very delicious pastrami sandwich.
Part of it was to do with recovering from my eating disorder (for more on this see my interview with Harriet Williamson here) and a process I have had to go through, and continually go through, is about having a healthy relationship with food and not using it to cause myself harm.
However old habits die hard – a vegetarian since the age of 8, I have always been uncomfortable with animal exploitation. And so even after my lapse, at age 19, into meat eating, I’ve spun round and round the veggie / vegan / omnivore merry-go-round for many years.
Recently I had a bit of a revelation, after chatting with my – proper vegan, not bad vegan like me – friend Hannah about this. We had only recently begun to know each other and I worried about being judged when I mentioned that I used to be vegan, but that now I eat everything, as I am in recovery from an eating disorder and need to be careful not to trigger behaviours that lead to me being in a locked ward with a feeding tube up my nose. You know. And her reaction was lovely.
H: You’re doing the best you can. That’s all we all do. No one is a proper vegan.
H: Yeah really. There are animal products in almost everything, all we can do until things change structurally is try to minimise harm through our choices we make. Don’t feel bad about not being perfect, every small step helps.
That was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. I realised that while she was not judging me AT ALL for being a flexitarian and having the occasional bite of chorizo, it is I that judge myself as bad, for not being a good enough vegan, so then the cognitive dissonance leads to my brain going – uh-uh, don’t even try, forgetaboutit – and then basically blocking veganism out of my brain since I feel I don’t live up to it, and therefore it’s too upsetting to think about it, so blinders go back on and I carry on as normal.
However the further revelation, beyond my cognitive dissonance and pulling of the wool over my own eyes, was that I can actually do something about this. If I treat myself more kindly and judge myself less, I can actually be a better vegan. I might be a bad vegan, I might occasionally eat other things, but if I am gentle with myself then ironically, I feel more free to move towards a plant based diet and make more ethical choices. The admission and realisation that it is good to try, that you don’t have to be perfect – that is the key.
Before, with my type A, perfectionistic, recovering anorexic personality, things were ALL or nothing. I don’t do things half-assed. So for me, veganism then morphed into something toxic – it morphed from being a concern about the animals into a restriction of my diet from no animal products, then no fat, then all raw, then only fruit, then fasting, etc etc until I was in the hospital again. It got to the point where I was scared to go running, because I was worried about the bugs I was treading on. There is a real risk, with my history, for veganism to morph into a form of OCD. And to recover from my past, and to engage constructively and healthily with veganism, I have to embrace being a crap vegan (TM).
So here goes – I am coming out. I am not perfect. I eat meat sometimes (rarely). I avoid it whenever possible. I always use non-dairy milk, a hangover from my vegan days – I truly don’t like the taste of dairy milk anymore. I eat cheese occasionally, though the thought more and more turns my stomach. I will never eat chicken again, not after seeing with my own eyes a truck full of hundreds of chickens being transported, squished down, wings stretching trying to escape from the plastic crates, stacked on top of each other, genuinely, pooing on each other like the horror stories that you hear but I saw it in real life. I am trying to phase out eggs. I am doing the best I can, and eat maybe 90% vegan. I am pruning products tested on animals from my life.
The only way to not drive myself mad is to not put pressure on myself to be perfect. And paradoxically, the less I push myself, the more freedom I feel to make better choices. And I wonder how many others feel the same way. Vegans have a reputation for being judgemental; I think that’s wrong, given that all my years being vegan it was mainly ME being judged by the omnivores around me for my food choices. However the stereotype persists. I’d like to break it down.
It’s ok to be a crap vegan.
It’s better than not being a vegan at all.
It’s ok to not be perfect.
I am a Bad Vegan (TM) and I want you to be one too. If you’re worried about being judged, fear not. Do your best, small steps in the right direction will make a big difference. Social change happens when the masses embrace change, and it feels like this is happening now on so many levels, with vegan food becoming more accessible, vegan options in many restaurants, a recognition of people’s different needs and food tolerances. We are no longer perceived to be the weirdos that we were 10 years ago – soon, people that are not moving in an ethical direction with their diets will be the weirdos.
Now excuse me, I’m going to go drink my almond milk coffee. Viva la bad vegan.