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What goes in

April 8, 2009

When someone asks you why you are a vegetarian, they want one of two answers: it’s about the animals, or it’s about my health. Only rarely are they interested in anything more complicated than that. Unfortunately for discussing my vegetarianism with my extended family, and even some friends, I choose not to eat meat for reasons of health and morality, which to me are inextricable. I want to be good to my body and to the earth, and failing one is the same to me as failing both.

My grandmother, who routinely serves two or three different meats at a single meal, calls this my “diet,” as in, “Are you still on your diet?” She does not do this because I have selected a set of foods to consume in accord with a particular philosophy, if slightly more complicated than that of South Beach. Rather, it’s because I dropped about 10 pounds when I first dropped meat.

While most people who don’t “get” vegetarianism are more on the wavelength of my grandmother than of a Giles Coren–a columnist for The Times (London), who suggested that vegetarianism was more or less an eating disorder on par with anorexia nervosa or bulemia–the idea that food can be imbued with an ethics irrespective of its relationship to your weight is not something most people can take.

I’m a you-are-what-you-eat, Circle of Life kind of vegetarian. We eat history: the molecules of former bodies, of prior times, and then they become part of us. Our work, our lives, ought to honor that history that fuels us. But also, our diet ought to honor our social justice action. That can mean different things for different people, but for me that means avoiding meat, a class of food with lots of social justice implications, environmental, socioeconomic, and ethical. I do not want to power a body fighting for justice with food that promotes injustice.

This is how I began, and this I still believe. But I also learned that being a vegetarian made me think critically and constantly about what I put in my body. It made me think about my health, bodily health, something that can sometimes escape us scholars, who tend to focus on our minds and not the corporeal. I began to pay attention to my body. I can tell now when I need protein, sugar, calcium. I can tell what foods will improve my mood, or prevent a headache. I listen to my body.

And I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it better. Not thinner, or flatter, or smoother. Better.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    April 8, 2009 1:00 AM

    I think it is interesting how everyone seems to have a right to an opinion about someone’s vegetarianism; to judge what they put in their body and why. Personally, my vegetarianism was strictly political – I felt hypocritical being an environmentalist while supporting the heinous meat industry with my purchasing choices. Therefore, although I sometimes got sick of explaining myself, since my decision was one concerning the public sphere of politics, I felt like it was acceptable for someone to debate or challenge my views.

    This has changed however, since I have started eating fish and poultry again. I found that my body just feels better when I eat these foods, and it is easier for me to find/make healthy meals while eating meat. This was a personal decision about me and my body, but it still, apparently is something everyone has a right to debate. I’ve found myself in debates with vegetarians about my choice to eat what makes me feel healthy, as if they have a right to an opinion on it. I’m kind of sick of having to defend my eating choices to everyone. But I guess this is in all realms of our life, not just pertaining to meat.

    I think it is interesting how much we believe we can judge what is healthy for someone else. Although I understand there are basic guidelines of what is good to put into your body, I think it is really damaging to treat all bodies like they are the same, and judge what makes someone else feel good about their bodies. There are so many examples of this from diets, to the food period, to asking someone who is “overweight” whether they should really have that second piece. I think it is really damaging to give advice in magazines about how many calories you should eat, or what foods to avoid, or model diets as if everyone’s body needs the same fuel. This type of mindset hinders people from coming to the place where you have, of understanding how you need to feed your body and yourself to make yourself feel good.

    • Jill permalink
      April 8, 2009 12:50 PM

      It’s striking how much food is something to be commented on. It’s so disconnected now from its nourishing purpose, and it doesn’t matter if it tastes good, or makes us feel better (that goes for “junk” food especially–I stand firmly by the restorative power of kettle chips). Why should anyone be able to say, “Why are you/aren’t you eating that?”

      I’ve often found that omnivores take vegetarianism as a personal affront to their eating habits. They get really defensive, or say something like, “I could never be a vegetarian; I love meat too much!” Of course there are cultural standards for eating that are policed to some extent, but I wonder why people feel so entitled to comment on food. And I wonder if men experience it in the same way as women do.

  2. Lyndsay permalink
    April 13, 2009 2:39 AM

    “I’ve often found that omnivores take vegetarianism as a personal affront to their eating habits. They get really defensive, or say something like, “I could never be a vegetarian; I love meat too much!””

    Yes! Well, I don’t know if people actually take it as a personal affront or if I am just oversensitive and expect that they will.

    When someone asks why I don’t eat meat, I never know what to answer. I want to ask them why they are asking or if they are truly interested but I don’t know how to ask that nicely. Because there are the people who are truly interested and then there are the people who probably just ask because they are not used to meeting people who don’t eat meat and the question just comes out but they don’t really care about the reason. I think thankfully people at my university are used to meeting people who are vegetarian so they more commonly ask how long I’ve been vegetarian.

    Oh, I kind of hate the word vegetarian but people kept calling me that so I started to think of myself as that. I figured if I call myself vegetarian people who know I am will judge me if eat meat ever. I probably eat meat about four times a year and only when it’s cooked in a really amazing way and my appetite for it is generally satisfied by a couple bites. But if people think of me as a rare meat eater and not as a vegetarian, I feel like they might expect me to eat something with meat if I go to their house. So I’m vegetarian. And my grand-ma still tries to feed me meat. And when I say no, my grand-pa starts commenting about how meat never hurt anyone and it’s good for you and what’s wrong with a little meat. Uh, when it started it never was about the health issues even though now I’ve realized how much saturated fat red meat can have compared to something like fish or plant food. Anyway, this is so long but I know how you feel.


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