Why Body-Shaming Has No Place in Animal Advocacy (Or Anywhere Else)

This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com

For two years, my friend Clare* attended fortnightly vegan potlucks in her town. She had felt welcomed when she first attended, and she became actively involved in her local vegan community as a result: baking for tabling events, helping to organise talks and to arrange meet-ups. After a while, though, things started to get a little uncomfortable: her friends weren’t as warm as they once were; little by little she stopped receiving invitations to events; eventually, she sensed she was being talked about. Then, at one potluck, she overheard a purported friend remark with astonishment that, since Clare had been vegan for so long and hadn’t lost weight, she must be consuming animal products in secret.

Clare avoids all vegan events now. She doesn’t attend the small, local vegan fair; she avoids potlucks and meet-ups; and as much as she’d like to advocate face-to-face, all of her advocacy is now online. This is not because she’s reluctant to meet the people who treated her so cruelly; rather, as she puts it herself, she worries that other people will see her as a “bad ambassador for veganism.” She, an articulate, thoughtful, reflective activist, is avoiding something at which she excels—engaging people in conversation about veganism—as a result of the implication by other vegans that, because of her body composition, she is a less worthy vegan than they.

There is a factor at play here that seems to be specific to veganism: Clare’s body was marked as a site of immorality that goes beyond the usual discrimination and oppression that we see outside of vegan culture. Her body was labelled a non-vegan body: a body that others deemed to be evidence of her participation in animal exploitation, and it became a weapon to exclude her from vegan circles.

Body-shaming, for those who are unacquainted with the concept, involves remarking on or assessing the body of another person with the intention of making them feel ashamed, or to denigrate or humiliate them. It involves making aesthetic judgements on someone else’s appearance, making jokes about their size or shape, or relating their bodies to their moral worth.

This kind of body-shaming discourse echoes through many pages dedicated to specific modes of plant-based eating, and it permeates PETA’s glorification of the thin, white, able-bodied lettuce lady and its use of fat-shaming to promote a “vegetarian” diet. Similarly, a number of well-known raw food bloggers use discriminatory language to promote their diets, depicting people without thigh gaps, concave stomachs, or protruding clavicles as unworthy and flawed.

At the same time, many doctors and advocates who promote a whole foods plant-based diet refer to its health benefits generally, and do discuss health and weight as causally linked; this does not constitute shaming per se, any more than does a discussion of the connection between health and any other lifestyle factors. 

Here, though, is an example of how discussions of weight ought not be conducted. Dr John McDougall, in a 2008 newsletter, writes in an essay called “The Fat Vegan”:

“You may consider this title an oxymoron—a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms, but in real life this concurrence is all too common. You may also think the title is offensive. My intention is to help, not to provoke anger. […] Fat vegans […] have failed one important animal: themselves. Furthermore, their audience of meat-eaters and animal-abusers may be so distracted by their appearance that they cannot hear the vital issues of animal rights and the environment; resulting in an unacknowledged setback for a fat vegan’s hard work for change.”

Not only does McDougall pass moral judgement on the individual (“failure”), he also employs many oppressive tropes from the object-of-spectacle trope to the bad ambassador trope. He concludes his essay with the following statement:

“Obviously vegans are exceptional people. With this one simple shift to a starch-based diet the word ‘vegan’ will become synonymous with terms like healthy, trim, active, young, strong, and energetic, and finally the most important adjective, earth-changing.”

Here, McDougall conflates efficacy in advocacy and appearance, and confuses reception of a moral message with arbitrary facts about the person who delivers it. Surely, where those like McDougall see fit to discus issues of weight as a matter in terms of plant-based eating, they ought to strive to do so without objectifying individuals and passing moral judgements upon them.

The prevalence of passing body-shaming in vegan circles as either a purported motivator for becoming vegan or as a way of seeking to diminish the contribution of other advocates is not only incredibly harmful to other humans, it is also doing nonhuman animals a disservice. We all associate diets with deprivation. Diets are punitive, and we adopt them as temporary measures, enthusiastic at first about whatever promises they make, and then eager for them to end so that we can resume our old behaviours. Portraying veganism as a diet not only excludes some nonhuman animals (those not used for food) from the circle of our concern, but it also creates negative connotations around veganism itself.

The idea that one’s physical appearance has anything to do with our moral obligations to nonhuman animals is a misdirection of the most harmful sort, as is the discriminatory view that one’s physical self can be in any way read as representative of one’s ethical stance or commitment to justice. Nor is one’s body size or shape in any way related to one’s worth. Those ‘vegans’ who participate in body-shaming directly, or who make the vegans who don’t conform to their ideal body image invisible by portraying veganism as a weight-loss plan, are alienating both fellow vegans and potential vegans. Using one form of discrimination to try to end another should never be a tactic that we employ.

I have Clare’s permission to share her story. Her name has been changed at her request.

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