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Why do so many teenage vegans eventually renounce animal rights?

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The story was legendary: A fixture of suburban the Richmond, Virginia vegan straight-edge community (or more realistically, clique, as this was high school) had broken vegan after years of aggressive preaching by consuming a KFC Doubledown. Did the sandwich, which consisted as two pieces of chicken holding a filling of cheese and bacon, probably wreck his digestive system? Likely. Were the students at the school I attended gleeful to hear about the boy’s vegan downfall? Oh, absolutely. Being confronted with questions of ethics in high school can feel strange and out of place in such a hostile environment that usually encourages looking out for oneself before caring about the rights of other humans or animals, and the more enthusiastic a teenage vegan was with their convictions, the more pleased we found ourselves when they inevitably fucked up.

I didn’t know if this was a phenomenon limited only to Richmond, so I asked my friend who grew up outside of DC if this was a trend he had observed in another town that leaned towards being ethically conscious. He responded with a screenshot of a photo of a former high school peer’s car that had a “Go Vegan!” Bumper sticker on the back. “I eat egg and milk products now,” the person stated in the comments section. My partner, having grown up outside of Boston, Massachusetts, confirmed that a similar trend was present among teenagers up in New England. Of course, I can’t provide a peer-reviewed study about “teens who broke vegan,” but perhaps you too grew up or live in a town where ethics were widely discussed, veganism was the end result, and the lifestyle commitments were short lived.

Why might vegan teenagers find themselves falling out of commitment so early in their lives? In order to better help vegan youth, it’s important to take note of the challenges they’re facing.

Their peers are rarely supportive.

I will fully admit that despite being what some might consider a “preachy” vegan today, I spent my youth being a total asshole to my peers who stopped consuming all animal products. While vegetarianism was interesting to me, I gave the diet a shot a few times but would usually slip up merely hours into my homeroom musings by the time the lunch bell rang. Vegans, on the other hand, were revolting to high school students across the board. There was a certain “I’m better than you” assumption that was definitely not helped by the fact that teenagers only have so much experience as communicators, and yes, on occasion, misrepresented veganism.

Not every young vegan experience happens within a baby-punk bubble community such as the ones in Boston and DC, and despite not having experience in suburbs where “vegan-edge” was not a lifestyle that even the parents had a working knowledge with, I doubt that the young vegan’s experience is much different anywhere else. Growing up isn’t an experience that causes many of us to look back and think, “wow, I felt entirely accepted and well loved during the duration those years!”

If being vegan makes a teenager a target for bullying, it makes perfect sense that this is a lifestyle that a youth might find themselves abandoning and renouncing with gusto. Being picked on sucks, but veganism is a choice unlike personality quirks or physical appearance, and so it’s easy to kick it to the curb when the going gets too tough. I don’t judge teenagers for this as much as I desperately wish the larger movement would wake up and realize that we have to take care of our own, especially when they are in vulnerable positions and are possibly seeking out vegan role models that just aren’t available or visible. I’ve mentioned TeenVGN, the Veg Youth Alliance, and YEACamp as available social networks for young people to tap into, and commend their efforts to make vegan support and education accessible.

Their families may be openly hostile.

Veganism may be scrutinized by adult relatives as silly, unhealthy, or simply just a means to rebel, much to the detriment of young folks struggling to make the most ethical choices. Many of us grew up in families where you eat what is on the table, or you don’t eat a meal, and while this is seen as a way to curb picky or unappreciative eating, being vegan isn’t being a “picky eater” at all. Adding grocery shopping to the laundry list of things teenagers need to worry about is rarely helpful, and discourages youth from going vegan to begin with since they’re often left on their own.

A lack of understanding can cause adult family members to act unkindly. Fewer things are more stressful on a teenager than parents or live-in relatives treating them poorly when they are trying to do what they know is the right thing and most ethical choice. I strongly feel that family hostility not only causes many vegan youth to give up, but to take it a step further the older they get and participate in meat fetishizing culture than has no problem with harassing vegans due to the poor emotions associated with making the lifestyle change. As I mentioned above, this all comes back to stronger support systems and more enthusiastic encouragement for the youth who are joining the animal rights movement, because it’s a possibility that they aren’t getting what they need at home.

Teenagers must be given the freedom to make ethical choices without it being labeled as “trendy.”
Dismissing the problem of young vegans falling off the bandwagon as a result of “being a teenager” is ignorant and does nothing to advance the animal rights movement and help animals. When given the opportunities to be kind, young people will seize them. A lack of faith in their convictions and capabilities sets them up for failure and gives them nothing to strive for, as low expectations are so very easy to meet.

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