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

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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. The proceeds for writing this article will be donated to local TNR projects.

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  • stewart lands

    Also, it is silly to assume (as many vegans do) that ALL meat is immoral. Wild fish and game may be consumed with far less animal loss of life and environmental impact than is possible with any form of plant agriculture, which necessarily destroys every individual, of every major species, on the landscape converted to that purpose. There is a huge difference between eating responsibly and strict observation of the vegan mantra. It is a shame that the subject of the piece was not accepted for her efforts, and this is pretty common. There are many who eat more responsibly than even those who would criticize, and yet are treated rudely simply because the critics have never given enough thought to the real consequences of their own eating behavior.

    • The inevitable human deaths on a freeway do not make building freeways immoral. The inevitable human deaths on a freeway do not morally justify the deliberate execution of humans either. Similarly, all the deaths caused by plant animal agriculture do not morally justify the deliberate bringing into existence, torturing and killing billions of farm animals and trillions of sea animals each year. If the humankind finally understood that animal use were morally wrong, we would be actively looking for solutions how to minimize animal deaths in plant-based agriculture just like we look for solutions to minimize human deaths on freeways.

      80-90% of all the crops grown on the planet are specifically grown to feed farm animals. So if plant agriculture harms animals, animal agriculture harms animals tenfold. The animal agriculture is the primary cause of global warming, species extinction, ocean dead zones, habitat destruction, soil erosion, water pollution, world hunger and the diseases of affluence.

      It is not only meat that is immoral; our demand for dairy, eggs, honey, wool, leather, fur, cosmetics, pets, and other animal use all involve injustice, torture and death. Ethical veganism is not about eating meat. Ethical veganism is a social movement aiming to eradicate injustice toward non-human animals who feel pain and joy just like us, yet are treated as commodities just like potatoes are.

      • stewart lands

        You are avoiding the issue by confusing it with animal agriculture, which is undeniably more destructive than plant agriculture. Of course, the comparison that I am making is between WILD fish and game, taken in a sustainable manner from undisturbed wild lands (or waters), and plant agriculture. Also, while correctly labeling the destruction of animal life by animal agriculture as “deliberate,” you then excuse the destruction of trillions of animal life forms that necessarily occurs during plant agriculture as something else. Shall we say “accidental” rather than deliberate, in the case of those creatures lost during the establishment of crop fields? If this is your position, then you have ignored the fact that the first step in establishing such fields is to eliminate all native life forms by plowing them under in order that they may be destroyed and so not pose a threat to the species we humans intend to impose upon that landscape. Those that escape the crush of the plow perish of starvation upon being displaced from the resources they require for survival. To excuse such outcomes as “unfortunate” does not change the fact that they are also deliberate. In fact, this outcome is entirely predictable and unavoidable, and the farmer is very deliberate in his effort to bring this destruction to pass.

        • If “deliberate” were defined by the predictability of the outcome, building a freeway would be an act of killing humans deliberately. Before each freeway is built, experts calculate and accurately predict the number of humans that will die. We know the exact number of future casualties at different speed limits. Yet it would be outrageous to suggest that the victims of car accidents are deliberately killed. If “deliberate” were defined by the number of victims, one could say that I am deliberately killing insects while driving. Killing insects is also expected with certainty, yet no one would suggest that I am deliberately killing them. In fact, all the drivers in their right minds would prefer not to get their cars messed up with crushed insects. A driver’s intention is to get from A to B. A hunter’s intention is to kill. Cultivating the land is not an act of deliberate killing. Attaching a worm to a hook is.

          You are right in saying that to the victims of our actions it matters little whether we characterize their demise as deliberate, collateral damage, accidental or whatever. All our actions harm others in one way or another and for that reason we all must minimize our impact. But what makes an enormous difference to animal justice is the mindset and the attitude of the people who take the position that using animals is morally wrong. In an ethical vegan world, searching for minimizing animal casualties would be a priority just like minimizing human casualties. On the other hand, with the present mindset of a nonvegan who takes the position that using animals is “normal” and divides animals into useful ones and pests, the imagination will never stretch beyond wildlife management by poisoning, releasing a virus, culling and gassing. Why would a person who sees nothing immoral about catching fish, shooting deer and eating them object to harvesting worms, raising birds to be released into the wild for the purpose of hunting, eating road kill, wearing wool, leather or fur, owning a working dog or a pet, supporting the racing industry, eating backyard eggs or grass-fed animals?

          In reply to your remark that I was avoiding the comparison between wild fish and game on one side and plant agriculture on another, that comparison makes as much sense as the comparison between growing alfalfa sprouts in windowsills and animal agriculture. Apart from the fact it is immoral to deliberately take a sentient being’s life when it is not necessary, you and I both know that feeding the world’s population of seven billion with fishing rods, hooks, traps, bows and arrows is as realistic as feeding the world by growing alfalfa sprouts in windowsills. Besides, a diet restricted to alfalfa sprouts only is not a balanced diet that covers all the human nutritional needs, and neither is a diet restricted to fish and meat only. On the other hand, all the top dietetic establishments in the UK, US, Canada and Australia agree that a balanced vegan diet consisting of whole fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is healthy, appropriate for all life stages including children, pregnant women, athletes and the elderly, and may assist in curing some diseases.

          • stewart lands

            Yes, the cost/benefit analysis of such projects predicts that human death will result. If planners proceed with the project, then they fully intend to allow humans to die as the cost of acquiring what society desires. They recognize this impact as a “cost” and do not pretend that the resulting death is unrelated to their choice to proceed with the project. They will not, of course, ever be charged with a crime because to do so is not illegal, just as it is not illegal to declare war, although it is a deliberate act that cannot avoid human death. We may debate whether such death is moral or not; or whether such death is “accidental” or “unintentional”, but we cannot deny that such consequences are inescapable and the action that leads to them, deliberate.

            Regardless, it is true that the farmer deliberately eliminates the life forms on the land he intends to cultivate. Removing the native flora and fauna is the reason fields and forests are first bulldozed, burned, and plowed prior to planting. Failure to do so will ensure competition by native plants and animals for those resources he hopes to accrue to himself. He deliberately eliminates those creatures that compete with him for the resources he demands.

            You appear to be making the case that such death is not immoral because, after all, it is not the death of these animals that is sought, but rather the the resources that may be acquired only by their removal. By this logic, one may also excuse hunting and fishing on the grounds that it is not animal death that is sought, but rather the meat attached to their bones, and as such the elimination of life is but a unfortunate, but not deliberate, consequence of gaining those resources we seek.

            Finally, I am not suggesting that hunting and fishing can provide for the entire Earth population’s dietary need. Clearly, it cannot and so must also be supplemented by agriculture. My point is that those resources that hunting and fishing CAN provide come with less cost to animal life and environmental impact than any form of agriculture and should therefore be our first option in acquiring food.

          • If we used the criteria of the least number of casualties in determining our actions instead of respecting every individual’s right not to be bodily harmed regardless of who may benefit, then it would be perfectly fine to indefinitely detain and torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay without being charged. There is a possibility that some prisoners may be innocent, but if harming them is the cost of preventing the next terrorist attack and far greater number of casualties, so be it. What about using humans in forced medical experiments? A few humans may be sacrificed, but potentially we might find a cure for cancer and save millions. Those millions of cancer patients can also be seen as the victims of Monsanto’s “deliberate” killing. We can easily use one human as an organ donor to save ten other humans. Yet, we do not, because in a just society, basic rights of any individual must be protected regardless of the benefits others might gain from violating those rights.

            Earlier in our discussion we both agreed that animal agriculture “is undeniably more destructive than plant agriculture”. So even if you disagree with the ethical vegan position that all animal use is morally wrong, you must agree that eliminating animal agriculture and using a fraction of the land currently used for feeding farm animals to feed the entire human population would result in far less number of lives lost. All the major dietetic establishments worldwide agree that we do not need to eat animal products in order to be healthy. 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, and according to the majority of the environmental scientists, the easiest, and probably the *only* way to prevent a major environmental catastrophe is to stop eating animal products. It makes perfect sense and it is doable today without any expensive investments, new technology or infrastructure if only people decided to do it.

            Yet you refer to the ethical vegan social justice movement as “vegan mantra”. You propose fishing and hunting from already heavily depleted waters and forests, and continuous massive reliance on both animal and plant agriculture. Your proposal cannot deliver any significant benefits to animal rights, the number of non-human casualties, the environment, human health or the world hunger. And this is the problem I mentioned earlier about the mindset of a nonvegan: as long as we insist on excusing animal use in one particular way, we have no interest in rejecting animal use altogether. Until we stop eating animal products nothing changes, once we stop eating animal products everything changes. I highly recommend reading the book Eat Like You Care by Prof. Gary L. Francione

          • Linda McKenzie

            I could not agree more, Balint. Well stated.

          • stewart lands

            You make the point that one should not harm one person, animal, etc. to save another, or even multiple others. I do not disagree. But this differs from the actual choice we face where we must choose between killing one creature, or killing many. It has been my point that it is better to kill fewer, even if that means choosing the ones killed, and the manner in which they are destroyed. In fact, such choices cannot be avoided. In opting for agriculture, the vegan decides which animals shall die and chooses the manner of their destruction.

            Agriculture has become the foremost cause of extinction, world-wide, and single greatest source of greenhouse gases destined to alter our environment for millennia. Consider the millions of acres of forest, grasslands and wetland converted to exotic monoculture serving no species besides man; consider the billions of pounds of chemicals dumped into our air, water and soil, and the trillions of gallons of fresh water diverted from sensitive aquatic systems–all for agricultural purpose. Certainly, animal agriculture is responsible for the lion’s share of such damage, but the remainder is all “on” plant agriculture.

            Such damage may be reduced with well-regulated, sustainable hunting and fishing. he depletion of wildlife is the result of overexploitation and development. Overexploitation by hunting and fishing can be avoided. Habitat destruction, on the other hand, cannot, if agriculture is to occur. Every individual, of every major species on the land converted to agricultural purpose, is destroyed, with death moving offsite as aquatic ecosystems are drained to provide water; as sediments and fertilizers move downstream, choking the world’s estuaries that sustain the young fish that ultimately fill the oceans; and as the creatures left in surrounding wild lands (provided any are left intact) as destroyed as “pests” simply because they dare to compete for crops earmarked for human consumption.

            Perhaps one day we will indeed gaze out across fields of broccoli and beans, wondering where all of the fish and wildlife have gone. Some will stand with their hands on their hips, blaming the hunter or the fisherman and failing completely to understand the relevance of habitat and sustainable use. No doubt, on this day, Mr. Francione will be counted among them. I wish for the day when veganism is entirely in step with environmentalism and consistent with its philosophy of minimizing animal harm.

          • Linda McKenzie

            Excellent replies, Balint.

  • Great article! I couldn’t agree more. We can encourage healthy habits without attacking people. Firstly, there are individuals with health complications, etc. and you can never know what someone’s issues are without walking in their shoes. If we don’t presume to know what animals are thinking, we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume we know what people eat “in secret”. I want to see everyone be as healthy as possible, but shaming and accusing people does absolutely nothing to address the problem.

    Also, if shame were enough to cure addiction, there would be no such thing as addicts. Shaming doesn’t help anyone, it makes things much worse.

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