ActivismFeaturedMental Health

On Going Vegan

I’ve been writing a fair amount on my personal blog about how we as advocates for social justice can both advocate change and accept ourselves as imperfect. I think this is one of the harder things to do and often leads to infighting in movements. But there are times when we simply cannot be any better than we are due to things outside of our control. How to deal when those times pop up?

To address a concrete example: I care a fair amount about the environment and about animal rights. I was a vegetarian for a few years and I still label myself as such because I only eat sustainably farmed and ethically raised meat, and it’s very rare for me to get those, so the vast majority of the time I eat vegetarian (plus it’s easier to say that to friends and family than explain the whole thing). However I recently have been adding more meat to my diet again. This is because I tend towards anemia and when I don’t eat meat it impacts my health. I also have an eating disorder, and so while I know that there are other alternatives these are extremely difficult for me to incorporate into my diet, and sometimes can lead to very strong negative reactions such as purging, self-harm, or restriction.

I also know the benefits of veganism. I have heard about how much more sustainable it is than meat-eating, and I know the conditions in which dairy cows and chickens are kept. I know that logically if I don’t support the conditions in which animals for meat are raised, I should not support the conditions that these animals are kept it. But I also have a very limited diet and most of that diet consists of things that include animal products. This is not really my choice. This is my eating disorder’s choice. If I were to choose veganism I am 99% certain that it would trigger full relapse and lead to hospitalization. Unfortunately for me, this is not a choice. Many people might tell me that if I really tried and chose health and environmentalism and animal rights I could make the switch to veganism, but at this moment I need to prioritize my own mental health and safety. I can only hope that at some point in the future I may be able to move more towards my values.

So I am left in a situation in which I am sometimes criticized because I cannot live up to my values and in which I often feel guilty myself because I am not acting as perfectly as I would wish. I look at articles like this one and feel so inadequate. So what do I do? How can I cope with the fact that I am simply incapable at this moment of acting in accordance with my values? Something that we need to remind ourselves over and over and over is that being able to act in accordance with your values is a privilege: some of us have to expend all of our energy to simply survive. And when you are part of an oppressed group, you have to remember that when you fight for yourself YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR AN OPPRESSED PERSON. Self-care is fighting. Forgiving yourself is fighting. Creating more shame and guilt for someone who is already oppressed? This is continuing your own oppression and by extension all oppression.

We all have limitations, and especially because of intersectionality and the vast array of causes we might wish to support we have to choose where to spend our resources. None of us can be a perfect advocate for anything and none of us can be an advocate for everything. Especially in America, one of the largest methods of oppression is the drive for achievement and the purposeful ignoring of all factors that may keep someone from achieving. When we apply this drive to ourselves and our activism we are doing everyone a disservice. We are simply accepting the status quo of guilt and self-hatred. It is far more meaningful to accept our inabilities and to continue trying, compassionately and carefully with ourselves. When we are not perfect, the best we can do is forgive.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. April 25, 2013 at 5:50 pm —

    I experimented with vegetarianism for a couple years after encountering Peter Singer’s work in a philosophy course. Eventually I went back to eating meat as I discovered that being a vegetarian would require me to be a better and more committed cook than I was at the time. I still embrace the conclusion that I reached after reading Singer – i.e. that it would be best only to eat beef that comes from cows that have been struck by lightning. But that’s of no help whatsoever at the supermarket. Practical ethics my ass.

    Okay, but seriously I have no problem with dairy products or meat products although Americans should probably eat a lot less meat than we do to make ethical and sustainable practices possible. And if I’m going to advocate for ethical and sustainable treatment of animals then guess what, meat-eaters have a lot more power to accomplish this than vegans and vegetarians because we are the market. That’s why it seems silly to me that people should be made to feel like hypocrites if they wish to see animals treated better and yet do not care to become vegetarians. If you enforce this sort of dietary fascism around animal-rights activism then you’re ensuring a situation where your movement will never, ever reach critical mass because you’ve self-selected those with the greatest interest right out of your camp. Besides, guilt is a pretty crappy motivation for action anyway. If I wanted my life decisions to be determined by guilt and shame I’d just go back to being a Baptist thanks very much.

  2. April 26, 2013 at 2:21 am —

    Once again, we need to eat more insects. All the animal protein you need, with minimal environmental impact.

  3. April 29, 2013 at 2:06 pm —

    I feel similarly for a similar but different reason. I think it’s better for the environment if I ate no meat, but I’m a waaaay healthier person if I eat a good volume of low-fat protein. If one day I find a protein source that’s as awesome as chicken breast is, I’ll change my diet.

  4. April 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm —

    I switched to be vegan (not fully vegan because it’s very, very difficult to be fully vegan if you consider things like batteries, LCDs, prescription drugs, etc) at the beginning of this year. I’d been trying out not eating meat for 4 or 5 months. I previously had given up meat about 8 years ago, but came back around to eating meat because I knew that our farm animals are dependent on us and have evolved with us.

    My change back had a lot to do with my cat, Sonya and seeing videos of cows frolicking like dogs. I thought if I could think of a cow like I could think of a dog then I couldn’t think of eating them. Seeing documentaries about factory farming only made me not want meat even more. Giving up eggs and dairy came after I realized that animals are treated worse even if they’re not killed outright for their meat. Also, like DebGod, I think it’s better for the environment and I try to also get locally grown food as much as I can.

    It was a personal decision and I try not to be judgmental towards anyone. My husband is still primarily a carnivore. No meal is a meal without meat for him. And I still buy meat when I shop for him and cook meat when I cook for him. But I still think I made the best choice for me. It’s still hard to not try to argue for veganism sometimes though, just like I argue for skepticism to the annoyance of my friends and family.

    Its only been four months, but I find over time it gets easier. My diet is no longer about substitutes (although I still dearly miss cheese), but about a new way of eating. I’m happier because even though my husband and I end up making two meals, we end up happier because instead of compromise we both eat what we like.

    For health I went to my doctor and had her do a full blood workup before I transitioned from vegetarian to vegan. It turns out I had a couple of vitamin deficiencies and I take vitamins to help with that and also try to eat more of foods with those vitamins. Turns out my sister has the same deficiencies and she’s omnivore, so it’s probably more likely to be genetic or perhaps part of how we learned to eat as kids.

    The hardest part is the cultural shift, I think. It sucks to explain it and feel like people think I’m judging them. I sometimes feel as closeted as I did when I first became an atheist. People just don’t want to hear about it and certainly don’t want me to turn down their food or limit their choices when we go out to eat together. And I understand that. Growing up in a privileged society it’s difficult to make that shift sometimes. I have the same struggle when I think about environmentalism and fair trade. I know I should support them as much as I can, but sometimes it’s just inconvenient. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. It’s not really something that you turn on overnight. It’s a journey.

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