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Re-imagining the vegan body

On the vegan identity and the role of body positivity

Written by Fenna Nijboer

Thinking about veganism is thinking about those who are vegans. Most of us are aware that being vegan does not just involve diets – rather, it is a way of living; an identity. With thinking about the vegan identity then, just like other identities, certain images come into our minds that define how we think about this vegan person. So, think of it in this way: who do you think of when you think about a vegan person, and how does this person look? I can imagine it seems a somewhat pointless and weird question. Though, the consequences of this image have a profound, often unacknowledged, detrimental impact on the goals of veganism as a political movement. The issue is that who we think of when we think of vegans tends to be dominated by tender, skinny, white, and middle-class women. It is also often these people displayed at the forefront of the veganism movement – at demonstrations, panels, talk shows and so on.

Consequently, it seems that thin-bodied female bodies are predominating in the vegan movement. At the same time, fat bodies seem invisible, or non-existent, within these vegan spaces. However, that is not to say that non-thin vegans do not exist. They do exist; however, they are made non-existent and invisible. Despite the wide variety of vegan body types, this diversity is practically non-existent in high profile vegan media spaces. As a result, the persona that is visible and dominant in these vegan spaces tends to define our ideas of veganism.

Despite the wide variety of vegan body types, this diversity is practically non-existent in high profile vegan media spaces.

It seems that the problem lies at the heart of those spaces where vegans come together and additionally, to which of these spaces is given attention. Hence, it is vital to look a bit further into these so-called “vegan spaces”.

In essence, veganism is a political effort seeking to abolish speciesism, which can be defined as the structural oppression and exploitation of nonhuman animals. Due to the political grounds of veganism, vegan spaces become inherently political as well. This means that the moment one is involved in vegan spaces where discourses about veganism take place - be it, demonstrations about ideals that are supported by the vegan movement, media spaces in which veganism and vegans are present or any other space where the vegan community is built and coordinated - one becomes automatically political. Meaning, the “personal” within veganism is political in the sense that one becomes involved in the meaning constructions taking place within discourses about veganism. This notion is crucial when looking at which meanings are given preference in the construction of how we think and define veganism. So, particular groups of power have the privilege over others in these discourses. Here is where the vegan identity-forming comes into play.

As indicated, thin bodies are dominating our collective ideas on how we perceive the vegan identity. However, this phenomenon is not random. The so-called West operates under gendered ideas of beauty that emphasize thinness as the ideal body type. These thin bodies move throughout our Western world with privilege and are therefore placed in the foreground. Other bodies are rendered as either invisible or as something temporary. Invisible, because their bodies tend to be unrepresented in media and popular culture. Temporary, because of the medical frame through which we tend to look at bodies that defines fat bodies as something that needs to be rectified or corrected. This dominant frame informs us that being fat equals unhealthy. Medical and public health experts continue to insist that an ‘obesity epidemic’ exists and that fatness is a pathological condition that should be prevented and controlled for. Hence, the fat body, in today’s Western society, has become a focus of stigmatizing discourses and practices aimed at disciplining, regulating, and containing it. These medical frames through which bodies are evaluated often take precedence in the struggle about the production of ideas and meanings. Being fat tends to overwhelm one’s identity in the sense that we constantly evaluate fat bodies as different, deviant, as something that needs to change.

Important to note is that historically, fat bodies have been purposefully “othered” as those were often the bodies of non-white people and immigrants in the West as a means to protect hierarchies of power in which white people have the means to define what is beautiful and what is not. Hence, the stigmatization of being fat is grounded within racist, colonialist and classist frameworks. Fat-shaming may, thus, especially have detrimental implications for marginalized groups in Western society.

This fatphobic frame through which we evaluate and legitimize other’s existence is influential in the vegan movement as well. It is particularly apparent considering that the vegan movement has become a highly stigmatized movement in which perceptions about veganism being unhealthy, non-nutritious and “weak” are leading. As a counter-reaction, the vegan movement has been actively seeking ways to debunk this stigmatization by illuminating that eating vegan is actually nutritious and healthier. While doing so, the vegan diet has also become utilized as a means to lose weight as its consumption habits are often portrayed and perceived as “lite” and “light”. This perception becomes even more deeply rooted as more and more research emerges about how abandoning diets heavy in meat and dairy can reduce weight. In this sense, the vegan diet allows the vegan movement to capitalize on its potential in a thin-privileging society to reshape bodies while simultaneously perpetuating the dominant medical frame through which we evaluate body sizes.

Though we are still talking about the image of veganism, in the manner of a political movement and identity, as something happening outside vegan spaces. However, vegan spaces themselves are also potential hotbeds of body-policing and fat-shaming. Vegans and vegetarians may utilize fat-shaming as a tool to protect their lifestyle as a viable and healthy lifestyle in their efforts to frame their lifestyle as attractive to nonvega(n) audiences. For instance, a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) read: “lose the blubber: go vegetarian”. After backlash, the slogan of the campaign changed to: “GONE: Just like all the pounds lost by people who go vegetarian”.

Here we can clearly see how an organization as PETA contributes to the stigmatization of fat people to make an argument for becoming vegan. Whether it may be fellow vegans, vega’s, meat-eaters, it is clear that fat bodies do not fit in their (our) ideas of how the body of a vegan looks (and should look) like. Fat vegans are perceived as a potential threat to veganism and have become symbols for those who are doing veganism “wrong” all the while vegans try to reconstruct veganism as symbolically “right”. As argued by Wrenn, a lecturer of sociology and gender studies, such a process can work favorably for a social movement, such as this one, that is seeking to be “valued, visible and legitimized”.

However, though, we must realize that much of the sizeist tactics that are used by vegan personalities and vegan businesses are driven by profit rather than altruistic ideals embedded in the veganism movement. That is to say, there is a massive industry for diet schemes, weight-loss products that is also establishing itself in vegan spaces. Moreover, positioning vegan diets as a strategy for overcoming “obesity” is looking at body sizes solely from an (often even limited) medical frame. In other words, it neglects the ethical grounds for a person to become vegan and have a vegan lifestyle. In this way, the mechanisms of fat-shaming and excluding fat bodies from the vegan movement in order to gain legitimacy works actually counter-productive. The ethical basis of the vegan lifestyle becomes overshadowed by a focus on healthy food and thin bodies. Moreover, within the context of veganism in which all living beings are of equal worth, fat-shaming becomes even more painful.

An alternative meaning is that, as proposed by Deborah Lupton in her book 'Reframing Fat', fat can be seen as a socio-cultural artefact: “a bodily substance or body shape that is given meaning by complex and shifting systems of ideas, practices, emotions, material objects and interpersonal relationships.” It is the specific historical, social and cultural contexts in which fatness is experienced, portrayed and regulated which give it meaning, just as other physical characteristics such as skin or hair color, youth and height take on certain meanings depending on their contexts. These meanings are not fixed and static. Rather, they are dynamic and shifting, changing along with changes in the context. For example, the term “obese” or “overweight” tends to be associated with normative and pathologizing connotations according to many academics and activists. “Obesity” in particular is used in official medical parlance, where being fat is designated as pathology. Thus, to describe someone as ‘obese’ immediately places that person within the purview of medicine as someone who has the disease of “obesity” and is therefore considered abnormal, inevitably unhealthy or at high risk of disease, requiring medical intervention to reduce his or her weight. Fat activists also reject the terms “under-weight”, “normal weight” and “overweight” because they suggest that there is an ideal, non-deviant weight to which people should aspire. Rather, activists and academia prefer the term “fat” while describing it in a more positive, accepting way outside of the medial sphere of influence. In the same manner, people’s perceptions of their bodies and other people’s bodies are not static and can change. Meanings can be challenged as contexts change and people resist medical obesity discourses.

Fortunately, attention to the negative stigmatization of fat people receives more attention in today’s popular culture and media. The body positivity movement has managed to challenge the narrowed view on fatness and contributed to re-definitions of what we perceive as beautiful or desirable. Fat people become more visible in popular culture and media in different kinds of representations, practices and performances. Although there are more opportunities for body positive and fat activists to be represented in media and popular culture, the thin and white bodies continue to dominate as the ideal body type. As already explained, high-status and mediatized vegan spaces have been known to center these bodies at the forefront of the vegan movement. The implications of this are critical and problematic, as attempted to illuminate. Moreover, the exclusionary constructed vegan identity that centers on white and thin female bodies tends to disregard the involvement of BIPOC communities in sustainable, plant-based diets and practices. The adaptation of the “West” has left many of us with the idea that vegan diets are only important for those that are most visible and heard in the West: white, middle and upper-class people.

Hence, it is crucial to integrate a more representative range of bodies within the veganism movement. It would do the goal towards a better world no good if certain bodies are excluded from this goal that can only be collectively reached. How healthy or unhealthy you eat does not make you more or less vegan. And, how thin or fat you are, it does not make you more worthy than the other. We need all vegans in the struggle for a better world: fat and thin; queer and non-queer; non-black people of color, black people and white people; middle class, upper class and lower-class people; men, women, non-binary people, crossing all continents of our earth.

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