No, fat shaming is still not okay

By on April 5, 2012

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I received a lot of feedback on my post about large animal organizations using fat shaming as part of their advocacy. Between the comments I received as well as reading the comments on well written blog posts on the subject such as this and this, that body image and fat shaming are a serious issue in the vegan community.

Not only are we dealing with the pressure of traditional body image issues that everyone deals with, especially women, in this unhealthy and perverse culture, but we are dealing with it within our own community. Many vegans responded by saying that they are overweight and face negative attitudes regularly within the community. Some said that they’ve been told that they should closet themselves so as to not make veganism look unhealthy. There are many reasons why someone may be overweight – some physical and some emotional. Neither may automatically disappear because one stops consuming flesh and secretions.

“As a dietitian, I can tell you that the idea that “being fat is 100% the fault of the person” is dead wrong. There are hundreds and hundreds of studies on obesity and scientists still don’t have the answer about what causes it. Please be careful about placing blame when you don’t understand the science,” said Ginny Messina, R.D., M.P.H. “The obesity research is extremely extensive and complex and the one thing that obesity experts agree on is that no one has the answers about this difficult problem. It’s extraordinarily unkind–and completely unscientific–to insist that anyone can be thin if they want to.”

Veganism is much more than what one chooses to eat, wear, entertain themselves and purchase in terms of cosmetics and household items. Animal rights at its core is about justice. It is a social justice movement that places an animal’s right to be left to his or her own devices as the center of justice.

Why am I defining veganism to vegans? Because sadly, we seem to be moving further and further away from the core of it and more towards a superficial, material definition that focuses on diet, cookbooks, trendy fashion and body images. Veganism is not superficial, nor should it give a shit about the size and shape of your body.

Which brings me back to body shaming. I read many comments about how vegans need to be thin, attractive, and healthy if we really want to help animals. Huh? Vegans need to be vocal, consistent, educated on all nonhuman issues, eloquent, patient, active and willing to fight for the rights and dignity of nonhumans. Period. Attacking someone or shaming someone over the size and shape of their body doesn’t help animals.

Shaming vegans who have made the choice to be a pariah in this culture by abstaining from exploiting other animals, is shameful in itself. It is difficult enough to cope and heal from the traumatic awareness of the animal holocaust; to be attacked because of your body shape literally adds insult to injury.

Ethical vegans shouldn’t care about what other vegans are eating, as long as they are not eating animals and their secretions, shouldn’t judge other vegans about the size of their bodies, or be concerned with how physically attractive we are to the people who are supporting exploitation and oppression. I would like to see vegans get clear about the ethics behind animal rights, and not let us lose this fight before we’ve really even started.

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Comments

  1. Amanda
    April 5, 2012

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    I was one of the people who agreed with Ginny on her main points, but I think it is a little hasty to say that weight should be completely ignored and that veganism is now dependent on “a superficial, material definition that focuses on diet, cookbooks, trendy fashion and body images.” All because people think that weight loss is a good selling point? (And what the hell is wrong with cookbooks? We’re not ascetics, we still like to enjoy our food, and cookbooks are a great help to that end, no?)

    The fact of the matter is that it IS a good selling point! Obviously, no matter what your weight is, if you are vegan you have something to offer the movement. But it is also very powerful that we do have in our ranks some people who lost a significant amount of weight, and the only diet that worked for them was a plant-based one. Hell, I lost weight on it, and most people who don’t have metabolic problems WILL see improvement on a healthy vegan diet. Obviously, some people have more complicated issues that can’t be solved with any diet, and anyone–vegan or not–should be able to understand that. But to imply that paying attention to appearance essentially invalidates the whole movement is ridiculous.

    We don’t live in a compassionate society. That goes for animals, people who look different, and all kinds of crap I wish didn’t exist. But as for the animals, whose lives can be saved through veganism, sometimes it may be necessary to touch on people’s selfish, superficial desires to be thin (of course with fair warning that veganism is not necessarily a panacea). That last caveat both prevents vegans from saying overweight vegans ruin the movement, and prevents future vegans from blaming veganism for their failure to lose weight.

    Anyway, yes the PCRM ad was really messed up and I think they should apologize. But I don’t disagree with all the comments you are reacting so harshly to.

  2. Karina
    April 6, 2012

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    Gary, I just want to say thank you for this post.

  3. Jess@miniMum
    April 6, 2012

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    Some more thoughts on the expectations for vegans and weight…

    http://www.vegsource.com/jess-parsons/vegism-and-eating-disorders.html

  4. Mihl
    April 6, 2012

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    I have the feeling that some part of the vegan movement is turning into the militant arm of woman’s magazines. People telling us how vegans should look like and what kind of plant based food they should eat is so wrong.

    Btw, I myself think cookbooks are important, as long as they are filled with vegan recipes and don’t come with an agenda and pseudo-scientific nutritional info.

  5. Kezia
    April 6, 2012

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    Amanda I think the point about cookbooks or fashion is that it doesn’t replace activism.

    But I generally feel the same way as you – it is not inaccurate to say that healthy and balanced vegan diets have led to weight loss. Nor is it inaccurate to say that obesity has a number of associated health risks. It’s not a way we as ethical vegans promote the cause, but it’s not inaccurate.

    You lose me, however, when you bring up “appearance.” The point isn’t that “paying attention to appearance” invalidates the movement, but that it undermines us as activists. Weight and health shouldn’t be about appearance or vanity. They certainly aren’t about saving animals.

    Decades ago there was far too much focus on the appearance or physical attractiveness of those leading and fighting in the women’s movement. The cultural conversation was so powerful it engendered cliches like “ugly feminists,” while some women were “too pretty (or sexy) to be a feminist.” We and the movement have not fully recovered from these judgements and this fixation. Young women today don’t want to call themselves feminists, don’t identify with feminism, and don’t understand the issues. Can I be positive that this is a result of or even correlative with the fixation on the beauty or image of feminists? No, but it was a massive distraction, and one that undermined us constantly.

  6. Miranda
    April 6, 2012

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    I happen to be a fat vegan, though I lost 140 pounds since I went vegan, and every time I have expressed that I’m embarrassed to say I’m vegan since I’m still fat, everyone in my vegan community have been quite positive in that I am different than what people picture vegan as. Proof that anyone can be vegan and still there is food to eat

  7. Ashley
    April 7, 2012

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    Wow, I watched that ad and it made me sick. That’s crossing the line, blatantly ‘rejecting’ an overweight person. (As if an overweight person cannot be vegan?! Wrong!)

    While it’s clearly an issue in the tight spaces of airplanes, as sometimes it is uncomfortable sitting next to a large person (whether they be very tall with long arms and pointy elbows, very fat, or very muscular), that does not warrant fat-shaming.

  8. Gabi
    April 9, 2012

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    There are many reasons to be vegan: Animal welfare, the environment, eradicating world hunger, health benefits, and losing weight. While all of these are good reasons, nobody should be judged because they don’t follow all of them. Losing weight may even be the least ‘noble’ of them all, since it’s entirely focused on the ego.

  9. Danet
    April 9, 2012

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    “Ethical vegans shouldn’t care about what other vegans are eating”

    Hello,

    Am I wrong or healthy-attractive people will be more likely to bring people to accept a vegan lifestyle and philosophy than unhealthy, unattractive ones?

    If vegans have huge numbers of deficiencies in B12, calcium, iron and omega-3 deficient,… how is THAT going to help us promote our ethical veganism?

    Body shaming is lame, but please don’t throw away the hole soup because you found a bug in it. Ethical vegans MUST be health conscious people, they don’t need to be slim, but it’s going to be easier if they are smart and take to time to be informed about their diet.

  10. Butterflies
    April 15, 2012

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    Thanks for this Gary. I thought the PCRM campaign was in poor taste. I would pay $10 to sit next to a vegan, but not because they are thin looking (because that is not always true), but because they care about the rights of other animals. Good blog, I shared it.

  11. Alex
    April 18, 2012

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    I have just become vegan in the past couple of months, and I am very overweight. This has both to do with a previous unhealthy omnivorous diet and a sedentary lifestyle. However, it also has to do with a hormonal imbalance that I’m working with my doctors to correct. I understand that it is partially (perhaps even mostly) my choices to blame for this, but I am working on correcting it so I can be healthy and yeah, look good in a bathing suit. I said it. Because you know what? I get SO, so mad every time someone tells me to “embrace my curves” or something of that sort. Because they’re not curves that SHOULD be there on a healthy body. I realize that, with my body type, once I’m at my goal weight I will STILL be “curvy,” but curvy in a healthy way. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me wanting to/trying to lose all this weight for vanity reasons as well as health reasons. I like a thin look, and I don’t think that should be a problem.

    BUT, I do think it’s my own business what I want to look like/where my health is at, not society’s business; not omnivores-who-find-out-I’m-vegan’s business; not other vegans’ business. So I think that fat shaming is so, so wrong. It’s hard for most people to even think about going outside if they’re very overweight for fear of what people are going to think of them or maybe even say to them. I don’t think anyone in this world should feel like that, especially if they are trying to be healthier. It’s sad that some vegans would make other vegans feel like that, just like it’s sad that some omnivores would make other omnivores and/or vegans feel like that because I think fat shaming (or skinny shaming) is wrong. I think it’s important to promote good health, and yeah, it IS a selling point to a vegan lifestyle. I would know: it’s part of what attracted me to becoming vegan in the first place. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for all sizes and shapes in the vegan community. I have not been out and out fat shamed while I have been vegan, but it always makes me a little uncomfortable to tell people that I’m vegan because of the knowledge that those judgments are out there, and I ALWAYS feel compelled to mention that I’m new to veganism solely because of my weight, and I don’t think I should have to feel like that. I realize no one is making me feel like that, but because I’m aware that these judgments exist so strongly, I do.

  12. Amy Guidry
    April 19, 2012

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    I live in the Cajun heart of Louisiana, so I actually don’t know a lot of vegans here. Given that Louisiana is known for its food, most of which is fried and/or smothered in something, I do sometimes use the health benefits of veganism as a selling point. While I know this is not the real reason they should “convert,” it happens to be one of the few reasons that will actually shut people up when they tell me why veganism is wrong and unhealthy. On the other hand, when amongst friends and acquaintances, I do explain that veganism does have its health benefits (if done correctly), but there are many unhealthy foods that we can have, in addition to not watching portion sizes. Anyone, whether they are vegan or not, has to be mindful of their nutritional requirements. Just as we know that you don’t get what you need because of meat, you also don’t get everything you need if you do not eat enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Also exercise plays a big role. As we age, we lose muscle and replace it with fat. No matter how strict a vegan you are, if you do not incorporate cardio and weight-bearing exercises into your routine, you may be thin, but you’ll be what is commonly called “skinny-fat.”

    I would never judge someone by their size, no matter how big or small, especially given that I do not know what factors they may have going on in their lives- physically, mentally, or emotionally- that may prevent them from obtaining their best “personal” health. What’s more, we need to work together as we are all fighting for the same cause. I care about what you are doing for animal welfare, not whether you fit in a size 4. Let’s stay focused.

  13. Hannah
    March 8, 2013

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    What bothers me is that ‘shaming’ anyone about any of their choices is wrong. Even meat eaters- who won’t really listen to what you are saying if you insult them first. Skinny/fat, male/female, vegan/ non-vegan we all need to show compassion for one another and realize we don’t know another person’s story and need to be less judgemental based only on what we see. I myself am overweight but healthier than most of my thinner looking friends- no cholesterol, blood pressure, or sugar-related problems whatsoever. In fact, doctors ( and people in my yoga class) are always surprised how healthy I actually am and what I can do. Weight is not always representative of health. Yes, it can be- but perhaps the person you judge for being ‘fat and lazy’ or ‘only eating crap’ is in the process of losing weight- how awful it would be in that case to be judged when you are doing something healthy for yourself!!! ( And animals, and the environment, etc) Do I want to be thinner? Yes, but only if it’s a healthy thinner- I’d rather be overweight and healthy than anorexic or thin because if sickness, which many people are.. Veganism- and vegans themselves- ate all part of a spectrum. Some people are just being introduced to it and making changes, some have been vegan for years. How can you know by looking at a person? Rather than shame, blame and be focused on the negatives, we should all support each other for the positives- animal rights, environmental issues, compassion and understanding.

  14. Leo
    March 8, 2013

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    Excellent article. It contains the 3 points that are perhaps the most striking to me.

    -“we seem to be moving […] towards a superficial, material definition that focuses on diet, cookbooks, trendy fashion and body images.
    Absolutely. I’m very surprised at the proportion of vegans who seem to only care about explaining whether or not they eat nuts, rice, or soy. If it never had a face, a mother or a bowel movement, who cares what you eat?

    -“It is difficult enough to cope and heal from the traumatic awareness of the animal holocaust…”
    Maybe I haven’t searched enough, and probably I didn’t WANT to search, because it is too painful to even think about it, but this the first time I read someone use the word “traumatic” to define this experience. The ghastly realization that THOUSANDS of murders occur EACH SECOND, causing unmatched damages to both the planet and the health of wealthy humans, starving the poor ones, and that we live in such a dystopian world that people opposing this abomination are the pariahs, represents a trauma that is even more painful as most of us probably keep it to themselves.

    -“I would like to see vegans get clear about the ethics behind animal rights, and not let us lose this fight before we’ve really even started.”
    Yes, we need to focus, the Earth and Humanity have a formidable and very focused enemy, the Murder Industry and its objective ally Big Pharma. We need to get organized, act as the brothers in arms of a peaceful army. Last time people were confronted to a dystopia of such proportions was in Nazi Germany. Extremely brave German people gave their lives to raise the awareness of the horrors of the Nazi regime. Among these were the members of the White Rose, most of whom had started as enthusiast Nazis, just as most of us have started as enthusiast meat eaters.
    As we waste our energy and resources into futilities, when we ought to be setting up a worldwide White Rose Army, sharing resources, coordinating actions, using everyone’s abilities for the common good, helping each other to reach out to the non vegans in all possible ways, I can feel the spirits of all those who have ever given their lives to fight pure evil shake their heads in disgust.
    Yes, as we become more active, the Murder Industry will use additives to make their products more addictive, spend more and more billions to discredit us in aggressive media campaigns, try to sabotage our campaigns from inside, organize more and angrier counter protests, and Big Pharma will make up more and more studies proving the benefits of meat products which they so desperately need for their prosperity… But what they cannot do is have firing squads shoot us for having distributed pro-vegan leaflets.
    The colossal strength of our enemy is impressive, but if each vegan convinces just one person per year, humanity can win this war in just 10 years. Yes, we can fix the Earth by 2023, so let’s get started already.

  15. Leo
    March 8, 2013

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    @Linda: I don’t know where you got the idea I am forgetting anyone. I am simply making a parallel between ourselves, former meat eaters, and those Germans who had supported the Nazi regime. The Murder Industry is not trying to slaughter you, only to make you an accomplice of their crimes. Just like those Germans who initially thought that Nazism was good, we initially thought that eating meat, fish, dairy and eggs was good, and that leather or silk looked good. Jews never thought much good about Nazism, just like cows, pigs, chickens or fish never liked the Murder Industry.
    The point is, it is our moral responsibility is to get focussed, organized, and fight the Murder Industry everywhere and constantly until it dies. If we do not act, we are still accomplices of billions of murders and of the destruction of the planet.

  16. Leo
    March 10, 2013

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    The fact that pigs, unlike Jews in WWII, can’t even fight a desperate fight such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising only amplifies our responsibility to fight for them. You are apparently misunderstanding what I wrote.
    Unfortunately, pigs are very aware that they’re being kept in abominable conditions, and then murdered. They don’t have an abstract understanding, only horribly concrete, they don’t know who the shareholders of the criminal organization responsible for their sufferings are, how does it matter ?
    My point is that we have the moral responsibility to focus and fight the Murder Industry. What is your point, if you’re trying to make one ?

  17. J
    March 15, 2013

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    Hey! I just wanted to take a minute to tell you that I think your piece is extraordinarily well crafted. You really have a gift! I literally post a comment online about once and year and I’m not a vegan… I just appreciate great writing!

  18. JS
    March 15, 2013

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    I think that ideas are getting mixed up a bit. It happens. My husband and I are Vegans. And personally, we don’t care about the animal rights of it. We are vegan for our personal health reasons, not because cows look sad. Maybe we have the terms mixed up. If “vegan” means caring about the rights of animals, and therefore not eating them, than I guess we are not vegan. What is the term for someone that chooses not to eat flesh, or secretions simply because they want to be healthy?
    Not that I want to see animals suffer. I don’t! I can’t! We started watching some documentary that showed animals being killed and had to shut it off! Too hard to watch. But that is not the reason we are vegans. Animal rights have no bearing on our choices of food consumption.

  19. Allie
    July 18, 2013

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    JS-

    Not eating animal products is eating a plant based diet. Eating a plant-based diet to benefit animal rights, the environment, and the world is being vegan.

  20. Lynda
    November 23, 2013

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    I am not a vegan. I recently became a vegetarian. My initial reasons were mainly due to health as I am very overweight and have several medical conditions. I am being pulled towards veganism because I object to how animals are being neglected and the brutal ways they are killed to provide their meat for food. The more I know about our food system the less I want to partake of most of it.

    I must say that I have been very disturbed by the judgments of others regarding what I eat or don’t eat and those checking to see if I’ve lost any weight. First of all I’m in a learning phase. And secondly I did not make this change with a goal of being skinny. I want to be healthy and I want to do my part to make the world better. Losing some weight for me is part of the becoming healthy thing and not the primary goal.

    I hope that we can be more supportive of each other. We do not know what another person is going through. And frankly we already get enough grief from a society who doesn’t understand or thinks we are following a fad/trend.

  21. Teresa
    September 1, 2014

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    Thank you for this article. After almost 9 years I’m struggling to stay vegan due to the fact that I have no vegan support. There is meanness among vegans. I’ve experienced it. I went to a well known vegan organization where I understood the speaker, heavily associated with the organization, to state that vegans should be advocates for veganism “by our appearance” as part of the overall speech. As an overweight vegan who donated hundreds of dollars to this organization over the year, I was devastated. I’ve never been to another event and have not donated again.

    Often I believe that overweight people are failed to see as having eating disorders. An eating disorder will garner sympathy if it manifests as thin. Such as Anorexia Nervosa.

    Also the isolation causes further problems. Instead of attending events at this organization like I used to, walking around and visiting the animals, I’ll be at home, alone, feeling down and as I have since childhood, I’ll comfort myself with food. As an instructor in college told out class once: “never underestimate the impact you have on other people. If you smile at someone and allow them to go ahead of you in a grocery line, you don’t know that it was the only kind thing anyone did for them all day” She said it more eloquently but it’s something that has stayed with me. Words matter. Attitudes toward others matter. How would some of you like to attend a vegan event, leave the table to find your items moved and someone had taken your place because others at the table apparently needed your spot or didn’t want you there and felt very comfortable pushing you out. Well it happened to me and it doesn’t feel very good.

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