Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A sociological look at ex-vegetarians

An issue in our movement that is beginning to get more attention is the number of vegans or vegetarians who struggle with the diet and end up reincorporating animal products, or succinctly, ex-vegetarians. A recent piece by psychologist Harold Herzog will hopefully serve as a catalyst for this important discussion. Backsliding as a general rule gets scant attention within the social movement or vegetarian literature. However, I believe it is important to begin looking at this issue with more intensity as our movement can only thrive if committed and passionate vegans take up our cause. While I believe that we need to be tolerant and garner an understanding of the limitations within people, I don'want that to be misconstrued for my personal belief in the ethical rightness of veganism for not only animals, but for environmental, health and world hunger reasons. While it is easy to say that ethically the issue is black and white, reality paints broad strokes of grey.

Years of studying our social world reveal just that, it's social. We live in groups, in communities, in societies. These societies create pressure to conform, to adapt, to socialize and to adhere to cultural norms. I struggle with this reality in my everyday life. On the one hand, i'm an academic, standing firmly behind the theories and scholarship of brilliant people who tell me that food choice is fluid, contextual, and rooted within the idiosyncratic biographies of individuals. These individuals are juggling gender roles, cultural and religious expectations and identity struggles, financial struggle, and the pressure to obtain status and cultural capital. On the other hand I am a vegan and animal rights activist. Clinging firmly to the belief that leaving animals off your plate is the ideal.

Through my research I have discovered social and cultural factors that act as barriers to vegan or vegetarian maintenance. It is my hope that by understanding these barriers we can both work to overcome them as well develop some empathy and tolerance toward those who struggle. My sample is limited but the breadth with which I got to know these individuals is not. Thus is the paradox of small scale qualitative research.

The responses I found within my limited study shed light on the complexities within food choices. Therefore, trying to scale down factors into neat, broad categories, has a tendency to lose a deep understanding of the social factors inherent in these lapses. While I appreciate Dr. Herzog's attempt to shed light on this “problem” I hope that by sharing some of my findings, we can begin to think of some big picture solutions, as well as continue to exercise tolerance and patience with those that do struggle.

I took a cursory glance at the poster presentation for Dr. Herzog's paper, and he lists “social reasons” as one of the three reasons for going back on what I call the “food choice continuum.” Since my degree is in sociology not psychology, I can offer my elaboration on this finding. During the course of my 14 interviews I ascertained 6 main themes or factors that acted as barriers to vegetarian maintenance. They are: family relationships, identity, guidelines and cleansing, gender roles, peer influence and social networks, and trend participation.

1. The role of family and spousal relationships were shown to be areas of negotiation and compromise regarding food choice. We especially see the home as a consumption site in which many tastes and preferences are at play. Many individuals found the introduction of a new spouse or partner to be particularly detrimental on their previous held beliefs. Often, participants would compromise when eating with family as a way to "not cause trouble." They recall feeling the pressure to be polite and go with the flow. Within most family structures, compromise on tastes are frequent and used as a way to build cohesiveness within the unit. Using theories of the sociology of consumption help to elaborate the complexities within food choice and avoidance. Family acts as a substantial agent within consumption choices and should be studied intensely to gain a broader understanding of the barrier it creates to vegan diets.

2. Issues regarding the label and definition of vegetarianism as strict and inflexible serve as a deterrent. This ambiguity lends to the vegetarian identity competing with other identities stemming from culture or religion. Although a strong collective identity is a central aspect to social movement mobilization, the vegetarian identity is particularly complex as it constantly competes with other personal (wife, daughter) or culturally assigned (baptist, Puerto Rican) identities. Bisogni et al (2002) reveal that over the life course, people obtain several identities and meaning is constructed for each by the people, groups and objects around them. These identities are managed by assigning greater levels of importance to some, and enacting certain identities at different times.

We already took note of the complexities that family offer with regard to food consumption, building on that we see recipes and cultural food connections within families substantiating that barrier. For example, one of my interviewees, a female PhD student mentions:

To go vegan, I think of every recipe I know and how would I modify it? That was the hardest p art for me.. thinking of all the family memories.. all these meat dishes are there, how do I start s upplementing these?

An additional barrier is the occasional perception of veganism as a rigorous lifestyle. To deal with this perception, many individuals will approach the practice in an individualized way. Many studies have echoed the notion that "vegetarians" will often frame vegetarianism in a way that suits their individual lifestyle.

3. In my study, many participants viewed the practice as a means to cleanse, as a loose set of guidelines for healthy living, and as a fluid and permeable lifestyle. To overcome the stigma associated with the label of vegan or vegetarian, many individuals will approach the practice as a loose framework for a healthy lifestyle. For these individuals, deviation was perfectly acceptable. The boundaries between meat eating and vegetarianism were unclear.

Anna Willett (1997) has confirmed in her study that for many, meat eating and vegetarianism are not dichotomous entities. For Willett vegetarianism is not a practice that can be rigorously defined, but instead should be viewed as a "fluid and permeable category, embracing a wide range of food practices." I can see why this idea might be troubling to activists, but I believe these findings to be rooted in the realities of our social world and should be included when discussing campaigns and other strategic planning efforts.

4. A major finding within my study that I fail to see emphasized elsewhere is the role of gender in food choices, especially for women in a family setting. Majorie Devault goes into detail about the role of women with regard to “feeding the family” in her book of the same name. In this extensive work she takes note of the tendency for women to favor the wants and needs of their partners and children over their own. In my study I heard several narratives regarding picky husbands and children who wanted to eat meat, dairy and/or eggs and the inconvenience that fall to women of having to prepare separate meals. Keep in mind the majority of female participantswere left leaning academics. While not a major finding of my most recent project, there is a robust scholarship of the relationship between meat and masculinity that needs to be included in any conversation regarding gender and food.

5. We see social networks and peer pressure play a substantial role in influencing the instability of a meat free life. Social networks have an amazing ability to provide positive encouragement or act as a substantial barrier to social movement participation as well as other forms of behavior change. Elizabeth Cherry (2006:167) in her study on veganism echoes the importance of social networks and support in lifestyle based movements: "supportive social networks are invaluable to maintaining a vegan lifestyle and thus sustaining the vegan movement." While not a new notion, movement leaders must continue to allocate resources in ways that provide social support to new and long time members alike.

6. Fish, especially eating out for sushi, was employed as a means of gaining social status and trend participation. While pointing me in the direction of food as a means to obtain social capital it is also important to note that the majority of my participants did not realize (or care) that fish is well, not a vegetable.

Recently we have seen pages of academic writing dedicated to the topic of food as new instruments of social capital (Johnston and Baumann 2007). We are beginning to see cuisine as a realm where individuals can engage in status displays and participate in trends. Calling on Bourdieu (1984) we see the claim that "food, in all its modes of consumption, acts as a form of cultural capital."

While I do see momentum of trendy vegetarianism, we should be continuing to brainstorm reaping a high brow reputation.

When asking the question why do vegans backslide? it is important to look deep into the complexities of our social world. It is no longer acceptable to offer simplistic explanations. My research has revealed several factors within the lives of my respondents that made adherence difficult. The family, culture and tradition, social networks and peer pressure, fluid approaches, deeply ingrained gender roles, and a desire for social status all weigh on an individual when making lifestyle and identity choices.

Again, our movement should seek to garner an understanding of human limitations. I have realized the rarity of veganism and the ability to strictly adhere to be challenging. This does not mean that we should stop striving for change. Veganism is certainly still the ideal that I believe to be making amazing progress. Perhaps though, we should begin with small steps, positive reinforcement for incremental changes, and a focus on healthier, animal free options that can be integrated into our fast paced nation.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Behind the Pink Ribbons

(reposted from facebook from 10/4/10)

When October arrives, many women and some men find themselves inclined to learn more about Breast Cancer and methods of early detection. However, what unfortunately gets lost in all the mammogram talk is what is even more important than early detection, and that is prevention. But of course, where is the money in prevention? So, as the media jumps on board and begins coverage of this months hot topic, rarely is there a breaking news story regarding the power that a vegan diet combined with regular exercise can have on cancer prevention as well as survival.

I urge everyone to do some research before pinning on their pink ribbons. For instance, I have recently learned that all the October hoop-la began by AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company. Further investigation has shown that this company has in its inventory a very dangerous herbicide that has been shown to be cancer causing. Interesting, to say the least.

In addition, we have seen a popular yogurt company jump on board with a campaign which is nothing more than a cleverly named act of "pinkwashing." Yogurt, a dairy product, is not recommended for consumption if cancer prevention and survival is of utmost concern, as dairy products contain potentially dangerous cancer causing hormones.

I also came across an article by John Robbins in the Huffington Post exposing the partnering of Susan G. Komen for the Cure with Kentucky Fried Chicken! According to the National Cancer Institute's website, "an increased risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancer is associated with high intakes of well-done, fried or barbecued meats?" How buying fried chicken helps with cancer prevention is lost on me, but if anyone can explain it I'm all ears. Let this serve as a catalyst to investigate the organizations in which we put our trust and money.

This post is nothing more than a plea to be careful when consuming what October is trying to sell you. There is always an ulterior motive. Let this month provide an awareness of the benefits of a plant based diet in the prevention of all types of cancers, as well as heart disease and diabetes.

Happy October

Monday, September 13, 2010

For the Teachers

Many of us get into this movement because we want our lives to make a difference. We have seen injustices and we refuse to sit still and allow things we don’t support to become the status quo. However, once we make the decision to get active, there are several other decisions and hurdles to overcome. At first, we are so passionate that brief encounters may cause tears and distress. Our friends may think we have gone off the deep end, joined some alien “cult” or are just going through a deviant “phase.” We become insatiable for information that may in turn anger us more as we find it hard to understand how this knowledge has escaped us for so long, and how others refuse to accept the truth. Or they accept the truth, but honestly could care less about it. Gradually we seek out more effective strategies, because at the end of the day, we are here to spread our message, save lives and stand up for what we believe in.

I have been on a mission to learn how to effectively advocate the message of this movement. I believe that avoiding consumption of animals and animal products is not only first and foremost the best thing you can do for your overall health, it allows you to tread lightly on this earth, support the planets prosperity and allows you to go to sleep every night knowing you are living every day causing the least amount of harm possible.

Learning requires teachers. So far during my short journey I have had the privilege to meet certain individuals who offer so much inspiration and dedication that even in the most challenging of circumstances, their words help me to persevere. This is an attempt to shine the necessarily spotlight on these people. Most of them face opposition from their families and severely exhausting and challenging situations on a daily basis, but they are also the ones getting things done. Making change happen. We need to shout our appreciation louder, listen and repeat their wise words, and join them along in their fight. I didn’t think it was possible for me to become even more passionate about this cause, but being in the presence of some of these extraordinary people, who embrace and live their messages and display impeccable ethics day in and day out, can motivate even the most passionate activist. And I now believe my contribution has the potential to reach new and extraordinary heights.

Here are some names that come to mind, if you see them, say thank you.

Paul Shapiro

Neal Barnard

Betsy Swart

Jon Camp

Erica Meier

Michael Gregor

Drew Winter

Bruce Friedrich

Norm Phelps

Matt Ball

John Robbins

Erik Marcus

Jack Norris

Ingrid Newkirk

Thursday, September 9, 2010


The choices I make tend to alienate me at times. I rarely ever agree with the status quo, and usually get probed, questioned and provoked about these choices. I have been doing my best, and have gotten increasingly better, at clocking out, putting my beliefs on hold for the evening, and enjoying myself. It's not always easy.

There is an internal struggle between wanting to stand up for my beliefs, but trying desperately to have a carefree night. I accept that this will be an issue I will confront as long as my choices are considered different or unusual. My work as an activist centers around the hope that soon my avoidance of meat wont seem so shocking or extreme.

Pretending that the gentleman next to me eating a hamburger isn't grossing me out, or the bartender leaving nothing to the imagination isn't frustrating my feminist perspective are always going to come with the the territory of my over educated disposition These are both difficult tasks, that I suspect in time will get easier, well here's hoping anyway.

The previous list of, lets call them, "quirks" I presume are quite frustrating to my friends and family. However, I have stumbled upon a few ladies in the last couple of months that have been so unbelievably supportive, that I must take the time to recognize how amazing support really feels.

I believe so deeply in my cause and to have my friends take a genuine interest is so rewarding. To be able to come together, 4 different personalities, with such ease and comfort is truly amazing, and has made my summer so memorable. I don't know what my future holds. My plans to go to DC and fight for my causes hasn't changed, but what I will inevitably leave behind has. Thank you, divas, for your open minds and unwavering support.

You have also opened my mind to a few things I have yet to try-wink!

With gratitude,

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Dear Friends,

I have never been one to do anything half way. Whether its a job, a relationship, a friendship. I am all or nothing. However, with regards to my activism, I have learned that things may not be as black and white as I once thought.

When you take the first steps on a journey to enlightenment, what you find along the way may be so amazing, that all you want to do is share your insight with the world. My naivety, however, got the best of me. I convinced myself that all I had to do was share information with friends, family, strangers, whoever, and they would join me on my new found mission. Real life, it turns out, doesn't work like that. After months of my passion getting the best of me, I now realize there are strategies and tactics that are more effective than others.

Thanks to my friends (who are as wise as they come) and seasoned movement members I met at this years Taking Action For Animals conference in DC, I learned invaluable lessons about effective activism. I plan on employing these new strategies as staples to my activist efforts. Although I hold my beliefs to a very high standard, I by no means would ever way to condemn someone else for their choices. All I can do is invite others to entertain new ideas and introduce them to some alternatives that will benefit their health and the planet.

So, I hope this post can serve as an apology to anyone with whom I got a little "preachy." I am truly sorry. This journey is one of trial and error. I understand now that a gentler approach, one in which all I can do is plant seeds and hope to see them grow, is the best direction to take. I am open to all questions and will offer help to anyone who has the inclination to widen their circle of compassion.

For the Animals,

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


"People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they're not on your road doesn't mean they've gotten lost."

- H. Jackson Browne

Lately I have been thinking about choices. Unfortunately we have strong ideologies in our society that celebrate certain choices and merely acknowledge others. If one chooses a life of independence, service, and social justice, instead of revering and celebrating these people they often find themselves ostracized and alone.

A life that centers on higher education, learning, research, activism, philanthropy and years of servitude, may ironically be seen as empty through the eyes of our dominant culture.

Successes based on the pursuit of social justice are not held to the same regard as a conventional choices regarding marriage and family. And I for one think this needs to change.

This was brought to my attention via facebook: A young woman announced that she was engaged. With all the congratulations! and the i'm so happy for you! remarks you would think this woman just won the nobel peace prize. Meanwhile, achievements such as a Masters degree, or a Ph.D, or a new job, that actually take hard work, are barely thought twice about, let alone celebrated as grandiosely as say a pregnancy or engagement.

This is not to say that i don't enjoy celebrating the choices of others. To feel genuine happiness for others is a truly extraordinary feeling. I just want to put forth a plea for change. It is time that so called unconventional choices, those that take time and passion, be celebrated just as grandly.

Sometimes it is hard for others to acknowledge those who don't walk on the same path as them. They may think they are merely still waiting for their lives to start. I beg to differ. One can gain fulfillment from so many things. Open your eyes to the joy of everyones choices. Cause after all, thats exactly what they are. Choices.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Leather Shoes

This is a lesson on forgiveness. Forgiveness of the self. Forgiveness for my leather shoes.

I came across an enlightening article that centered on the danger of activists preaching absolutes. The problem with absolutes is that they are destined for failure. You are highly unlikely to inspire someone into a certain lifestyle by preaching a code of conduct that can seem overwhelming and nearly impossible to adopt.

As much as I would like to inspire people to give up meat, I realize now that the only thing I can do is lead by example. Any kind of preaching or moral high ground usually backfires, resulting in an increase of meat consumption out of spite. To counter this, I plan to continue to spread my message, all the while being mindful of my methods. I am by no means a "food elitist," I have just ingrained a sense of awareness regarding the horror show that is modern day farming, and the detrimental effects of consuming a meat based diet.

To anyone who wonders "what do you eat?" I answer with the beauty of expansion of food choice that a vegan diet brings. I have a new found love affair with food. I am more open to trying no cuisines that I would've normally not given the time of day. I crave healthy fuel for my body, instead of an instant gratification that is achieved with a lot of fat and sugar. My passion for cooking is in overdrive. In fact I'm hungry now!

Going back to my leather shoes... I have been going through an internal battle. I look down at my shoes and I punish myself for the blatant hypocrisy. What has amazed me in the subsequent introspection, is that instead of focusing on all the positive changes I have made, and relishing on how amazing I feel, the energy I have, and how my disposition is just well, brighter, I focus on how I won't fully be authentic until I get rid of all my leather shoes and purses.

The big picture here is the need to accept yourself for exactly where you at any certain time. I don't want to miss out on celebrating all the positive changes because I am disappointed in myself for the downfalls.

I know in my lifetime I will aid in the alleviation of animal and human suffering. I have to be proud of my past accomplishments, my present contributions, and my future successes.

One day my leather handbags and shoes will be part of my past. But until that day comes, I need to stop punishing myself. And to anyone else who holds their behavior to high standards, I salute you. But remember, nobody is perfect. It is just important to keep working towards the goal at your own pace. You will get there.