Practically Vegan
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Practically Vegan

Issues/Environment , Stories/84 , Issues/Sustainability
Sydney NSW, Australia
21st Jul 2017
Practically Vegan
Does a label define us, or does it confine us? Mallory reveals why she no longer considers herself a vegan, and has instead becoming the curator of her own (animal product-free) consumption.

"Wait, aren't you vegan?" Charlie asked. Everyone was looking at me like they were thinking the exact same thing.

"What?" I said, and took a huge bite of donut in protest. "I haven't been vegan for like, two years now."

"Damo said you were the other day!"

"Damo?" I'd forgotten Charlie worked with my housemate. "What did he say?"

"Something about all your weird vegan food."

I'd stopped calling myself vegan months before I even met Damo. When my housemates asked, I told them I was vegetarian, and that I didn't really eat eggs or dairy either. I'm still not sure what he meant by 'weird' vegan food; my home diet consists mostly of Weet-Bix with soy milk and Vegemite on toast. But this was one of the reasons I'd ditched the label. I came to resent that while it described my dietary preferences, the term "vegan" comes with a host of other identifiers that don't reflect who I am. I even took a lot of them onboard - completely uncritically - when I first started out. It's only looking back that I can see the impact that calling myself a "vegan" had on my sense of self.

I went vegan in August 2013. It was something I'd been thinking about doing since reading about the environmental impact of raising cattle, so when the guy I was dating made the change it was easy for me to follow. It was fun at first; experimenting with recipes and finding new places to eat. Deciding what to eat was actually the easiest part of being vegan. They tell you what you can't eat, and everything else is fine. Bread? Already vegan. Pizza? Vegetarian, no cheese. Biscuits? You can have Gingernuts, Chocolate Ripples, Oreos and so much more.

I took every aspect of being a vegan very seriously. While my primary concern was the contribution of agricultural practices to global warming, I soon found myself equally interested in animal welfare and personal health - the other two key motivators for a vegan diet. I stopped buying wool and leather. I bought a tote bag that said "Go Vegan, Stay Vegan". If I accidentally ate meat or cheese, I'd start crying and try to throw it up. All I wanted to do was lecture my friends and family on the benefits of a plant-based diet but as time went on, I felt alienated.

One Christmas, my dad bought me a new phone case not realising it was made from leather. I refused to use it. Whenever somebody went to the trouble of having vegan food at a party, I felt guilty because it was just for me. Once I went to an Italian restaurant with a group of friends, and the staff didn't think they could make me anything that was completely vegan. My friends all had dinner while I sat at the table politely, not eating.

In search of support, I started to follow local vegans on Instagram. I couldn't help but notice uncanny similarities between many of the accounts I found. Their posts were all smoothie bowls or masses of exotic fruits and cooked starches, interspersed with pictures of animals under duress. Everybody in the community was using the same hashtags - #adelaidevegans #veganfood #whatveganseat #carbthefuckup - signifying their membership to club vegan. Everybody seemed to cycle or do yoga and, I confess, so did I. The bike was definitely a mistake. I can barely walk in a straight line.

practicallyvegan 1
Pictured: Mallory Steele

Another post I often saw was "food-porn" captioned with a sarcastic rant about the supposedly restrictive nature of a vegan diet - picking fun at the ignorance of non-vegans whilst simultaneously reaffirming veganism's status as alternate. Vegans campaign for a vegan world, yet this idea of being deviant from the mainstream is so important to vegan culture. Then there were the collective nouns: 'us' to refer to 'vegans' and 'people' to refer to anyone else. Through this language, non-vegans become an oppressive majority, and vegans become non-people. When has segregation ever promoted progress? Activism is ineffective when it alienates anyone who thinks differently and only reaches those who already agree. This is why I stopped calling myself vegan.

My personal experience of veganism was that it operates like an ideology. Refusing to benefit from systems that take advantage of animals is undoubtedly admirable, but it has to be done on your own terms. By functioning as a set of intransigent rules, veganism - or any label - can strip individuals of their ability to think independently.

As a vegan, I consumed only what the ideology allowed. My personal values were deemed secondary to the values that veganism dictated. When I rejected the phone case that my dad gave me, I prioritised veganism over family. When I chose to eat nothing at a dinner with my friends, I prioritised veganism over social participation. It was only when I shed the label that everything I consumed became a conscious decision that affirmed my own values. I don't buy cheese from the supermarket, but I'll eat an arancini ball at a party - and I'm okay with that.

We use labels to identify ourselves, yet at the same we can lose our identities to them. When I decided to "go vegan", my intention was to make a positive impact by refusing to consume agricultural produce. However, in doing so I lost touch with parts of myself. Now, as the curator of my own consumption, I am able to live the way I choose and maintain the relationships that were slipping away from my vegan self. I live with compassion. I live on my own terms. I live, not as a vegan, but as a person.

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