Silencing Stereotypes

Our preconceptions of a person, place or topic can have a lasting influence on how we view that thing in future. Today I want to address this idea in relation to one lifestyle choice that can be particularly controversial within society: veganism. Now, before any non-vegans quickly close this window of their web browser, please know that this post is not written purely for vegans – in fact, I’ve written this particularly with non-vegans in mind, so please read on!

I have been vegan for almost one year now, but before that time I was no where near being vegan. Heck, I wasn’t even vegetarian. I can clearly remember what my opinion of veganism was back then (read: extreme and cult-like), so I wanted to write this post to highlight that most vegans feel much the same as non-vegans do about the lifestyle before they start out. Some of you guys have been kind enough to share your own thoughts too, and interestingly, most of us seemed to share the same past worries and beliefs. Let’s discuss…

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“Salad salad salad salad!” – @SEOKBI

One of the most widely shared misconceptions of vegans is how little they can eat. As “vegetarian” sounds so similar to “vegetable”, my mind had subconsciously assumed that veggies were pretty much all that vegans could eat. As @lovealwayserica puts it, it really seemed that vegans “were lacking in a lot of delicious foods, like ice cream and brownies”. But this really isn’t the case! We often forget about basic vegan staples such as pasta, rice, and oats, and even commercial snacks are often vegan without consumers realising (Oreos, I’m looking at you). So whilst many vegans may choose to eat mainly fresh produce and wholefoods, it is also possible to exist on a vegan diet solely composed of fries, cookies and PB&J sandwiches. In short, you can be vegan and still have your cake and eat it.

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“I thought it would be so hard to eat out… and it turns out it’s easy” – @NOURISHINGGLITTER

An equally large concern for many new vegans is whether they will ever be able to attend social gatherings again. Food plays a huge role in our relationships, be it a family meal out for special occasions or a quick café stop with friends. No one wants their lifestyle preferences to stop them from enjoying these things, but – as I quickly learnt – being vegan really doesn’t have to interfere. Fast-food found in restaurants can easily be made vegan if it isn’t already (pizzas without cheese, pasta without parmesan), and if all else fails it would be hard to find a restaurant that didn’t stock rice/pasta and vegetables.

Eating out as a vegan simply involves doing a bit of research of menus online beforehand, or getting used to asking for a variety of side dishes and extra salad toppings to create your own filling meal. I’ve found that most restaurants are happy to accommodate you if you ask nicely. What’s more, with an increasing number of people looking to eat more healthily and reduce their meat consumption, more and more restaurants are providing options for different dietary requirements – as @annaveggiebelle has found, “more and more things are available… society seems to change!” Keep asking and places will respond to demand, especially if you express gratitude for their vegan options after your meal.

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“[I thought] I would be instantly fitter and healthier” – @FEEDINGMINDBODYSOUL

On social media today, veganism often conjures up images of glowing individuals thriving on a diet of fresh fruit and buzzing with energy. A lot of non-vegans exposed to the lifestyle on this platform can therefore assume that going vegan will solve all of their health woes, an assumption that can sometimes be misguided. Many of you will be aware of the links between animal protein and cancer, heart disease and strokes, so in a lot of ways it is true that cutting these products out of your diet will benefit your health immensely. However, as Chelsea (@feedingmindbodysoul) points out, being vegan won’t make your immune system superhuman – she, just like the rest of us, still gets sick. Becoming vegan won’t make you instantly healthier or fitter; yes, these things will likely improve significantly on a vegan diet, but they will also take time.

On the flip side of this, my own misconceptions of vegans were that they were in fact constantly ill. A few years ago the only vegetarian that I knew always appeared to be weak and generally lacking in energy and nutrients. As a result, I subconsciously assumed that this was the case for all vegetarians and vegans – how wrong I was! Contrary to what some people would have you believe, it is not hard at all to get sufficient protein and iron whilst eating plants. Furthermore, there are an army of top athletes and body builders out there who are vegan without anybody realising – check out the former Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier’s record and books for more information on this topic. As long as you eat a well balanced diet made up of a variety of plant foods it is easy to get enough nutrients and energy. No protein jokes necessary.

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“Most of the vegans I know are really disrespectful about those who aren’t vegan” – @RATBAGS

Onto the topic for which I got the most responses: those “crazy vegans”. Our society often depicts vegans as being extreme individuals who furiously accuse non-vegans of murder, and it is true that there are some vegans like this. However, these people are campaigning about something they believe to be beneficial and worth listening to, just like there are outspoken activists protesting against wars and offshore oil drilling. We are only exposed to the most active and “extreme” individuals because these are the ones who usually get interviewed by the press, but for every one of those people there are likely hundreds more who believe the same things yet approach things in a different way. Not every vegan wants to engage you in a heated debate! As @annaveggiebelle puts it: “of course some people are crazy in a bad way but… there are also crazy non-vegans!”

That being said, there is a difference between speaking out about something you believe in and being downright rude to anyone who doesn’t agree with you. Veganism is about living compassionately with respect for all living beings, so a change is definitely needed for that minority of vegans who approach non-vegans with contempt and condescension. As @ratbags says, “just like vegans hate when people are ignorant and rude about the way we eat, non-vegan people feel the same way about rude vegans… it’s easier to open people’s eyes when you do it in a kind, enlightening way”. This opinion is seconded by @annaveggiebelle, who had first-hand experience of being accused of murder by the only vegan she knew and consequently felt pretty anti-vegan.

Even sadder is the fact that @jotothelow claims that “…if veganism was more acceptable I probably would be fully vegan” – the fear of others seeing her as a “preachy vegan” and asking her to “justify every single decision” at the dinner table prevents her from feeling able to express her own thoughts and live the lifestyle that she wants to. Naturally, no one will want to become part of a movement that makes them feel terrible about themselves, so the best way to prevent aspiring vegans from feeling this way is for society to stop depicting vegans as cult-like fanatics, and for vegans to similarly show non-vegans understanding and kindness. Answer questions openly, but do it as though you are standing beside someone on their journey rather than looking down on them. For more information on how to spread awareness effectively see a previous blog post I wrote here.

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So there we have it…

…A few of the main preconceptions of vegans that many of you have come across, and how most of those have turned out to not really be representative of reality. Becoming a vegan really isn’t like joining a cult, not every vegetarian is a sickly weed, and you can keep your social life. Stereotypes and uninformed beliefs are rife in our society, but by exploring the community beneath these we can often find something quite different than we expected. In future, let’s all try to delve deeper before we make assumptions – at worst, our suspicions may be confirmed, but at best we may be exposed to a whole new mindset.

Let’s finish with a more empowering preconception highlighted by my friend Chelsea (@feedingmindbodysoul) relating to the impact that veganism can have. In her words, “I didn’t know how much my change would affect the environment and how much I could personally make a difference”. I couldn’t agree more – if someone had told me that every quarter-pound burger I ate used up the same amount of water as 6 months of showering I would definitely have stopped eating meat a lot earlier! This misconception that one person can’t make a difference is possibly the most important one we need to shatter – you alone CAN make a big difference, and your influence could inspire others to make a difference too. I’ll talk about this more in my next blog post about the impact of living for one year as a vegan, so stay tuned.

Thank you to everyone who shared their opinions with me in this post. And for now, keep those minds open and those stereotypes silenced!

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