Veganism - the unthinkable gets thunk

Historically I've been the kind of carnivore that demanded my steak freshly killed, dripping with blood, as blue as they come. It was worn as a badge of honour, a sign that I could compete in the arena of testosterone-fuelled eating. I would wax lyrical about how I could stomach a faggot; I would hurl myself upon any haggis that rolled my way. I was a vampire, a tigress - a brute of a woman. Of course, all of this applied only when I was in 'normal' eating mode. During any of my eating disorder relapses meat was completely off the menu - far too high in calories and especially fat.

I ate one of these on Burns' Night back in 2012

I began thinking about meat pretty soon after my pregnancy and you can wipe that smile off your face right now you dirty-minded so-and-so - what I mean is that eating my previous dietary staples, like prosciutto or bresaola, started to gross me out a little bit. As the weeks went on, it actually began tasting like blood even. Not exactly the pleasant appetiser you had in mind, eh? And it really wasn't. Here's where other writers might say something like 'many an evening soiree was ruined by a foul-tasting bruschetta', but since I haven't been to one of those since before my son was born, I'll stick with just saying that many a time when I opened the fridge and went to shove a handful of parma ham into my mouth, whilst attempting to multitask and trying to stop my son from pelting face-first into the nearest piece of furniture, was marred by the unpleasant association I had begun to make between meat and blood. Just typing that sentence makes me cringe that I'd ignored reality for so long - it sounds completely ridiculous and i feel as if it makes me appear a little bit stupid. But there it was. The thing I least expected to get from childbirth - a dislike of meat products. Stuff does taste funny during pregnancy, normally benign textures suddenly become game changers and cravings kick in, and I did crave sushi almost the entire nine months but afterwards although all cravings were gone, my desire to eat meat just didn't return. 

I grew up in Somerset, and I spent a lot of my childhood on farms run by families with small amounts of land, who understood that caring for the animals they made their living from was a good bet. I never saw any obvious mistreatment going on, so I thought this was how all farming was. I did a lot of helping herd sheep from one field to another, and playing with a baby ram called 'Rambo' (obviously) who we knew was going to 'disappear' once he was big enough. Somehow we just accepted that humans ate meat and that was the end of it. I got it. There was, however, one thing I saw that stayed with me. We'd gone to watch a calf being born - I must've been about 6. At the beginning we were just watching the cow groaning in labour and nothing much was happening. You remember how much longer any amount of time felt when you were little, right? An hour when you were a child is equal to a full day once you're an adult - it seemed to go on for days to me. The farmer was trying to feel for the calf inside the cow (yeah, just exactly as you're imagining it) to help pull it into position, but after what seemed like a really long time of doing this repeatedly he realised it was breech and had got stuck. Calves have long back legs that are hard enough to birth as it is, so when they're all the wrong way around it's a major problem for both cow and calf. Having given birth to a soft, malleable human baby, I can speak with some level of authority on this. My boy's head jammed against my spine right in the middle of my labour and I sounded not unlike a cow every time I had a contraction, so I know that pain. But for this calf, with its four long legs and pointed hooves scraping their way along the birth canal, all without pain relief? Unimaginable, but something cows do the world over millions of times a day. I have a vivid and enduring memory of blood just pouring out of the cow, on to the floor and over the vet - and I mean what looked to my childish mind like torrents of blood, both vet and farmer wading around in it as the scene unfolded. They were so focused on saving these animals that they forgot we were still perched up on the wall watching all of this happening. 

Eventually, the vet pulled a dead calf out of the broken and exhausted cow and it fell to the floor. Both men were doing all the usual clearing of its airways in an attempt to bring it to life, but it had died, probably long before it was finally born. The cow, unaware of this was licking the membrane from her dead baby to stimulate a breath. Even as a child I knew that birth shouldn't end that way at all, and I ruminated (no pun intended) on this for a long time afterwards. We'd always had animals around us and some of them had died, as pets do, so we'd developed an awareness of loss and death already, but we weren't really old enough to be thinking over the big questions like mortality and trauma and I don't remember anyone talking to us about it either. Now I'm not for one second saying that children should be protected from death, but they definitely should be protected from unnecessary death, death that comes as a result of something someone does purely for their own enjoyment. Whilst we enjoy not talking thinking about death until it's right there in front of us, children elsewhere face it daily as they lose family and friends over money, religion and power. I find it bizarre that our species survives, as hellbent are we on killing each other in pursuit of the unattainable. 

Since I'd begun thinking about all of this again and still not coming up with an answer as to why we seem to feel ok about killing some animals, but others induce a feeling of grief not unlike when we lose a member of our human family, I'd not been eating meat. I just couldn't separate my mind from the reality that every sausage in the freezer not just represented, but actually was part of a corpse. I felt disgusted about it. Of course I know exactly why we feel ok about it - it's pretty fucking obvious that we'll feel ok about something we've grown up doing and had ingrained in our collective conscious through generations. We also felt ok about women not having a say in politics, or forcing women who got pregnant into institutions and removing their babies. Once you realise that things are not morally right just because we've always done them, the world becomes a terrifying place. Hence all the attacking of veganism, which I was just as guilty of as anyone else. It's hard to suddenly have to face the fact that doing things we thought were ok is actually wrong. About ten years ago a friend whose opinions I really respected, and who'd been vegan for ten years already by then tried to explain to me that milk isn't actually good for us. I refused to listen, despite the fact that he was a person I knew had critical thought well and truly mastered. The TV said milk was good back in the 80s, right? Well, hello 2016, where we've already started learning that not only were all our childhood role models paedophiles, but we now have hard evidence of gravitational waves in space, changing the face of physics and astronomy forever. The only difference being that none of us walk around with guilt about gravity. 

When you're talking to an audience where 1 in 4 (Americans) believes the sun orbits the earth, it's no wonder we can't assume everyone has the ability to think rationally; people never blame themselves for their own ignorance, they're more likely to blame whoever it is that they believe should've told them that the body of a dead animal they ate last night was the same sort of body their cat would leave behind. Only one gets to lead a nice life sleeping on the feet of a human who cares for them and an expensive cremation, and the other has their death planned before they're even born. We already know that people consume far too much fat and sugar, resulting in rising rates of heart disease and diabetes, yet as soon as you mention that veganism tends to automatically result in weight loss, people start crying eating disorders. As someone with some authority on that one let me assure you that veganism is not masking my ED - firstly I'm very open about the fact I've had anorexia, secondly veganism actually makes me feel more in control and therefore I'm inclined to eat more, and thirdly I got malnutrition eating a non-vegan diet. 'Recovery' sometimes means maintaining a diet in as healthy a way as you feel comfortable in your mind. What it really doesn't mean is being forced to be a weight that makes you feel stressed out and eat things you don't actually need for good health. If you want to maintain a slightly lower weight than others and take supplements and keep an eye on your vitamin and mineral levels, fucking do it. Funny how people are more suspicious of people who they think are too thin than they are of people they think are fat. Somewhere in ourselves we know that western diets are not the answer to our main health problems.

An 'Authority Nutrition' writer published this article listing umpteen reasons she thought vegan diets were bad for us in 2013, only to change her mind by 2015 (see '2015 update at the bottom). Read the whole stupid thing here. There'll be people out there who read it before the update and will now lead shorter, fatter lives because they now think veganism is bad for them. Kind of important, no?
The way I approach research on anything I'm interested in is to find as many studies done by reputable people (i.e. scientists) that contribute to one side of an argument, and then search for anything that claims to debunk it. Then I look for things to debunk that debunking, and so it goes on. I must've read every single article on both sides in order to find scientific evidence that humans simply must eat meat and dairy (because I thought I'd find in favour of milk), but all I found were things seem obvious looking back - like that the calcium we get in milk comes in a package with a load of other crap that's bad for us. I realised that maybe in a society where we don't educate on nutrition, children are growing up without basic nutritional needs met, so getting calories and calcium into them so they could grow was favoured over providing them with long-term health. Cows' milk is certainly full of calories so it does indeed make children grow in size, which is how we judge their health, right? Hmmm... 

There are so many myths that I'd not only bought into but actually perpetuated, arguments I'd thrown at others and ingrained beliefs that now seem utterly unfounded and yet for the most part pass us by unchallenged. Most people know that keeping, loving and protecting one type of animal - to the point of prosecuting people who mistreat them - whilst simultaneously killing many other species, isn't the right thing to do, but we don't want to think too much about it because then we'd have to face up to our guilt. Guilt is one of the biggest reasons people hate vegans so much. They know that when it truly comes down to it, killing animals just because we like how they taste, is not ok. Meat eaters seem to conveniently forget that since most people's social lives revolve around food, they actually talk about how great meat is quite often, but if someone who doesn't consume animal products dares say so, they're 'pushing it down our throats'. And then there's the whole fucking protein thing, which is getting so old now I can barely bring myself to type the word.

Moderation may be key, but only if whatever it is you're moderating. The thing is, people struggle to moderate themselves - we need a structure, a set of rules, something to keep us accountable. In the vegan 'community' (I hope you can detect the slight note of sarcasm there) just as in the meat-eating world, there are as many fabricated diets that purport to be the only way to eat! The answer to obesity! The only way to stay vegan! Whether that's Rawtill4, where you eat mostly raw fruit in the day and a cooked vegan meal in the evening, HLCF (High Carb Low Fat) who tend to eat fruits as a staple too, 'Just Vegan' (the latest push back against the first two I mentioned) or any other diet complete with ritual and routine, we need to believe that our way is the right way. There are people all over Youtube who follow all of these various diets and routinely bash each other for doing anything differently. Veganism is a 'lifestyle' simply because you do have to change and adapt from what you were doing before. Yes you do have to check labels, buy a bit of different food and find people who make cruelty-free toiletries, but most people would be all over that if they were sold it by decent marketing telling them it would help them lose weight and live longer. Our biggest problem isn't obesity, it's stupidity, fear, laziness and apathy. No diet or lifestyle can remove your human condition, unfortunately. And that condition doesn't 'do' moderation at all.


Anonymous said…
Drop the mic.

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