The Pressure of Perfection Within the Vegan Community

Faye Held Opinion Nov 30, 2020

Over 200 million animals are unnecessarily killed for food every day when there are thousands of other food options to consume. Vegans and vegetarians share the goal of limiting negative environmental impacts and animal abuse within animal agriculture and dairy industries. Meat production is a huge cause of pollution and climate change, and eating a conscious being who can sense pain and emotion can feel morally wrong. For those reasons, it may seem like the best thing for everyone to do is follow a fully plant-based diet — to completely cut out meat and dairy. But that is the wrong way to go about things.

When I first became vegetarian, I quit eating meat cold turkey. Although it was difficult to resist meat the first few months, it was easier than veganism due to the fact that meat is inherently an animal: every time I looked at a piece of meat, I associated it vividly with a living being. I saw the cow being slaughtered in every piece of steak, the pig in every rack of ribs, and the chicken in every set of wings. As I began attempting veganism at the behest of my therapist—a devout vegan— this became even more difficult. The easy part was cutting out unprocessed milk, eggs, and cheese. Akin to my vegetarian mindset, I associated cheese and milk with a cow's breast milk, meant for her calves, and eggs with baby chicks taken from hens. But I hit a roadblock when I realized many of my favorite foods included dairy. I would eat any cookie or snack offered to me without a second thought, only to discover that they contained eggs or milk. I would beat myself up about it, and feel guilty for the rest of the day, as if I should be ashamed of myself for not being a “true” vegan. I would become so disappointed in myself that I would often end up completely giving up on veganism.

This toxic ideology that one cannot enjoy even a small portion of an animal product due to the pressure to remain “fully” vegan/vegetarian prevents people from changing their diet at all, undermining the mission. Studies have shown that 84% of all vegetarians and vegans will return back to meat in their lifetime. 43% of those who had abandoned vegetarianism/veganism claimed that their issue with the diet was the need to be completely “pure”. The notion that you can never indulge in animal products to combat the harmful effects of animal agriculture is simply not true. Making any attempt to limit the amount of meat or dairy you consume and buy is a huge step. That shows that you have educated yourself on the cruelties and detrimental environmental effects of animal agriculture, and you’re trying to change your personal lifestyle to limit the demand for these products.

After undergoing a harrowing cycle of guilt, I eventually decided I had had enough. There was no reason for me to put so much pressure on myself to conform to complete veganism when doing that just led to shame and self deprecation. The fact that I was making continual efforts not to eat animal products was enough. I refused to be a part of the 36% of vegans and vegetarians who quit because of the pressure to be perfect.

As a community, vegans and vegetarians understand that converting from an omnivorous to an herbivorous diet overnight is daunting---that’s not the point. We want a wider range of people making an active effort in their daily life to avoid meat products, not a few people going 100% vegan who will quite possibly abandon this lifestyle.  We want more people educating themselves on animal agriculture and making small daily efforts to limit their meat consumption. In other words, we don’t need perfection from small groups of people--we need mass amounts of people choosing alternatives to meat a few times a week. Our goal is not to scare away those who are considering veganism, but to encourage them with flexibility and understanding.

Part of that effort is offering small, attainable substitutes. For example, a tofu scramble rather than a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, or oat milk rather than dairy milk. Equally important is establishing regularity and routine, which is why Meatless Monday is a great idea. Meatless Monday is a global movement that basically promotes the idea of not eating meat once a week on Mondays. Though it seems like a very minor step, if everyone in America stopped eating meat just on Mondays, America would save 1.4 billion animals every year, 100 billion gallons of water, and 147 billion dollars.

Individual pressure is not only to blame. The global culture has grown around this ideology of perfection and many influencers in the vegan/vegetarian community solely promote complete conversion rather than making small efforts. We must overcome and break that illusion for not only would fewer people quit, but a much wider range of people would be willing to try meat substitutions, and the stigma of the “pushy vegan” who shames everyone for unknowingly promoting environmental degradation and mass abuse and slaughter would come to an end.

The plant-based community needs to put more emphasis on smaller steps from larger populations, and encouraging flexible individual action does just that. When all of these little efforts come together, slowly but surely, it makes a big difference in the grand scheme of things. So next Monday, choose a Beyond Burger rather than a cheeseburger. You may be surprised at how delicious vegan and vegetarian alternatives are, and you can start your week knowing that you made a difference.

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