I’m increasingly hearing comments these days about what a vegan should be like, or rather, what they should look like. Healthy, vital, skinny and gorgeous; eyes sparkling and skin glowing from all the fresh produce we have in our diets. I’ve encountered fruitarians and raw foodists who claim that we have a responsibility to adopt their version of a vegan diet in order to ‘convert’ as many people as possible through sheer fruity sexiness!
It got me thinking. Are we as individuals necessarily representing all vegans? And if so, how should we deal with this; what is the ‘ideal vegan role model’?
The first question, in striking contrast to the second, is easy to answer. How many vegans live in your immediate community? Chances are, not many. You may in fact be the only one. So yes, like it or not, everyone around you will base their opinions of all vegans based on you!
No pressure then.
So, now for the second question: what is the definition of a good vegan role model and how can I attain such perfection?!
There’s no getting away from it, we live in an incredibly shallow society; if sex sells, so too do health, youth and vitality. And like it or not, we have something to sell. If you care enough to overhaul your entire lifestyle, the chances are you want to see an end to all animal abuse and the ‘easiest’ way to do that is to convince others to become vegan too.
It would be great if a few slaughterhouse pictures were sufficient in encouraging others on to the path of compassion but sadly it takes more. We have to convince people that you can not only survive on a vegan diet, but thrive on it. How better to demonstrate this than to strut down the street looking the absolute picture of health and beauty? Other women will nudge each other as you pass;
‘She’s vegan you know’
‘Really? Well, it’s clearly working for her, she’s looks fantastic. I might give it a try myself…’
Following this logic, do we then have a duty to keep ourselves in tip top condition? Not for ourselves, but for the animals…?
Again with the pressure!
For many vegans, this is simply unattainable. After all, a plant based diet is a fantastic basis for good health but it’s not a cure all.
Unfortunately I speak from personal experience. I suffer from a congenital heart defect. I find that it is much improved since becoming vegan but no amount of kale, tahini or fresh fruit is going to cure me!
So where does this leave me in the role model stakes?
Last summer I took part in a 5km run for charity. I almost wore my vegan themed t-shirt (any excuse eh?!) but thankfully changed my mind at the last minute. I say thankfully because the day of the run turned out to be unexpectedly warm (heat affects my heart quite badly at times) and I almost passed out at about the 3km mark. I don’t think anyone would have viewed that as good advertising for veganism and had I been wearing my vegan t-shirt no doubt many people would have put my near collapse down to lack of protein or something equally ridiculous!
Let’s spare a thought now for the skinny vegans among our ranks; these individuals, blessed/cursed by good genes and fast metabolisms that have always been slender and a plant diet hasn’t changed their bodies by more than a few lbs either way. I can only imagine how many people on a day to day basis try to convince them that they need ‘a good steak’ to help them ‘put some meat on their bones’. Should we consider them bad role models for perpetuating the stereotype of the malnourished vegan?
We ‘curvy’ ladies don’t fare much better. Veganism will not cure a tendency to store fat on our bums or do much to aid a lifetime of psychological overeating. It will also not cure our ‘hilarious’ family members of the desire to point out that they thought that ‘all vegans are supposed to be skinny’.
Do we have a duty then, as vegan ‘role models’ to step away from the ethical cupcakes or is it actually a positive thing to show people that vegans don’t all conform to the skinny, pale stereotype?
I know you’re waiting for the pithy, well thought out conclusion, but I’m afraid I’m stumped.
On the one hand, I can see the point of the fruitarians – in my pre vegan days, I think I would have been naturally drawn to the person positively glowing with health and might well have been interested in hearing more about how they achieve such radiance.
On the other hand, if someone told me that I had to live on nothing but fruit and raw veggies forever more, I’d likely pass out on the spot out of sheer terror! I’d happily take the curvy girl who can be ethical and compassionate while still eating cake and drinking wine with her friends as my vegan role model. A lot of my own campaigning centres around the premise that you don’t have to give up ‘treats’ in order to be vegan and in that respect I suppose the fact that I’m not skinny is an asset – I’m clearly not living on twigs, grass and ‘rabbit food’.
Is it not beneficial to show the world that vegans come in all shapes and sizes, and that we have representatives in just about every subset of culture that you can imagine?
Yes, now I’m getting closer to figuring it out. I feel proud to be part of a movement that encompasses people from all walks of life, that isn’t a one size fits all kind of a deal. There isn’t a carbon copy role model to which we should aspire. There isn’t a uniform. It’s really not an exclusive club: anyone can become a member.
To prove this point to myself as much as anyone else I’d like to look to someone who I consider to be a worthy vegan role model. Some of you may be familiar with the name Debbie Deboo.
Debbie is a vegan and animal rights campaigner of many years experience. She made the news recently when she was carried away from an AR protest by the police. The reason this was so newsworthy, is that she was carried off in her wheelchair.
Debbie suffers from ME, hence the wheelchair. She’s unable to work fulltime and can’t really exercise. To say she doesn’t feel like anything even remotely resembling a ‘healthy role model’ probably goes without saying. Yet, she spends her time and the little energy she has (when she’s not working on her own business designing glamorous walking aids) fighting for animal rights.
And she’s not alone. There are many others who are fighting personal battles of one kind or another, yet still devote their time to promoting veganism and work tirelessly to be a voice for the voiceless.
So you can stick your conventional image of what a vegan role model should be. Slim, healthy, radiant – great, if that’s achievable for you, go for it. But what I really look for in a vegan role model is someone whose compassion for animals is so strong it pushes them beyond their perceived limits: someone who puts the welfare of other beings before their own comfort. Someone who will fight until the war is won. Now, that is a role model no matter how they look on the outside!