You Are What You Eat: Nonvegan Pigs and Intersectional Failure

“YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT” warns People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in a billboard designed for the residents of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While audiences are unlikely to go vegan from such an approach, it does exemplify the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s propensity to draw on human discrimination to shame compliance.

A PETA blogger writes:

Vegans weigh an average of 18 percent less than meat-eaters, and they are less prone to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. I’d call that a good reason for Louisianans to cry “wee, wee, wee” all the way to the produce aisle.

This essay will unpack the number of ways in which mean-spirited campaigns, especially those lacking an intersectional lens, can become terribly counterproductive.

Sizeism

In a society that stigmatizes fat and a movement that is resistant to acknowledging the intersecting nature of oppressions, it is tempting to utilize fat-shaming to impose veganism as the preferable alternative as PETA has done. There are a number of problems with this tactic, however. First, scientific evidence supports that fat-shaming does not work, and it has actually been deemed a health hazard by some scholars due to its ability to inflict psychological, physical, and occupational harm to fat persons. Second, it is logically inconsistent. Many vegans weigh less, but as much as one third of plant-based eaters do not.

Speciesism

Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of PETA’s pig campaigning is that the advertisements bank on the stigmatization of pigs in order resonate with viewers. Pigs are no more gluttonous than any other mammal, except those who have been genetically altered by modern agricultural practices. These pigs often have insatiable appetites as they have been “bred” for rapid growth to increase their market weight. Even if pigs were naturally gluttonous, however, utilizing a stereotype about Nonhuman Animals to advance Nonhuman Animal interests is logically unsound.

Classism and Racism

Louisiana is marked by extreme poverty and has a high population of people of color still reeling from a legacy of institutionalized discrimination. Louisiana was of course a slave state prior to the 1860s, but slavery continues today through the new system of mass incarceration. Louisiana is the world’s prison capital, with one in 14 men of color behind bars.  Baton Rouge ranks #4 in concentrated poverty, and ranks second to last in regards to children born prematurely and living in poverty. It is also plagued with food deserts, complicated by a substandard public transit system.  In fact, as many as 100,000 Baton Rouge citizens live in a food desert.  It’s not a matter of simply eating healthier, it’s a matter of having access to healthier options in the first place.

Given that the city PETA targets in this campaign has such a high population of people of color and lower income persons, the choice to animalize residents is also problematic. Historically, animalizing people of color and poor persons has served as a means of maintaining white superiority and class privilege. Animalization justifies institutionalized discrimination. As long as society sees Nonhuman Animals as a point of comparison to denigrate, this tactic will likely repel potential vegans rather than attract them.

Ableism

Lastly, it should be considered that regardless of body type, the consumption of animal products is linked to a litany of life threatening diseases such as those identified in PETA’s advert. These diseases hurt and kill, and mocking them with the “This Little Piggie” nursery rhyme is inappropriate. Disability is not a condition to be shamed or trivialized, especially so given its tendency to target vulnerable communities.

While this campaign is particularly confused, it certainly is not an anomaly in anti-speciesist claimsmaking. Ads like these demonstrate a serious need for diversity in movement leadership, as well as research into the effectiveness of persuasion techniques. Most importantly, there is a fundamental need to acknowledge the intersectional nature of oppression. Vulnerable human groups need not be degraded in the promotion of veganism’s message of compassion. Indeed, the tactic and goal in this case are wholly unsuited to one another.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology and past Director of Gender Studies (2016-2018) with Monmouth University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

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Real Power

Closeup of one of PETA's Lettuce Ladies wearing a bar in public with a large "GO VEG!" button on her bra strap

Real power isn’t gained and wielded based on anyone else’s desire for your body or how you think you look today — that’s about as disposable as it gets, dictated by someone else’s preferences and whims and discarded just as quickly.

If the viral video you are viewing or the “empowering” messages you are reading are asking you to value your beauty and your body at the expense of your goodness, skills, gifts, etc., that message is keeping you stuck in a place of self-objectification.

– Beauty Redefined (Facebook post, April 9, 2015)

Read more at “Loving Your Body 101: The Three Questions of Positive Body Image

The Sexual Politics of Vegan Food

Cover for "Crazy Sexy Diet"

Carol Adams has written extensively on the sexual politics of meat, arguing that women and other animals are both sexualized and commodified to facilitate their consumption (both figuratively and literally) by those in power. One result has been the feminization of veganism and vegetarianism.  This has the effect of delegitimizing, devaluing, and defanging veganism as a social movement.

But I argue that this process works within the vegan movement as well, with an open embracing of veganism as inherently feminized and sexualized.  This works to undermine a movement (that is comprised mostly of women) and repackage it for a patriarchal society.  Instead of strong, political collective of women, we have yet another demographic of sexually available individual women who exist for male consumption.

Take a browse through vegan cookbooks on Amazon, and the theme of “sexy veganism” that emerges is unmistakable.

Cover for "Ms. Cupcake:  The Naughtiest Vegan Cakes in Town!" Pictures a piece of cake with a tiny woman in a bikini sitting on top

Ms. Cupcake: The Naughtiest Vegan Cakes in Town!

Cover for "Skinny Bitch: Ultimate Everyday Cookbook" Shows author posing with food dishes

Cover for "Skinny Bitch in Love:  A Novel"

Oftentimes, veganism is presented as a means of achieving idealized body types.  These books are mostly geared to a female audience, as society values women primarily as sexual resources for men and women have internalized these gender norms.  Many of these books bank on the power of thin privilege, sizism, and stereotypes about female competition for male attention to shame women into purchasing.

Cover for "Become a Sexy Vegan Beast:  The Guide to Vegan Bodybuilding, Vegan Nutrition, and Body Fat Loss" Shows woman in a sports bra and shorts with hands on her hips looking behind her

Cover for "Skinny Bitch Fitness:  Boot Camp"

Cover for "Eat Yourselve Sexy", Shows a topless woman with her arms up and behind her head, looking seductively at the camera

Eat Yourself Sexy

Cover for "Appetite for Reduction" A vegan weight loss book. Shows an illustrated woman in vintage style

To reach a male audience, authors have to draw on a notion of “authentic masculinity” to make a highly feminized concept palatable to a patriarchal society where all that is feminine is scorned.  Some have referred to this trend as “heganism.”  The idea is to protect male superiority by unnecessarily gendering veganism into veganism for girls and veganism for boys.  For the boys, we have to appeal to “real” manhood.

Thankfully Meat Is For Pussies (A How-to Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass and Take Names) appears to be out of print.

Cover for "Skinny Bastard:  A Kick-in-the-Ass for Real Men Who Want to Stop Being Fat and Start Getting Buff"

Skinny Bastard: A Kick-in-the-Ass for Real Men Who Want to Stop Being Fat and Start Getting Buff

Cover for "Eating Veggies Like a Man"

Cover for "Real Men Eat Tofu"

Then there is the popular tactic of turning women into consumable objects in the exact same way that meat industries do.  Animal rights groups recruit “lettuce ladies” or “cabbage chicks” dressed as vegetables to interact with the public.  PETA routinely has nude women pose in and among vegetables to convey the idea that women are sexy food.  Vegan pinup sites and strip joints also feed into this notion.  Essentially, it is the co-optation and erosion of a women’s movement.  Instead of empowering women on behalf of animals, these approaches disempower women on behalf of men.

Image shows two white, tan women back to back wearing lettuce bikinis and opening their mouths wide to insert veggie dogs. Woman facing camera is wearing a Playboy necklace.

Alyssa Milano dressed in vegetables. Reads: "Let Vegetarianism Grow on You."

Vegan Body Shaming: Analyzing the Evidence

Trigger Warning: Fat-shaming.Vegan Body Image Shaming

By Corey Lee Wrenn

After coding data for an upcoming publication on demographic representations in vegan media, I was utterly shocked to discover that nearly all analyzed subjects were undeniably skinny.  Over a twelve year span, the two magazines included in my study featured only a handful of subjects (mostly men) who were noticeably athletic, toned, or carrying “excess” body fat.  Only one female subject appeared to deviate from the thin norm, but she was also wearing baggy clothing, so it was unclear.

Vegan campaigns sometimes go beyond this otherwise indirect connection between veganism and weight loss and blatantly suggest that if you want to be “hot” and “fit,” you need to go vegan.  Freedman and Barnouin’s Skinny Bitch is a prime example, as is PETA’s “Save the Whales” billboard campaign. The overwhelming representation of thinness in our movement is a problem in itself, but our fixation on veganism as a weight loss miracle carries with it several implications that target vulnerable populations:  women, people of color, and “obese” persons.

PETA Fat Shaming

Body shaming is especially problematic for a movement whose largest demographic is women.  When we promote veganism as a means to lose weight, we normalize thinness as the ideal body type.  This alienates those vegan women who do not fit within this ideal and it denigrates non-vegan women who do not fit it either.  Research has shown that veganism is indeed an important variable in reducing excess body fat, but one 2005 medical report found that as much as 29% of vegans are overweight or obese.  That means about 1/3 of our vegan community does not reflect the idealized thin body that represents us on magazines, websites, videos, and other lifestyle or outreach literature.

Idealizing thinness is really the idealization of higher socioeconomic class.  It oftentimes takes considerable income to have access to fresh vegetables and fruits.  Vegans without that luxury must rely on cheap, carbohydrate-heavy grains like flour, pasta, and potatoes.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, and even spring water tend to be far more expensive than their processed counterparts.

We cannot forget that socioeconomic status is not simply about economic resources, but social resources as well.  In the United States, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, a result of centuries of oppression and continuing inequality.  They are also disproportionately located in areas with limited availability for healthful foods (rural areas and segregated inner city neighborhoods); these are known as food deserts.  In The Inspired Vegan, Bryant Terry, who advocates for improving food access for disadvantaged peoples, notes that in 2007, Oakland California housed 53 liquor stores, but not a single full-service supermarket.  Those living in food deserts might not have a car, could lack access to public transportation, and they may lack the time to travel out of town for healthier groceries due to work and childcare responsibilities.

Finally, the demonization of “fat” in the United States has very real and disastrous consequences for those humans unfortunate enough to fit within that socially constructed category.  “Overweight” humans (especially women) can face hiring discrimination, are less likely to be promoted or selected for prestigious projects, and they ultimately make less money overall.  And of course, weight discrimination can result in hurtful interpersonal mistreatment as well, like name-calling and objectification.

Skinny Bitch

I can understand that many vegans enthusiastically promote veganism as a weight-loss diet (and I do not deny that some types of obesity can be life-threatening), but we must be mindful that body weight is a complex social issue and the celebration over thinness can be hurtful to others who lack the social and economic privilege that most vegans enjoy.  This movement is about nonviolence, and this principle must extend beyond Nonhuman Animals to include our fellow activists as well.

Vegan media sources, too, should be aware of their influential role.  Consistently portraying a particular body type that is relatively unachievable for a good number of us creates a harmful and unrealistic ideal.  The impact of thinness in women’s magazines is well documented.  When the media is inundated with thin (often airbrushed) figures, this can seriously impact consumer self-esteem and lead to eating disorders. But some magazines like Seventeen have responded with a commitment to picturing “real” people.  This should be a goal for vegan media as well.

As social activists, we should not only be concerned with the well-being of our community members, but we should also recognize that our media portrayals are influential in attracting (or repelling) certain demographics.  If we consistently show thin people (or women, or whites, or higher socioeconomic status individuals), we are framing our movement as one meant for certain types of people, but not for others.  Yet, I suspect that diversity will be an essential variable in achieving social change.  I suggest, then, that we begin to think critically about how our movement is being represented and set our bar a little higher to include all body types and all backgrounds.

 

This post was originally published by One Green Planet on January 30, 2013.

 

Corey Lee WrennMs. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is an instructor of Sociology and graduate student at Colorado State University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity.