Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tim Hortons' animal welfare video is insulting your intelligence

In response to pressure from The Humane Society of the US about animal welfare in their supply chain, Canadian mega-chain Tim Hortons released this video to address concerns. The HSUS and others have termed this response greenwashing, but I think it's worse than that. I think they are counting on the fact that you aren't smart enough to see through some pretty blatant manipulation.

In the video, images of clean floors, sparkly factory equipment, pristine white eggs, and uninjured birds are set to placid music and speeches delivered by warm feminine voices. Only girl-next-door pretty, soft-spoken female employees are introduced, or even shown. Touchy-feely dialogue talks about how much they care about the animals, how interesting it is to watch them change and grow.

Now... watch it without the sound on.

What you'll notice is rows upon rows of adult birds crammed in tiny cages. What you'll notice is that they are living cogs in a giant machine. What you'll notice is imagery similar to The Matrix - a dystopia, where life is subjugated to technology. What you'll notice is that these birds will never see the sun, will never care for their own chicks, will never get out of those cages until they die. What you'll notice is that, no matter what nonsense they spew about animal welfare, what they're showing is a factory, not a farm.

It's also interesting to note that while the issue raised by HSUS was the treatment of pigs, the chain chose to focus their response on egg-laying chickens. Why? Because they're banking on the public misconception that animals aren't killed in egg production, they're diverting your attention to a less charged subject. They don't want to show you the rows and rows of pigs crammed into gestation crates without even enough room to turn around, not because the chickens are really any better off, but because that's an image you might connect to death. There are no pretty white eggs to show you, and if they show you bacon, you might make the connection that it's the pig's flesh.

Tim Hortons is insulting your intelligence, but I think you're smarter than that. Whether you eat meat and eggs or whether you don't, I think you know that this company is paying lip service to HSUS's concerns and trying to fool you into thinking that they're actually doing something about it. If you agree, please go click the Dislike button underneath the video, and let Tim Hortons know their ploy isn't working.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fat Vegans: Why We Matter

Well, PCRM is at it again, this time with a more subtle form of body-shaming in their latest ad campaign. In their newest campaign, targeted at an airline, they suggest a surcharge to sit next to a vegan -- who is of course portrayed as a thin, beautiful blonde woman. It's lovely that they can piggyback off of the airline industry's own record of fat-shaming and play on people's fears that others will be unhappy to share a seat with them or that they will be forced to pay for a second seat. How efficient. (For anyone who may have missed this as an issue, let me assure you, it's one of the most commonly asked questions in the popular Fatshionista community: "How will the airline I'll be taking treat me?". There are also horror stories of very public humiliations.)

Since my initial post about PCRM's body-shaming anti-cheese campaign, I've been engaged in a lot of discussion with folks about obesity and the dangers thereof, nutrition, junk-food, and stigma. I've spoken to people who are as upset by it as I was, people who respectfully disagreed (including PCRM's president himself), and one very angry fellow vegan who told me to "go have another doughnut" because my lack of sudden and startling weight-loss upon changing my diet surely meant I was a "junk-food vegan." (That's exactly the response I expected PCRM's ad to elicit towards fat folks, by the way. No surprise there.)  What no one is talking about is the very heart of PCRM's campaign, similar campaigns from PETA, and the obesity "epidemic" itself: fear and shame.

Virtually every person in this country falls into one of two categories:
1. those who live in fear of being fat
2. those who are ashamed because they are fat.

Stop and think about it for a second. Isn't that sad? Where are the people who are happy with their bodies, exercising because they love the feeling of being active, enjoying food without worry, and making rational eating decisions on the basis of health rather than weight? I know they exist, but how few and far between they are! Most of us are watching every bite with anxiety, looking for ways to cram in another thirty thoroughly repetitive minutes at the gym, and still not liking what we see in the mirror.

Why is there so much fear and shame associated with weight? The medical community will tell you it's because obesity is unhealthy. Sociologists disagree, since the cultural shift in thinking about weight pre-dates most research on the related health issues. But whatever the reason, the most important thing to understand is that it's counterproductive.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the tone of our discussions about obesity and health. The proof? The majority of research about weight and health has come out in the last 30 years. What has happened to global obesity levels in that time period? Global obesity levels have doubled in that time frame, according to a 2011 study in the Lancet. The more afraid we become, the fatter we are.

Let me be clear, I'm not saying that's the reason behind the weight gain. Contrary to what PCRM's cheese = obesity ad campaign suggests, obesity is a multi-factor problem. They're right that the increase in average cheese (and meat) intake are probably big reasons. But dozens of things have happened in the last three decades that have an impact on waistlines - for example, the rapid decrease in families with the luxury of a stay-at-home parent to do the cooking, the increase in availability and affordability of unhealthy 'convenience' foods, and the decrease in levels of physical activity.

What I'm saying is that in addition to the weight we've gained as a society, we've gained the knowledge to know it has associated dangers. So why, armed with this knowledge, do we not manage to win the fight against obesity? Because fear and shame are paralyzing feelings, not empowering ones.

And that, right there, is why fat vegans matter. Our very existence is empowering to others considering taking the vegan plunge. It obliterates the gaunt-and-sickly vegan stereotype. It shows that people of any size can live on a plant-based diet without feeling like they're starving. It makes people feel that there are others still on the journey to health who can understand them. It lets them know they can be vegan without being ashamed of not being their "ideal" weight.

I'm not saying that being obese is the healthiest state of being. But isn't being a fat vegan healthier than being a fat carnist? Of course it is.

I'm proud of the positive steps I've taken for my health, and I don't make weight the measure of my success in those attempts. Veganism has given life-changing health benefits to me. I've gone from very ill to very healthy. I'd hate to think of anyone being denied that kind of improvement in their health because they felt ashamed, afraid, feared being judged, or felt that they wouldn't be accepted. So if you, like PCRM, are concerned about other people's weight issues, empower and encourage them; don't shame them.

Lest we forget, veganism is about so much more than weight and health. No matter what I weigh, my conscience is light as a feather!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Learning From My Dog

This is Hashbrown.

Hashbrown is a darling one-year-old mutt that we picked up from our local animal rescue when he was twelve weeks old. He is, perhaps, the most pampered dog on the face of the planet, where "dog" is defined as an animal too large to fit in a purse.

You see, Hashbrown is treated as the baby of the family. He gets carried, coddled, and cuddled like a baby, particularly by my eldest son, in whose arms the dog can be found in about 23.7% of each day. Here is a story that may help you understand the degree to which this is true:

My husband and younger son were on the porch, watching Hashbrown chase butterflies in the backyard. Suddenly, Hashbrown yelped -- he'd run into a branch and hurt himself -- and raced over to where they were standing. As he sat there staring balefully up at them, my  son came to a sudden realization. "Dad, I think he wants you to kiss his boo-boo!"

"No, he doesn't," my husband replied, as though that was ridiculous. But as the dog continued to stare, he decided to give it a try. Sure enough, once he gave Hashbrown a kiss, off he went, back to happily chasing butterflies. You see? Hashbrown is so carefully loved and protected that he manifests learned behaviors normally only seen in three-year-old humans.

Baby of the family. I'm tellin' you.

Anyway, none of this has a thing to do with what I learned from Hashbrown. I just wanted to introduce you.

The other morning, I had an epiphany -- a realization that came from one of those moments of true empathy with an animal, where for that space in time you feel your similarities more acutely than your differences.

Is it just me, or is the routine act of petting an animal, and their tendency to constantly solicit it, generally considered part of their other-ness? Because petting them is soothing to us, we can tend to think of our companion animals as there for our purposes, rather than their own. Yes, we may realize that the act of soliciting petting is for their own sake, but since that's something we don't see ourselves as doing, it still seems other.

On Wednesday morning, I wasn't due into work until the afternoon, so I lazed around in bed watching Parks & Rec re-runs with my hubby. I cuddled up to him, watching with my head on his chest while he absently stroked my hair. Our eldest opened our bedroom door and Hashbrown came barreling in at full speed, promptly wedged himself in between us, and rolled over to have his belly scratched. I laughed and got up to change out of my pajamas.

I wondered to myself, what goes through Hashbrown's head? Why is he such a cuddle junkie? I walked past the mirror and noticed my hair, smoothed down from its normal morning madness on one side -- where my husband had been petting me. Suddenly, I realized that Hashbrown jumping up and licking me the second I walk through the front door is not really any different from me swooping in to give my hubby a hug and kiss when I first get home. Hash's blissed-out reaction to getting his belly rubbed is pretty much the same reaction I have to my husband's back rubs.

What's the difference, really, between a dog's desire to be petted and a human's desire for the comforting touch of a loved one? Not much. Human infants need to be soothed and pleased by touch as much as any companion animal does. The differences, as I see it, are only two: (1) As we age, we unconsciously perceive subtle, societally-imposed boundaries on human touch and reserve it for times that are "appropriate," and (2) because of the human ability to communicate verbally, we can become confident and secure in the love of our families and require less tactile reassurance, as well as communicating our own feelings without the use of touch.

This is interesting to me, because I come from a very non-tactile family. My origin family aren't huggers. They don't touch as a matter of course, or even generally in extraordinary circumstances. There's no hand on your arm, no pat on the back, no mussing up your hair. If hugs happen in my family, I'm virtually always the one to initiate them, and that really only began as a young adult. (None of this is to say they aren't loving, mind you, in their own way. And of course, it excludes my grandmother's rule of kissing everyone on the lips by way of greeting.)

So I've always known that what I deem socially-appropriate touch doesn't match up with what many other people believe to be appropriate. Over the years, I've had to learn not to be unsettled when a co-worker or a relatively new acquaintance hugs me or touches my arm. And I admit, it's still uncomfortable for me, sometimes even when I'm the one to initiate it. It makes me think about how much our early life shapes our perception of touch, and what is and isn't appropriate.

The thing is, touch is healthy. Anyone who has had a baby in the last twenty years has doubtless been exposed to articles and advice on infant massage, the bonding that occurs from the skin contact during feeding, the role of touch in cognitive development, etc. Most of us have probably also read articles about the health benefits and immune-stimulating effect of hugs and massages, such as this one from CNN.

In short, what I learned from Hashbrown is that we should all be indulging our inner puppy, giving and getting positive touch in whatever way is appropriate within our own personal boundaries. Unlike Hashbrown, I'm not going to be cuddling up to people I just met any time soon. On the other hand, I'm going to be a little less worried whether a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old feel it's uncool to get the occasional hug from Mom. And my poor hubby might risk hug overload. (Don't feel too sorry for him. I think he'll survive.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Trump brothers under fire for hunting photos

Brothers Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump are under fire after photos surfaced of the brothers posing with animals they killed on a recent hunting trip to Zimbabwe. Surprisingly, the outcry is not coming just from animal rights advocates. The tone of the media coverage of the controversy is decidedly against the Trumps’ actions.

While most media outlets fall short of actually criticizing the brothers, the headlines and articles coming out about the issue are hardly neutral. Yahoo’s headline characterizes the photos as “brutal.” TMZ declared the controversy a “war over animal butchery.” New Zimbabwe called the photos “grizzly.” The Huffington post termed the hunt a “killing spree.” Other articles were outright critical, such as the Gawker article that slammed the brothers for “posing like jackasses” or the thoughtful Salon piece that examines the “grotesque hunting spree” in the context of race and wealth.

This negative reaction may be due to the photos themselves, which definitely earn the brutal, grizzly, and grotesque descriptors, but it may also be due to the brazen defense of their actions by the Trumps. Don Jr., in particular, has been brash and vitriolic in his response. He’s taken to his twitter account (@donaldjtrumpjr) to declare he’s proud of his actions, as well as bash and bully his critics - calling them “losers,” “eco nuts”, “weak,” and even resorting to school-yard insults about people’s intelligence or their profile pictures.

While these childish comments could be seen simply as a man heavily on the defensive, perhaps the truest glimpse into the mind of this unabashed animal killer was revealed when he replied to one Tweet, “the opinion of someone who has vegetarian in their bio as that defines them so profoundly means little to me.” (A quick look at Don Jr.’s Twitter profile reveals that, by this logic, what “defines” him is his job title.)

His ‘profoundly’ low opinion of people who identify as vegetarian, combined with his vociferous defense of his actions in Zimbabwe, paints a picture of a man entrenched in the belief that others - whether human or animal - are lesser and not deserving of respect. A picture of entitlement and self-centeredness. But how many will be surprised that a picture like that bears the name “Trump”?

For animal rights activists, there appears to be no opportunity to educate the Trump brothers, whose comments show they are not open to the criticism they’ve received. But the negative coverage from those outside the animal rights community demonstrates that attitudes and actions like theirs are rapidly becoming unacceptable in our society. As the brothers are discovering, it’s a new world - one where compassion trumps killing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Rudely Dubious Waiter & the Cheesewashing of America

Today I went to lunch with work pals, and this happened:

Me: I'll have the small roasted vegetable pizza, no cheese.
Waiter: No cheese?
Me: No cheese.
Waiter: *dubious face* You're sure about that?
Me: Yes, quite sure.
Waiter: I just don't get the point. I mean, it's pizza.
Me: *smiles patiently*
Waiter: I'm just saying, I couldn't eat it.
Me: I love it.
Waiter: Oh-kaaay...

As if this wasn't rude enough, when he came back to check on us while we were eating...

Waiter: Is everything okay?
Me: Terrific, thanks.
Waiter: If you say so! I guess maybe you're just used to it...
Me: It's delicious. You should try it some time.
Waiter: Uh... yeah. Maybe.

With the exception of one time that this happened to my husband with an extremely blunt waitress (whose objection seemed mostly about the spinach fettuccine on his plate), I've never seen this happen to a carnist. I've been out to dinner with colleagues who've ordered veal, bloody cuts of beef, organ meats, or with my Gran ordering tongue slathered with mayonnaise - things that many people would consider unappetizing, to say the least. And no matter how high-maintenance or unusual a request people have made, it's usually handled politely. But since going vegan, the dubiousness, if not always the blatant rudeness, is a regular occurrence for me.

I know that asking for no cheese on a pizza is an unusual request, and that people tend to view the cheese as the key ingredient. (Which is silly, by the way, because clearly the crust is the key ingredient. It's not a pizza without it - just a plate full of veggies with cheese on top.) But as restaurant requests go, isn't this one actually fairly low-maintenance? I'm just asking them to leave off one ingredient. One of my companions pointed out that for all the waiter knew, I might have a milk allergy. I'm quite sure that if I'd said so at the outset, he'd have accepted that and moved on.

It just got me thinking about how ingrained in our culture the use of cheese has become. So much so that, as I'm sure fellow vegans have experienced, oftentimes when you ask for something without cheese, you get the cheese anyway and have to send it back. It's as though the kitchen staff just can't wrap their heads around the request. Why would anyone want it with no cheese?

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you like, but I can't help but connect the fact that the government subsidizes the cheese industry with the fact that American cheese intake has tripled in my lifetime. It's down to a sort of passive brainwashing - cheesewashing, if you will - that we seem to view it as essential to the taste of most foods.

The truth is that the powerful savory flavors of cheese drown out the other subtler flavors in your food. There is a whole range of flavors that people don't even know they're missing, and that's kind of sad, isn't it?

For the record, the cheese-free pizza was delicious, and not just because I'm used to it.