Sunday, September 30, 2012

Q.) What are vegans allowed to eat? A.) Anything.

There is a particular thing that non-vegans sometimes say that drives me crazy. I know it's innocently meant, but it just pushes my buttons. It comes up at work fairly frequently, and it goes like this:

"There's [insert name of food here] in the kitchen. Are you allowed to eat that?"

Allowed? Allowed by whom?

I'll have patience with it the first time, maybe even the second. Though I always answer the exact same way, the answer comes out a little bit snippier each time I have to repeat it to the same individual. Because it seems no matter how many times I explain it, the question keeps coming back. And the answer is this:

"I am allowed to eat anything I want. I choose not to eat anything that contains animal products."

There is no Dr. John Q. Veganizer, M.D. writing a book to specify what I'm 'allowed' to eat. Saying something is 'allowed' implies that there are consequences if one does that which isn't allowed. There are no personal consequences here. There cannot be, because I make this choice not for reasons of my personal health, nor from societal pressure to conform in my personal appearance, but for the benefit of other living creatures.

It's important to understand that veganism is not a diet. People who choose to stop eating animals for health or appearance are following a plant-based diet - strictly speaking, they are not vegans. The word vegan applies to those whose decisions are based on ethics and go beyond just food, including also clothing, toiletries, medicines, and entertainment that exploits animals. Veganism comes from a totally different root than following a diet.The act of dieting is rooted in a concern for self. Certainly that can be a good and right concern - I'm not saying there's anything necessarily wrong with it. The point I'm making is that veganism is rooted in the concern for others, and no one can 'allow' you to put others before yourself. That's a choice only you can make, so to say "allowed" becomes subtle downplaying of a person's agency in making this choice.

If someone tells you they're following the South Beach Diet, or Atkins, or even a doctor-recommended meal plan for a certain health condition, asking what they are 'allowed' to eat makes sense to some degree. These diets were essentially thrust upon them, either by a healthcare professional, a personal health concern, or by society, in the form of a belief that they must meet a certain weight standard. They still made the choice to stick that diet, yes, but probably not because they really wanted to do so. Ask anyone who is on a diet for health or weight reasons, and they're pretty likely to tell you they wish they could eat the things they did before. 

No so with vegans. (Or at least, not so with those of us whose convictions are firm and habits are set - I admit, it can be tough when you're making the transition from the old way of doing things.) Veganism is a conscious decision based on ethics; the underlying motivation is different. I want to be a vegan, and I want to be a vegan for life. I have no wish to return to the way I ate before.

When it comes down to it, veganism is simply not restrictive. You do not miss doing something that you don't want to do. I made a choice not to eat animals, and that choice brings me peace and contentment, not a sense of deprivation. To ask me what I'm "allowed" to eat demeans that choice.

So for the record, non-vegan friends, the appropriate question is this:

"Is that something you'll eat?"