Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Not Being Afraid of the V-Word

Back when I first began on my path to living as a vegan nearly twenty years ago, the word seemed like it would be such a badge of honor, though an elusive one. It seemed to be crackling with intention, full of muscularity, of purpose and transformation and all I could do was hope that if I worked enough at it, one day I could count myself as one, too. To my mind, it was a designation worthy of only the most dedicated paragons of virtue. Once I started the transition, though, I realized that becoming a vegan wasn’t limited to those who were paragons of virtue. I could be one. It was within reach. I could do this vegan thing. Understanding this didn’t cause the word to lose any of its sheen to me. Veganism and the golden luminescence surrounding it felt inviolable then as it does now.

It turns out that there are people who have really different associations with the word, enough so that they will do almost anything they can to avoid using it themselves. I have been noticing a trend over the last few years of people distancing themselves from the “v-word.” I have to say that I am a bit perplexed by this response but I realize that my confusion is because a big part of me will probably always hold the word in the same sense of awe and deep respect as I felt about it originally. It will always have that place in my heart. Even all these years later, it is hard for me to imagine why anyone would want to distance themselves from a word that offers so much hope and promises so much that is revolutionary and exceptionally positive. The word clearly does not evoke the same response in many others as it does me.

I was reminded of this trend toward distancing on two recent occasions when, in my capacity with this festival and in my capacity as a content creator for this website, I received a fairly chilly reception from brand representatives who did not want their product to be associated with the word “vegan.” Both brands, however, reap the benefits of our work as enthusiastic promoters to getting the word out about their products; as vegans are rightfully seen as influencers of culture and are truly dedicated to creating a world with less violence, it’s smart that they looked to our population as key supporters of their brands. 

I do understand having a certain marketing strategy and aiming toward a market that is decidedly not vegan. I respect that a great deal and believe that this is going to create more change than just appealing to those of us who are already here. I have no issue with that. What bothers me, though, is the distancing, this treating of the word like it is full of contagious cooties. I have to admit that because of this response, little needling worms of doubt have begun to wriggle through my once-confident, no-questions-asked embracing of the word. Were my husband and I foolish to create so much under the “vegan” mantle? Did we unintentionally hinder ourselves? Most important, could we have helped more animals by being more oblique about who we are and our motivations?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. This is what I do know, though:

* I don’t believe in being closeted. 

* I believe that being forthright and meeting people where they are at do not need to cancel each other out.

* I cannot imagine forging the most significant social justice movement to date if we are afraid to convey our own message.

* I believe that being vegan means you’re on the right side of history and that being on the right side of history is something to be proud of, naturally.

* I believe that when we veil who we are, we are conveying a sense of embarrassment or discomfort with what veganism is about in subtle and overt ways.

Does this mean that I think every vegan product should be shouting it from the rooftops? No. But this does mean that I think deception and reticence around who we are has a chilling effect on our progress as a legitimate, deeply important movement whose time has come. We seem to be at a crossroads as our movement matures and grows. As this happens, we are all guessing rather blindly at how to be best received. I am saying right here, though, that I will always be an out vegan. I will never hide who I am - too late for that anyway - because I fear that it might make someone else feel uncomfortable. That is a projection and an assumption. My experience is this: Be honest about who you are, be honest in a friendly, receptive, relatable way, and people will generally accept what you are putting out into the world. If they don't, selling something else isn't going to work in the long run. Shrouding yourself or your message in deception and obliqueness understandably generates distrust; being open, honest and trusting that people can handle it generates the opposite.

I am not plant-based. I am not plant-strong. I am not a vegetarian. I am a vegan and I am proud of it. 

Thanks to everyone else for visiting my humble blog. Please visit my website for vegan recipes, tips, interviews, reviews, message gear and much more.


  1. I've never met a vegan afraid to call herself vegan. But I have noticed products being labelled "vegetarian" and restaurants calling themselves "vegetarian" that turned out to be vegan. I suspect that they try to be more appealing to non-vegans and not immediately turn people away through their labelling/naming. But the fact is, they are turning vegans away by not using the word "vegan." I've sometimes avoided self-described vegetarian products and establishments, only to find out later that they were actually vegan, and I could have bought/visited them. So in some ways, the loss is really theirs.

  2. Posted on FB, but here too:

    Well-articulated post, Marla, and great graphic to go with it! Love this line: "As our movement matures and grows ... we are all guessing rather blindly at how to be best received." And all the while, a lot of us are spending a lot of time telling others with drop-dead certainty that they're going about it wrong.

    The fact is, early adopters of anything, technological or cultural, go through more speedbumps and setbacks than later bandwagon-jumpers. For us personally as vegans these are mere quality-of-life annoyances that pale in comparison to our commitment. For businesses, they can show up as a distinct difference in bottom line. So I do have sympathy for the caution shown by some outlets at trumpeting the V-word if they sincerely think it could make the difference between being in the black or the red.

    That said, "vegan" will ultimately, eventually, be received as a commonplace, non-scary term, and it will happen because its use reaches critical mass within the culture at large. With each passing day it becomes safer and safer to use and to contribute to that normalizing effect. So I hope at least that those who have shied away so far are constantly re-evaluating when it might be right to step up and Embrace the V.

  3. When I came up with the idea for "Eat Vegan on $4 a Day," my original title was "Eat Well on $3 a Day." Gives you an idea how long it took to get published...we had to raise the price for inflation. ;) I took a year of getting turned down by big publishers. Many who supported the concept pitched it as a "back door vegan book," like the popular books of the time, "Skinny Bitch," and "Quantum Wellness."

    This was during the time when I was a cooking instructor for a national vegan non-profit and we started hearing other national vegan leaders suggesting to start using the words "plant-based" instead of vegan. The idea was to bring in more of the mainstream. It would also move away from the original perceived more negative association with vegan as being synonymous with animal rights.

    I mention all this because the smaller publisher I ended up with, Book Publishing Company, wanted to use the word "vegan" in the title to be honest and clear. They also, thoughtfully, did not want to make readers mad when they found out the book really was vegan. But more importantly, they were proud of the word.

    Their books may have made more money without the "v" word, but then many of us don't do this for money. I have developed so much respect for them as a result.

    It is so weird that this just posted. During my run just this morning, I was thinking that I really needed to blog about these events. While the "plant-based" replacement definitely has been successful and has drawn in millions, as you say, it is important to remember and embrace our roots. Let's not be afraid to call a vegan a vegan.

  4. What a great post, Marla! I'm inspired by your writing style both in content and technique. Thank you for sharing your experiences and personal contemplations about this.
    When I started Allison's Gourmet in 1997, I wasn't sure about using the V word. Seeing it was few and far between and even though I knew I was on the cutting edge, I could tell others feared their perception of the blade. I was concerned that my products would be met with the misconception that vegan baked goods were bland and dry (to be fair, in those days most of them were!).
    In the interest of feeding myself,For some years, I excluded the word vegan in the hopes of countering how often we are tricked into eating crap and instead to "trick" people into eating foods that were healthier (for humans, animals, and planet). Then I'd sit back and absorb the gratification of telling them they just ate AND were thoroughly thrilled by vegan food and that it might be time to re-evaluate their conception of the word.
    Some years later, I threw caution to the wind, deciding that choosing to use the word vegan was part of my contribution (and responsibility!) toward making it more common and acceptable.
    I'd say that has gone over very well and even though people occasionally balk, I easily win them over by guaranteeing their enjoyment.
    Sure enough there are still people who order our sweets without realizing they're vegan (I guess it's true that people don't read). After they've delighted in the taste, they write the sweetest notes to me enthusiastically pouring on the accolades, quite thrilled with themselves for being so evolved as to thoroughly enjoy vegan food. It's adorable.
    The thing is that I don't care how they get here, just THAT they get here!
    Keep up the awesome word churning, Marla!

  5. Very well expressed post. I have also noticed that some "plant-based" products are avoiding the term Vegan, and it annoys me not only for the reasons you express, but also because then I have to read the entire ingredients list to make sure it is vegan before I purchase it.

    I've had a few of those negative reactions when I let people know that I'm a vegan, and it reminds me of the reactions you get sometimes when you let people know you are a feminist. You know how some people would automatically identify you as a man-hater and a ball-breaker, a strident harpy, and all those other things people say about feminists.

    The truth is, when you identify yourself as someone who is standing up for an oppressed group you will be seen by the majority as strident, as militant, as offensive, and as potentially dangerous, even when you are being very polite and unobtrusive. Until your perspective becomes the majority, that is ;)

    Keep up the great work! You are doing something important.

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  7. You are so fabulous, Allison. Your treats are sublime, too! Thank you for your kind words and your wisdom.

  8. Thank you, VegiYogiAnn. As someone who is also an "out" feminist, I have also noticed the parallels. Interesting stuff! Thanks for all you do!

  9. Great post, Marla. I think there is a lot of fear surrounding and therefore distancing from the word "vegan." Personally, I often hesitate to call myself a vegan (I'll say I'm a dietary vegan or vegetarian) for a couple of reasons based around the theme of perfection.

    I truly do my best to avoid all animal products (save some wool items I had bought in the past and the occasional honey, trace of milk, etc. I inadvertently eat in restaurants). But, I think there are a number of purist vegans who would say I'm not a vegan for these reasons.

    Also, as you mentioned in your post, when you say you're vegan, there is (often) immediate judgment from non-vegans. I do not proselytize but sometimes, just the fact that I don't eat animal products seems to irk others.

    As you mentioned in a previous meme, of course my friends/family will declare to the whole world that I'm a vegan, and then a debate inevitably ensues. The non-vegans go into attack (but really, defense) mode.

    Usually, their sticking point is that there is something that I am (or other vegans in general are) not being 100 percent consistent about, so therefore, it's all a wash. For instance, if I wear lip balm with beeswax, then why should I care about eating a bacon cheeseburger?

    Of course, it's a ridiculously faulty argument (the argument ultimately being, if you can't be 100 percent in line with moral perfection, then nothing matters at all). But, I think because the word 'vegan' has such a high standard associated with it, more judgment proceeds from it.

    In French, the world végétalien(ne) means dietary vegan. Is there a word for this in English? Vegetalian? Because honestly, I would much prefer that term over vegan. Even though I do my best to be vegan in all aspects of my life, I know I can't achieve it perfectly (at least, not at this point in my life). But, I will continue to do my best!

  10. Very nice post...i also noticed the "plant-based" as being easier to swalow than vegan. The amusing thing is that frequently when i say i.m vegan people don.t really understand what i said :"what?! what.s that?!":))) And this happens in the bellybutton of civilisation, in Europe :(


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