I became a vegetarian about a month after my 13th birthday. It must have happened in January because my birthday is the 29th of December and I remember eating an ice cream cake and KFC’s popcorn chicken with three of my friends. Another friend of mine had recently become a vegetarian and I was curious about the why behind it. I Googled… well, I can’t quite remember what I Googled. Factory farming? Animals: Barn to Table? Whatever it was, I came upon a website – not PETA; I remember the website was much lower budget and mostly text – that explained how animals are killed if you’re going to eat them. It didn’t sit well with me. So I decided to become a vegetarian.
At first I maintained that it wasn’t about eating animals themselves, it was more about the way they were killed. I told people I would eat meat if I could be certain it came from an ethical source. My dad mentioned a kosher butcher in Milford and I knew my uncle sustainably hunted deer and wild fowl, but that plan never came to fruition. The word “pescetarian” was coined in 1993 but hadn’t gained popularity yet, so at that time in my non-imbibing-animal journey I could still get away with eating fish and call myself a vegetarian. While I did try sushi and crab once, for the sake of the experience, I’ve never liked fish and so avoided it more on the basis of personal taste than anything else. The vegetarian friend who first brought the lifestyle to my attention remembers that, in the early days, I would pick meat out of dishes while still eating what was around it and I certainly didn’t think twice about products tested on animals. I would sometimes eat things made with chicken or beef broth. I was overall pretty lax about my lifestyle – as lax as you can be while still not eating actual meat.
I think, if I recall correctly, between the ages of 14 and 16 was when I started to become more serious. I think it first started with making sure the cosmetic products I used weren’t tested on animals. Not only did I stop picking meat out of dishes and eating soups made with chicken or beef stock, but I cut out gelatin as well. I decided that for me, it wasn’t about the way the animal was killed but that it was about eating something that had a life, so I no longer put the consideration of eating ethically sourced meat on the table. I stopped purchasing leather but with eco-friendly aplomb decided that vintage leather was still passable according to my morals. I was vaguely aware of veganism, its lifestyle still on my periphery, but I dismissed it as too difficult or too expensive.
It was during my brief stint in college that I made the decision to take the plunge. The information provided to me by PETA (because at the time I still found them to be a trustworthy organization with reputable information) suggested that it was, in fact, better for animal welfare to adopt a vegan diet and lifestyle (no wool or wool byproducts in addition to dietary restrictions). I was working at the school’s vegetarian food kiosk when a fellow student came up and requested that his dish be dairy free in addition to being meat free. When I asked him if being vegan was difficult, he said he thought it would be until he tried it. “Why not try it and see? You won’t know until you do,” he said as he walked away with his vegan meal. Still dubious, I decided to put off being vegan until I moved back to Massachusetts that January because rumor had it that the campus’ resident vegan activist was having trouble sticking to her diet due to the lack of options and had reverted back to a vegetarian diet while eating at the school cafeteria. When I got home I talked to the same friend who had inspired me to adopt a vegetarian diet in the first place, who was surprised that I had become a more strict vegetarian (we aren’t as close as we were in middle school and so my high school transformation to a more serious version of the diet was lost on her). I decided to finish off all of the still-vegetarian-but-non-vegan food in the house that I had stockpiled and once that was done, officially declare myself animal-product free.
When I first went vegan, Whole Foods was within my grasp and processed frozen foods were often the dominant portions of my menu. It wasn’t until I became more strict with my budget that I adopted a more whole-foods diet (not to be confused with the grocery chain I just mentioned – “whole foods” meaning produce, grains, pasta, and beans). When I couldn’t make my way over to Whole Foods, cheating with items that were not vegan but still vegetarian happened. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. It was less that being a vegan was difficult and more a matter of self control around convenience. The food was there, I was hungry, and I couldn’t be bothered to whip up a veganized version or run down to Whole Foods or Hannaford’s. For the most part, though, I was happy being a vegan. There were restrictions, sure, but it was an important definition of self and I liked being the level-headed vegan ambassador to the world.
It was when I made the decision to eschew the resources of PETA that I started to have my doubts. I would come across well-thought-out arguments from people and organizations that stated no, most animals on dairy and egg farms are not mistreated. The shearing of sheep is necessary and no, it’s not painful for them. It’s unclear whether or not beekeeping contributes to colony collapse disorder but locally sourced honey is generally pretty safe for the bees. And there were other things to consider. Would my fiancée be more amenable to raising vegetarian kids than she would be to raising vegan ones? I always hated the idea of my kids missing out on Halloween. Would people understand that this was a change of conviction and not simply “giving up”? More importantly, would I be able to make that distinction? Would people automatically assume that since I had gone back to being a vegetarian I would be more lax about what I would eat, and therefore would I mistakenly imbibe something I didn’t want to? Did switching from “vegan” to “vegetarian” mean that eventually I would transition back to a fully omnivorous diet – something I am deathly afraid of?
I still don’t know the answers to these questions. I’ve been thinking about all kinds of ways to progress: stay vegan? Become vegetarian? Adopt Mark Bittman’s “vegan before six” lifestyle, and stay vegetarian during the off hours? Be vegan except in restaurants, where I would simply be a vegetarian? “Cheat” only for sweets that are vegetarian but not for savory items? Remain a dietary vegan and still buy cruelty free, but indulge in products that contain lanolin, milk, and honey, while allowing myself to purchase wool? I have a lot of thinking to do. “Vegan” is a label I’ve cherished these past few years, and I hate to give it (and the health benefits) up. I’m just not sure that it helps animals as much as PETA and other organizations claim.