What does it mean to be a vegan animal?

An unexpected part of my vegan journey has been my realizing that I’m an animal, and growing to love that part of myself. Which is surprisingly difficult, since we’re we’re raised to think we’re something special, different, set apart, and are taught that to be called an animal is insulting. But we lose a part of ourselves when we say we’re not animals.

I’ve always had a part of me that was female, and a part of me that was male, and a part of me that was an animal – a little wild human, like we all are when we’re born. When I was a very young child these parts of me were integrated, since they were who I was – my identity.

But I learned that little girls aren’t supposed to call themselves monkeys or to denounce their humanness (which was as close as I guess I could get at the age of 3 to explaining that I wasn’t a human supremacist, but was in fact, an animal like the other animals that I loved so much). I learned they’re supposed to eat animals, and to not think about where their food comes from. I learned that they’re not supposed to wear boy clothes and want boy haircuts. I learned that they have to look sexually appealing to heterosexual men: they’re not supposed to be fat, or awkward, or unkempt, or too pale, or hairy-bodied, or small-breasted. So, over the years, I tried my best to conform to what I perceived to be the requirements of my culture. I tried wearing girl clothes. I tried wearing makeup. I tried styling my hair. I tried shaving. I tried bras. I tried to act the way I thought women were supposed to act, to move the way they moved, to speak the way they spoke. Along with my uncomfortable and aesthetically questionable outfits, I got myself disordered eating, an unhealthy body, low self esteem, self-hate, shame, anxiety, and depression. I felt disconnected from women, who were supposed to be my peers, and from men, who I was supposed to appeal to but who clearly weren’t interested in my efforts. And I felt deeply troubled about my relationship with animals, disconnected from nature, and guilty about my food choices. I was trying my hardest to fit in, and it felt wrong.

***

I grew out of a lot of that sometime during college. I think by the time I graduated I was feeling pretty self-confident in my identity as a genderqueer lesbian vegan. I just wore what I wanted to wear and looked the way I wanted to look, and felt pretty comfortable in my skin for the first time since I was a tiny kid. My food choices no longer came with heavy guilt. Thank you, college!

Then Shira and I lived in NYC for a few years, and I kept learning and evolving. A few things helped me in particular: Trips to Europe and Israel and Iceland and India. My older brother’s death. Free counseling at the gay center. Growing our own food. Starting our own business. Books. A weekend in a rural cabin. Working in the economic justice community. Smart people with wisdom to share. Being in forests. Seeing a lot of music and art. By the time I left NYC, I was a different kind of human: I knew more about life and death. I felt more connected to the earth and to other beings. My identity had expanded. I wasn’t just a genderqueer lesbian vegan anymore. I was a human, and an animal.

One experience more than all the others helped me to this realization. In 2006 we watched a documentary about Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s Bed-Ins, called The U.S. vs. John Lennon. They stayed in bed for weeks, as a statement of peace. They grew out their hair. News people came and talked to them, expecting something racy and instead getting only love and humor and the kind of beautiful, real honesty that makes you gasp when it somehow makes its way into the mainstream media. They wanted people to stop killing each other. We would be better off if we all just stayed in bed. And there they were, harmless, nonviolent, radiating love, disobeying social conventions in the most productive and healthy way imaginable. (No, they weren’t vegan. But if a vegan only listened to other vegans, they wouldn’t get very far.)

After I saw that movie, I realized that I didn’t know what I looked like. I mean as a human, and as an animal, I had been grooming myself so much — dyeing my hair, shaving my legs and armpits — that I wasn’t sure what my natural hair color was, or what my body really looked like. Men know what they look like, generally, right? You guys can just be hairy and look in a mirror and be like, oh, hey, there I am. But I had never seen what a natural me looked like. I had been so focused on what society wanted me to look like, and what it wanted me to do to myself to look that way, that I hadn’t even considered just being what I was when I came into the world: Me.

So, I stopped cutting and dyeing my hair, and I stopped shaving my legs and armpits. And I never started again. Well, I finally cut my hair short again, but it took me seven years to get around to that point. I don’t think I’ll ever shave again.

At first it was hard. I felt weird. My hair grew out, becoming healthier and longer and going from flat, fake black to what its color had apparently become over the years: light brown. I would stand on the subway platform in my Tevas and rolled-up jeans, hairy legs on display, and feel so odd, realizing how different I was from the women in high-heeled shoes and heavy makeup and expensive purses. But I felt comfortable. I felt like I had taken myself off a display. I felt audacious. I felt honest. I decided I wanted to move to someplace where other people looked like I did.

Shira and I found a new home here in Ithaca. Sure, there are a lot of women here who like to wear makeup and who shave their legs — but we’re not quite so alone as we were in NYC. I can now look in the mirror at my own natural body, at its patterns of hair on my pale, Swedish-Irish-Cherokee-Iroquois skin, with my rosacea blush and the age spots that I’m already getting at 32, and I see something beautiful. A furry animal. A human, redefined, natural, and free.

***

This revelation, that I am an animal, has been a really useful one for me. As a vegan, I have sometimes struggled with being human. Humans are capable of great cruelty, and since I consider all animals to be my brothers and sisters, not just humans, that’s really hard to bear. When a carnist sits down in front of a vegan and says, “I hope my hamburger doesn’t bother you,” what is the vegan supposed to say? Does the vegan say, “Yes, actually, it does,” and begin crying? Does the vegan say, “No problem,” lying and taking on moral complicity in the act of violence unfolding in front of them? Does the vegan shrug and say, “That’s okay, I used to eat animals too. But let me know if I can buy you a veggie burger next time”? I know the last response is the best one but my instinct is to cry, every time, and I have to hold that back and smile and be nice. It’s hard, living in a world where some of your friends are eating some of your other friends. It can make you feel like humans are bad, or evil, or cruel, as a species. It can make you feel that you’re part of a bad species, that your life needs to be given over even more completely to the animals, that you yourself are flawed.

When I came to understand in a really deep way what it meant to be an animal, all of that became easier for me. It made me feel even more connected to the animals I work for. But it also made me feel a deep compassion for myself and for other human beings that I think I need to feel, to be a healthy person and an effective advocate for animals. It was this revelation that led me to work even harder for human rights, that allowed me to give myself and others more patience and room for moral ambiguity. It allowed me to more closely see my own privilege, and to feel more empathetic and connected to others whose experiences are different from my own.

Before this revelation, my activist line was “Humans have to stop being so cruel and disgusting!” After this revelation, my line had become, “Look at the compassionate and intelligent solutions we humans can come up with when we open our hearts and learn from each other!”

I believe that to be vegan is to practice nonviolence and to respect the autonomy of others in our everyday choices, to minimize the suffering we cause to sentient beings. To that end, it behooves us to care not only about non-human animals, but also about other humans, ourselves, and the world we all live in. If we are truly committed to nonviolence, we need to stop supporting sweatshops. We need to stop calling the Dalai Lama “evil” because he’s not vegan — because he’s further along than we are in other areas, and he probably has something to teach us, just as we may have something to teach him. We need to resist racism and classism and sexism and heterosexism and carnism and speciesism and other forms of oppression in everything we do. We need to be better allies, better communicators, better cooperators. We need to stop buying plastic and stop the casual use of gas-guzzling airplanes and cars. We need to recognize that animals are just as sentient and autonomous as we are. We need to learn how to coexist respectfully and nonviolently with other humans and animals. And we need to love ourselves, and to believe that we are beautiful, and capable of great compassion and wisdom. From that love comes hope, and the motivation to keep learning and changing and working.

Dear vegans, dear non-vegans, dear animals: Do you all know how wonderful you are? Let’s believe that, about ourselves and each other, and let’s make the world beautiful together.

***

If you like the stuff I wrote in this post, you may enjoy reading Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ram Dass, Daniel Quinn, or Carol J. Adams. My thinking is very influenced by them, among others. And go rent The U.S. vs. John Lennon, it’s really inspiring!

I really value your comments, likes, ratings, and emails. What do you think of this post?

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