Not Ashamed: Vegetarian

If you haven’t already, please read the introduction post. That will give you context for this page.

I was vegetarian for about a decade. It started as a way to make a point about my self-control, but, within only a few weeks, it became something that research had convinced me was the right choice for me in terms of ethics and health and the global good.

During that time, briefly, there was another vegetarian in one of my social groups. I hadn’t understood people’s wariness about socialising with a vegetarian until someone told me that the way she, that other vegetarian, behaved was what they were used to from vegetarians. I had strong beliefs and opinions, as I do on many things, but I didn’t expect others to live their lives the way I lived mine. Other Vegetarian, though…she would loudly exclaim in disgust if anyone was preparing or eating meat, and she wouldn’t stop until she was out of their presence. Whole meals with mates were prepared and consumed with her as a chorus of revulsion, whilst I quietly enjoyed time with my mates and whatever non-meat thing I was putting in my mouth.

Whilst I was vegetarian, every single non-vegetarian in my life—including people who were almost complete strangers—made sure to let me know that they thought I was foolish or wrong or stupid. Some even, I later learned, snuck meat into meals they made that we shared. (For the record, that is a breach of trust and a reprehensible thing to do. Not just for the trust issue, but also because many people who haven’t eaten meat in a while have severe stomach distress when they do eat meat again. Don’t do this. If you do this, you aren’t a true friend or truly loving family. You are just a twat. Even if you are well intentioned.) And every shared meal was a struggle…Was I sure that being vegetarian meant no chicken broth? Fish weren’t really meat, were they? Just a little meat is okay, right? Even asking a server at a restaurant whether the rice was cooked with water or meat broth got me unreliable answers or huge sighs, as if I were the worst for politely asking.

Aside from Other Vegetarian, there were a few friends who, for brief moments, tried out vegetarianism. But, mostly, I was doing it solo. It wasn’t peer pressure…not even peer support.

True story: I went to prom with a guy who asked if I had any opinions on a restaurant for dinner. I said the one thing I needed him to remember was that I was vegetarian. He chose a steak house and complained when all I ordered was salad. (It was a big salad. I had to ask them to hold the bacon. It was the only non-meat thing—aside from sides—on the menu.)

Now, aside from the part of my vegetarian tenure that overlapped with the anorexia (and, let me tell you, people make it really easy to use vegetarianism as a reason not to eat anything they prepare), I tried to eat healthily. As my pennies allowed, I tried out meat substitutes. Even when completely skint, I loved all sorts of beans and cheeses and non-meat protein. In spite of that, around the time I was considering going full-on vegan, it became undeniable that there was something wrong with my health.

Before all of you haters smugly nod and post comments about how unhealthy vegetarianism is, I want to point out that there are many, many healthy vegetarians and vegans in the world. That’s not just something I’ve heard; I’ve known them myself. I’ve seen their rosy glow and their high energy. Even the doctor and the yoga instructor in the next paragraph were (probably still are) vegetarians. So, y’know, get in the sea with your smugness.

So, I went to my doctor. Her conclusion, her recommendation…She told me that some people actually need animal protein and she was sure I was one of those. She, my doctor who was a vegetarian, asked me to consider eating meat. To at least give it a try and see if it helped. I took this advice and my conflicted emotions and had a conversation with a yoga instructor I knew.

A lot of serious yoga practitioners tend to be vegetarian because of the principle of ahimsa, which basically means “do no harm.” (How does my spellcheck know “ahimsa”? Weird…) Ahimsa was in line with reasons I had stayed vegetarian. But, as she wisely pointed out…an intertwined part of the true spirit of yoga is to be where you are in a pose. If you don’t already naturally get into a “perfect” form of a pose, you can push yourself a little, but you shouldn’t force yourself. To do so might cause injury, harm. I hadn’t thought about it, but here was ahimsa applied in every yoga session. And, if I truly cared about myself (which I did by this point), how was slowly killing myself via vegetarianism less a form of self harm than cutting or starving?

I took some time to really consider it, and I decided to give meat a try. Here’s the thing…The whole time I was vegetarian, I had vivid dreams constantly of medium rare red meat. And when I finally ate meat again, on purpose this time, I didn’t get sick. (Just like I didn’t get sick when friends snuck meat into meals. Man, I’m glad I didn’t get sick, but I kind of wish I had so that I might have caught them and they could have felt really bad about making me sick.) And some of my health issues improved dramatically. And it didn’t take long for me to get over my guilt, so it’s not like I weep quietly these days with every burger. Unless maybe it’s weeping for joy over how tasty it is…Sorry, vege friends.

But a lot of people didn’t know I’d ceased being vegetarian. Most people didn’t know for a long while, because the last thing I needed to top off all their harassment was their smugness that I’d been forced to give in. I decided to tackle my own guilt and to get my health less crappy before I had to deal with that. I’d even leave the office for lunch, every lunch, so that nobody there would see that the lunch I’d packed included meat. Work was miserable enough without adding their smugness. Go ahead and have a sad little mental image of me, sat in my car in all sorts of weather, furtively chowing down on a sandwich. (I’d like to say I was paranoid about how people would react. I was not. Very few people did not take at least a moment to be smugly pleased or give me an “I told you so” over it.)

Now, history aside, I’ve got a couple of things that have stuck with me from the vegetarian times. Things I wouldn’t have expected.

I learned that, if you make a big, negative deal over someone’s choices, they won’t come to you when they change their mind. That might seem obvious, but it sure seems like a lot of people forget that. Think someone is making a mistake? Are you close friends or a healthily loving family member or someone they came to for advice that’s relevant to their choice? If so, you get to politely express concern once. Or maybe once each time they end up in the hospital for their poor choices. If you’re not one of those three types of people, there’s a good chance you’re out of line. And if you take every opportunity to hammer at them or poke at them about that choice, it doesn’t matter who you are; it’s not going to help move them more in line with your opinion.

I also got a little less judgemental when I was eating meat again. It’s years later, but I always feel a compulsion to share my story with vegetarians I meet. I want them to know that I’m on their side, that I’m not going to hassle them, that I’m empathetic to their probable plight (vis-à-vis the harassment of non-vege kids). But also…

This will come up again next week, but I’ll say it now anyway. See, even those people who are most vocal about not judging others are happy to be just as vocal about people’s food choices. Not just the stereotypical obnoxious vegan (I know non-obnoxious ones, so no insult intended, vegans) or vegetarian types…not just the meat eaters who feel free to harass the vege kids…but anybody who has beliefs about how to eat…”How can she eat that?” Well, maybe she tried eating your way and she got sick.

I won’t lie; I enjoy meat these days. Though I still try to remember to ask vege friends if they mind me ordering meat when we go out together. I try to be respectful. Also, I don’t want to accidentally learn that I’m eating with someone who plans to shame me with every bite. Ugh.

And, whilst I avoid food waste in general, I try to make extra sure not to waste meat. Some animal died so that I could have the meat my body appears to need. Again, I try to be respectful.

I was vegetarian and I’m glad I was. Not ashamed. And now, much to the pleasure of this odd body of mine, I’m not. And I’m not ashamed of that either. Just disappointed that this flesh of mine is so picky. Why can’t I just thrive on cheese pizza, crisps, chips, chocolate, and Vimto? Stupid, picky flesh of mine…

Cross-posted to the Not Ashamed section of my site (so that it’s all tidy).