I’ve been vegetarian since I was 14 when I thought the “Meat is Murder” sticker on my Ton Sur Ton pencil tin offered me an edgy, Winona Ryder-esque charm. As an ungainly teenager with a complexion the texture of porridge, I needed all the help that nineties Winona and a superficial interest in meat-free politics could offer.
Thankfully, my politics (and my skin) have improved since then but I still can’t seem to make the leap to veganism. Like many people, I consider myself an animal lover. I understand that loving animals shouldn’t extend only to standard domestic pets. I’ve always followed the approach that if I can fall in love with something then it can’t be part of my diet, which is great news for my husband – and for farm animals.
Still, I found my flirtation with veganism very socially awkward. Despite the plethora of plant-based meat alternatives on offer in supermarkets these days, I found the daily reality of going animal produce-free a bit too much to handle. The eye-rolls, the snipes about being “holier than thou”, the embarrassment of refusing cups of tea made with cow’s milk. It turns out that I’m easily mortified by minor incidents of social anxiety.
And vegans don’t half get some stick. We’ve all heard jokes/complaints about the gross piety of vegans. Last year, The Vegan Society released the report of its research collaboration with The Ecologist magazine and Kingston University. The report found that “social barriers such as stereotypes and abuse directed towards vegans” were some of the main issues preventing people from becoming vegan.
Who wants a lecture on the unnatural nature of a plant-based diet when you’re just trying to get a pumpkin katsu curry? Who appreciates a run-down of Miley Cyrus’s rant about the follies of veganism when you request oat milk in your cuppa? Not me, that’s for sure. Funny that it’s vegans who’ve got the reputation for being preachy when I found it was the meat-eaters who came over all gobby at the news that I was newly veganised.
Over lunch one day (mine was an entirely inedible watermelon-based fake tuna dish… I know, the clues were there that this wouldn’t be a successful foray into restaurant vegan cuisine), a friend accused me of going “peak left”, which I found bizarre. For a start, I think I reached peak left some time in 2018 but that aside, do we think that only lefties are interested in animal welfare? I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. Maybe it’s just lefties who’re willing to put up with crap restaurant food as a sacrifice for their convictions.
A recent YouGov survey seems to back up my suspicions that veganism crosses the political spectrum. YouGov reported that four in 10 Britons say animal lives are worth the same as human lives. Thanks to a rise in concern about the environment and responsive consumer initiatives like Veganuary, an entirely plant-based diet is becoming more popular.
Yet, veganism hasn’t yet reached the levels the YouGov survey suggests it should. The non-meat-eating population hasn’t been officially surveyed since 2012 but The Vegetarian Society estimates that only two to three per cent of people in the UK are vegetarian or vegan.
If a whopping 40 per cent of Britons claim that they believe animal life is equal to human life then how come such a high proportion of them must be consuming animal produce? And the dairy industry comparable to the mass torture of humans?
Either the YouGov figures are off or there are loads of us whose theory doesn’t match our practice. Is our sentimentality towards animals only skin-deep? Our well-evidenced attachment to our pets suggest not. Perhaps our sense of moral propriety doesn’t extend to life adjustments that compromise our freedom to consume as we choose?
When I retreated sheepishly from veganism, I realised that perhaps the stigma around those who refuse to consume animal products says more about the rest of us than it does about them. They’re willing to live life according to their principles while so many more of us are cowed by social mores. I’ll pack it in with the animal-related puns now. They’re about as welcome as a vegan at a dinner party.