No Label: Identity In A Time Of Transition
Tell me who you are.
Chances are, if you actually did this, you’d give me a list of labels describing what you see as the important aspects of yourself. People love labelling themselves and others: we have nouns for just about everything. (Maybe a few too many.)
I’m no different—I love them too! I’m an animal advocate, a social psychologist, a runner, a photographer. I’m a redhead, a geek, a queer woman, a lefty, a cat lover. These labels reflect identities, and the ones I choose are ones I’m proud of—whether I found them or was born into them.
By label, I am also a vegetarian. If I filled out one of the food frequency questionnaires we use in research, it’s simple—you would see that I’ve eaten animal products but no meat in the past month. But in terms of identity, it’s a bit more complicated. Since January, my partner and I have been steering clear of groceries with animal products in them. Our home-cooked meals—say, 20 out of 21 meals a week—are vegan. But when we do go out, to a restaurant or a friend’s or family member’s house, we’re willing to eat vegetarian.
My reasons for continuing to eat small amounts of animal products aren’t the focus of this blog: You can find them in any study of transitioning to veg*nism (might I suggest Faunalytics’ recidivism study?). What’s interesting to me, as I reflect on my own experience going through this transition over the past six months, is the nature of identity and labels.
Labels are easily digestible versions of our identities. Despite some obvious downsides (promoting stereotypes, for instance) they can be very positive. They describe groups that we are a part of, creating connections with other group members—a shortcut to a shared social identity. If you also identify with any of the labels I listed above, research shows that there’s a good chance we’ll immediately like each other better. What’s more, labels tend to make us see ourselves more positively. After all, it feels good to be part of a group we see as good.
For the past 14 years, I held the identity “vegetarian” and felt good about being part of that group. It felt like a small but positive contribution and most other vegetarians I met appeared to share my values. Several key people in my life were vegetarian as well, so it really was a shared identity.
I rolled along happily for years as a vegetarian, secure in that identity—but definitely avoiding information about the egg and dairy industries. But eventually, I started feeling like I wasn’t making enough of a positive contribution to the world and took a volunteer position using my research skill set. It was through Statistics Without Borders, but the assignment I asked for was with Faunalytics.
Working for Faunalytics has been, in a lot of ways, the best thing I’ve ever done. I left my government job (poor identity fit), didn’t go back to academia (poor personality fit), and finally felt like I could make a difference for a cause I care about. One problem: that vegetarian identity.
After years of being a minority among omnivores I suddenly seemed to be a minority among vegans. And not in a happy way! While the former position conveys a certain sense of moral superiority to some people, the latter…well, it’s uncomfortable. The vegetarian identity that I wore for years suddenly itched constantly, no longer a source of pride. I was more aware of it than ever before, and more aware of the inconsistencies between my diet and my desire to help animals. Something had to change.
Over the course of a few months, I tried a few egg and dairy substitutes and found they’d come a long way in the past decade (go figure). Then I participated in Veganuary. It required a lot of research and preparation but was, in the end, easier than I’d expected. My partner actively supported me, participating in all these ventures himself. When Veganuary ended, we agreed on an approach we both felt able to maintain at the present time.
To a transitional way of thinking, this sounds fantastic. And yes, I am proud of myself and my partner for having reduced our animal product consumption so dramatically. But at the same time, I find it’s given me a strange sense of missing identity. People want to know how to categorize me—after all, we humans do love labels. When I go to the diner for our weekly breakfast and ask for beans, dry toast, and home fries, they ask, “Are you vegan?” Well no, I’m not. But I don’t feel vegetarian.
Transitioning slowly sounds easy, and it’s the only way this would have worked for me. But this inability to claim an identity can be so uncomfortable on a psychological level that sometimes I think it would actually be easier just to slip back to full ovo-lacto status. I’m okay with the fact that I’m not ready to go all the way vegan yet, so if I want a label to wear again, vegetarian is the only pre-made one that fits. In some people’s eyes, there is no difference between me and someone who eats eggs and dairy at every meal. I’m not balking at any injustice in that, just highlighting the psychological reality that I find it hard: hard to remember what my own rules are, hard to spend an extra five minutes reading labels when all the bread seems to have eggs in it and I’m “only a vegetarian” anyway, hard to know who I am relative to prototypical vegetarians or vegans.
Most of the difficulty comes from within my own head: Questioning the value of my choices, wondering what others think of me, imagining how people will react. In the age of social media, it’s impossible to avoid exposure to hateful comments. Reading them makes it harder to feel connected to the groups whose labels they wield against others. So the difficulty is in my head, but it had a bit of help getting there.
Labels are so meaningful because they give us a sense of self and a social identity. I discovered that feeling that you’ve moved away from an important label—even in the direction of another that you value—can be difficult in unexpected ways. I haven’t eliminated all animal products at all times, so I don’t feel that sense of shared identity with vegans. But I don’t quite feel connected with my vegetarian friends and family anymore either, and I’m further than ever from the omnivores.
No one else in my social circle has quite the same label as I do: “vegan-ish,” as I’ve to taken calling it when asked. As a result, I am unendingly grateful that my partner is willing to inhabit this grey zone with me. Despite strong motivation to carry on, I am a social person and I know it would be much harder for me if I didn’t have anyone with whom to share this transitional period.
I’ve written this post for two reasons, neither of which is to scare anyone off of trying to transition gradually to veganism. First, I wrote it because I didn’t expect this psychological aspect of the transition, despite being a psychologist. It is fascinating to me! Second, and more importantly, I wrote this as a potential reassurance to anyone else who is attempting this transition right now: If you feel invisible or you’re experiencing these intangible difficulties, you’re not the only one. In fact, if you’re reading this, now we do have a shared identity after all. For now, it’ll help keep us going. And in the end, I hope we’ll both be able to wear that vegan label with pride.
A lot of the research I mention comes from Social Identity Theory and the vast literature surrounding it. For the original paper, see: Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations?, 33, 47.