Veganism, Stigma, And You
If you are a long time vegan, you have probably spent a considerable amount of time wondering how not eating meat or reducing meat consumption might impact your social life. Sometimes, we simply opt to not mention being vegan because the imminent judgment towards our choices is one of net negative gain. If you’ve been daunted by similar dilemmas, be aware that you’re definitely not alone.
First and foremost, it’s important to underline a key point: veg stigma is a real phenomenon! Past studies have found that the general public has a negative view of veganism and vegans. Furthermore, using the words ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ in the name of a meatless food dish can sometimes have a negative effect on how the consumer perceives the food. Other studies have looked at vegan transition and the stigma associated with it, while others suggest that stigma may not be a key factor when transitioning. Meanwhile, advocates know from experience that society at large supports consuming animal products both explicitly and implicitly. The Faunalytics library contains numerous summaries of such “social norms” studies, and we’ve even conducted one ourselves.
The Effects Of Vegan Stigmatization
Recently, researchers from Kent State University in the U.S. published findings on the social barrier that vegan stigmatization enforces, and it turns out even non-vegans are affected by it.
Although the study, published in the well-known peer-reviewed scientific journal Appetite, represents a small study group of 150 university students, mainly comprising of young white women, it illustrates the issue well. The researchers found:
- vegetarians and omnivores shared similar negative perceptions of vegans. Meanwhile, vegans accurately anticipated these negative views.
- Non-vegans reported socially distancing themselves from vegans both physically and verbally. These actions paralleled the experiences reported by vegans.
- The outcome of social discrimination and anticipating vegan stigma creates behavioural distance and allows for current non-vegan eating patterns to persist.
The study also included another interesting aspect of this anti-social phenomenon: when asked to imagine what it would be like to be vegan, non-vegans suggested that they probably would be viewed and treated in the same way as they view and treat vegans themselves, ie. negatively and in a stigmatized fashion. Another surprising finding was that vegetarians revealed that they experienced many of the same negative perceptions and forms of treatment as vegans do. The results suggest that fear of future stigma and imminent social distancing might at least partially be behind the reluctance to reduce one’s meat consumption.
Another previous study by a different U.S.-based research team shed some light on why such stigma may occur. Their researchers found that exclusion and disapproval can at least partially be explained by the communal food hypothesis — the importance of our need to share food with friends and family. When given a pro-vegan message, the strongest emotion evoked in the omnivorous respondents was found to be discomfort. When asked to consider the animals’ perspective, guilt and discomfort significantly affected information processing in the non-vegan survey participants.
Veg Stigma And Other Forms Of Discrimination
Of course, the stigma of being vegan is often experienced differently for vegans who are also members of marginalized groups. Recently, the Faunalytics library looked at a study exploring the experiences of vegans of color, and how they deal with the white and privileged image of veganism, both inside the movement and in their day-to-day lives. Most of the participants said race did not affect their decision to go vegan, but respondents noted that their families saw veganism as a rejection of their culture. This perceived rejection came from the fact that when the POC study respondents went vegan, many found that they could not eat the food their families have prepared. One Indian American in the study said she thought that this was not an issue for white people because they do not feel the need to preserve their culture as recent immigrants do. For their part, the participants discussed ways this hurdle could be overcome, noting that culturally appropriate food can be prepared vegan. Overall, the study showed that for some people of color, the stigma around being vegan can be even more acute when layered with other aspects of being a POC.
Elsewhere, scholars have looked more closely at the experiences of fat vegans, highlighting the way that fatphobia and the politics of “diet” can create a hostile environment for some in the movement. Scholars have also looked at queer veganism, and the ways that queer politics and animal rights theory and advocacy overlap. More recently, our library covered a study looking at ageism and how it overlaps with sexism in the animal advocacy movement. Our recent study on advocate retention has further highlighted the importance of addressing other forms of discrimination if we want to retain advocates and build a strong movement.
While these are great starting points, much work remains to be done to understand that, while vegan stigma is a problem, there are further problems with discrimination that are pervasive in our culture more broadly, and that may actually compound and exacerbate the stigma vegans experience.
What Should Be Done?
With today’s unsustainable and hazardous dietary norms, we could achieve positive behavioral changes much more easily if, instead of stigma, support for vegans was common and present among family and friends. Pro-social initiatives aimed at altering the widespread negative beliefs and attitudes about the stigmatized are vital to alleviate such social barriers.
It is also a critical issue for public health, as vegan stigmatization helps to perpetuate the standard, meat-heavy diet, while a shift towards a potentially healthier lifestyle is dismissed for disrupting social conventions. Besides our duty as people to be socially supportive and inclusive, health practitioners also need to be aware of these issues and should be ready to provide support and suggest coping skills for vegans who are exposed to such stigma, and more.
For the vegans among us, these studies highlight how important social support is, especially for potential new adopters and for already marginalized people in our movement. The studies of further discrimination within the animal protection movement underline just how much work needs to be done by advocates to break down barriers of inclusivity. White vegans can start by educating themselves further on the experiences of people of color in general, and vegans of color in particular. Inclusive language and messaging are just the beginning, and need to be followed through with additional concrete social support for vegans of color, LGBTQIA+ vegans, and more.