Veg’n Recidivism: Why is it Happening?
Advocates can use sociological theories to understand some of the social and cultural barriers to vegetarian maintenance. During the course of my interviews with ex-veg’ns I found six common reasons as to why they struggled with the practice. These include family relationships, identity, the ambiguity of the veg’n label, gender roles, the influence of peers, and the temporary nature of trends.
By Jaime Hecht (guest blogger)
Other posts in this blog series:
Returning to Meat: Who is Doing It, How it Happens, and What This Means for the Veg’n Movement
You are Reading: Veg’n Recidivism: Why is it Happening?
1. Family Relationships/Compromise
Dynamics within family and spousal relationships are areas of negotiation and compromise regarding food choice. We especially see the home as a place in which there are several different tastes and preferences. Many individuals claimed that when they began a relationship with a new partner who held differing beliefs regarding food, the relationship proved detrimental to their current belief system. Participants would often compromise when eating with family as a way to "not cause trouble." Many recall feeling the pressure to be polite and go with the flow. Within most family structures, compromise on tastes is frequent and used as a way to build cohesiveness within the unit.
Heather, who went vegetarian in middle school recalls backsliding after beginning the relationship with her husband:
“So I stayed vegetarian all through high school, then I came to college and I actually did ok until I met my husband. So then I started compromising when I would go over to his family's house: whatever they cooked, I was like, I'm a guest I don’t want to cause any trouble, so ill just eat whatever they serve. So I would do that you know, I would start compromising with my family too."
Emma, whose inclination towards environmentalism led her on a vegetarian path recalls her tendency to compromise:
“I was just doing it to make it easier on everyone else. We ate a lot of family meals with [my ex-husband’s] parents and they didn’t understand vegetarianism, they didn’t get it.”
The vegetarian identity is complex as it competes with other personal (wife, daughter), and culturally assigned (Puerto Rican, Baptist) identities. Elizabeth, a participant in my study, found a crossroads with her veganism and her cultural identity of Puerto Rican. She is very attached to the foods she grew up with as a child and found veganizing some of her family recipes to be difficult:
“First I should say I’m Puerto Rican so there’s a lot of culture that goes into the food that I grew up with. In Puerto Rico you’re like a freak if you’re a vegetarian, it’s like non-existent.”
In their study on food and eating, Bisogni et.al (2002) reveal that people obtain several identities over the life course and meaning is constructed for each by the people, groups and objects around them. These identities are managed by enacting certain identities at different times and assigning greater levels of importance to some over others. In other words, people tend to manage their multiple identities by prioritizing them depending on the current social situation. This means that occasionally, the vegan identity will take a backseat to one rooted in culture or religion.
Sociologist Deborah Lupton (2000) in a study on food preferences shows how childhood eating habits assist in shaping food choices and identities in adulthood. In addition, Hallows (2003) reports that women’s memories of their mothers’ cooking often serve as a reference point for their own dinner practices. This helps explain why some individuals struggle with breaking cooking and eating habits, as they are long ingrained into their identities. This is especially true of women and girls as they are generally charged with the task of preparing meals, the ideas for which usually come from their mothers and the childhood memories, often with very animal heavy ingredients.
3. Gender Roles
Feminist scholars provide us with substantial information regarding the role of gender within family dynamics, specifically the cultural and social meanings attached to food. Marjorie Devault (1991) took an in-depth look into family food dynamics in her study titled, “Feeding the Family.” She demonstrates a woman’s propensity of “doing gender” which often translates to women favoring the tastes and wants of their partners and children over their own. Many of the women in my study struggled with catering to their families even with their own personal distaste for meat.
One participant, a professor of women’s studies, told me how she would cook for her ex-husband although she had a personal disgust for meat:
“He loved pork chops and I would fry them or whatever, and I would have to smell up the whole house with a pork chop and it’s really disgusting. When you fry them it really makes the whole house smell bad. I don’t know why, but with pork chops, he would eat 2 or 3, he’s like a big football player.”
In addition, the male vegans in the study faced some criticism from family members when they were in their "vegetarian" phases. This “social emasculation” has been elaborated on by Carol Adams in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990). Adams and other scholars of eco-feminism have long studied the entrenched relationship between meat eating and masculinity. They make the claim that our patriarchal society perpetuates expectations about what men should eat and what women should eat. Meat often symbolizes virility and masculinity whereas vegetables tend to symbolically favor femininity.
Jimmy, an undergraduate student, revealed while home from school he would go on what he called “vegan vacations,” partly because of the opposition he would receive from family:
“They see it more of a masculinity thing; my uncle is really offended that I don’t eat meat.”
Within the vegetarian literature, disputes persist concerning how to approach the ambiguity of the definition of vegetarian or vegan. What exactly constitutes a “vegan” is a source of debate occurring inside classrooms and non-profit meetings both here and abroad. These unclear definitions affected the backsliding tendencies of several of my participants.
It occasionally becomes easier to consume meat and byproducts when the individual sees veganism as a concept that is loosely defined. In the course of my interviews many participants admitted to still eating fish during their periods of vegetarianism because to them, the label was not seen as a moral absolute or a strictly adhered to lifestyle. It is therefore important that we don’t water down our definitions and keep veganism as a high standard. At the same time, however, rigid labels may alienate or discourage individuals.
If a person feels incapable of achieving a pure form of veganism s/he may simply give up on the vegan ethic and not do what s/he can to help animals by not eating them, even if it is only occasionally.
Confusion was common among my participants regarding what constitutes vegetarianism and in some cases served as a turn off to the practice. This echoes other studies that reveal individuals framing vegetarianism differently in order to suit their lifestyles (Cherry 2006; Willetts 1997).
When asked her opinion on veganism Samantha reveals her position:
“Harm reduction: you can’t really go too far left because people think, people just write you off, if you go way too radical. But if you just ask people to take smaller steps you can make a change and eventually maybe they’ll get there. That’s what I’m taking for myself. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Anna Willets’ (1997) work on vegetarianism offers substantial criticism for previously held notions regarding the dichotomy of meat eating and vegetarianism. For Willets, “vegetarianism is not a food practice that is rigorously defined, but is a fluid and permeable category embracing a wide range of food practices. Generalizations, though useful analytic devices, all too often fail to account for everyday life” (p. 117).
5. Peer Influences/Social Networks
Social networks have the ability to provide positive encouragement or act as a substantial barrier to veganism. Studies of dietary change have explored the effects an individual’s social environment has on his/her ability to maintain a change in health habits. The results show a positive relationship between social support and the ability to maintain health changes. Additionally, Liz Cherry’s work (2006) emphasizes the importance of social networks in maintaining the vegan lifestyle. Many individuals in my study revealed their veganism occasionally led them to feeling isolated from their friends. Many would feel deprived when dining out with friends and would also get pressure to indulge in some non-veg food.
Jessica, a social work grad student recalls the support she received from a friend during her first attempt at veganism:
“Luckily my friend Chelsea who was doing the vegan thing for health was going through the same thing so that was good. She and I would go to the green markets and get vegetables and that was our little thing.”
Deven, who is currently vegan, recalls receiving a lot of questions and grief from friends that in turn led to feeling ostracized.
“Everybody was like ‘how do you get your protein, how do you survive?’ because they’ve had this information pumped down them that protein is through beef and dairy… people look at you funny. I think about all the people I hang out with and I think I’m the only vegetarian. It’s just hard to do.”
6. Trend Participation
For most of the individuals in my study, fish was found to be a particularly difficult meat product from which to abstain. I found fish is not only more easily defined as “not meat,” but it is also attached to issues of social status. Johnston and Baumann (2007) cite food as a rather new instrument of social and cultural capital. They argue that similar to other forms of culture, “cuisine is a cultural realm where individuals engage in status displays” (p. 168). The act of consuming fish, for some, is a way to symbolize status. Many of my participants claimed sushi particularly was an experience and food product they didn’t want to give up. Going out for sushi and consuming it, allowed them to easily participate in current trends and acquire cultural capital (prestige, status) thus acting as a substantial barrier to vegetarianism.
Jessica, who admitted not being a huge fan of sushi, continued to regard its consumption as a means to display status and participate in popular trends:
“I didn’t eat fish in college, but when I started making my own money and going to nicer restaurants, I started trying more fish. I didn’t like sushi, even in high school I was like ‘I don’t like sushi,’ then all of a sudden I started trying other things. Honestly I don’t even know if I like it that much. It’s like the thing, it’s a little trendier to go get sushi and stuff…”
When asking questions regarding veg’n recidivism it is important to take a close look into our complex social world. I have laid out 6 social barriers to vegetarian maintenance that will hopefully help bring this topic to the forefront and gain the attention of movement members. Family, peers, identity management, ambiguous labels, deeply ingrained gender roles, and the lure of trends weigh heavily on an individual and influence their ability to maintain change. In the next section I will go into what these findings mean for our movement and offer some possible solutions.
Adams, Carol. 1991. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum
Bisogni, Carole A., Margaret Connors, Carol Devine, and Jeffrey Sobal. 2002. “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 34:128-139.
Cherry, Elizabeth. 2006. “Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach.” Social Movement Studies 5(2): 155-170.
Devault, Marjorie. 1991. Feeding The Family: The Social Organization of Caring and Gendered Work. Chicago: Chicago University Press
Johnston, Josee and Shyon Baumann. 2007. “Democracy versus Distinction: A Study of Omniverousness in Gourmet Food Writing.” The American Journal of Sociology 1(133):165-204.
Lupton, Deborah. 2000. “Where’s Me Dinner? Food Preparation Arrangements in Rural Australian Families.” Journal of Sociology 36: 172-186.
Willetts, Anna. 1997. “Bacon Sandwiches Got the Better of Me: Meat-Eating and Vegetarianism in South-East London.” Pp 111-130 in Food, Health, and Identity, edited by Pat Caplan. London: Routledge.
Jaime Hecht has a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Central Florida where her studies focused on social movement theory and the vegan social movement. She is currently the Outreach Coordinator at A Well-Fed World, a food justice and global hunger nonprofit based in Washington DC.