When Worlds Collide: Age, Gender And Veganism
Most vegans would agree that they want to see more vegans in the world. The motives for choosing a vegan lifestyle can vary, but vegans are generally passionate about their choice and eager to make new converts. For people to join a movement, however, they must feel welcome. Unfortunately, despite making up 80% of the vegan population, women and other marginalized groups may instead experience discrimination in the vegan world. While vegan scholars emphasize the need for inclusivity, the community has a history of being patriarchal, and much of its current focus is on health and vitality. Neither of these attributes are inviting to women, especially older women.
To encourage the adoption of a vegan lifestyle, campaigns promise youthfulness and healthfulness. This is partly meant to counter cultural stereotypes which portray vegans as sickly and negative. Yet this messaging, while perhaps strategically sound, risks excluding people who are older, not fully able, or have various health conditions. The effects may be most acute for older women since, once beyond their childbearing years, they face the most age discrimination. Movement messaging may reinforce the sense that, even if they are interested in veganism, they wouldn’t belong.
To gain insight into the lives of this cohort, researchers in this study interviewed 20 women over age 50 in the U.S during spring, 2017. The study was designed to gather exploratory, qualitative data on their experiences as vegans. Questions focused on their sense of self and belonging as they negotiate their identities within the dominant culture. They were asked why they became vegan, how long they’ve been vegan, and if their reasons for being vegan have changed over the years. Other questions asked about their experiences in the vegan community and their access to health care as vegans.
While the researchers expected study subjects to report feeling vulnerable to age discrimination, This was not always the case. Some respondents instead identified older age as an asset. Age, and the life experience it brought, increased their commitment to veganism. Indeed, 85% of respondents made the switch to veganism after age 40, and 70% cited concern for non-human animals as their primary motivation. This contradicts prior research that identified health as the key driver for converting to veganism later in life. By contrast, nearly one-third of respondents expressed a sense of identification with non-human, commodified animals such as dairy cows, and said it influenced their decision to go vegan.
That said, some participants did report feeling underrepresented. Half of the women observed that the movement was mostly comprised of younger people. One participant characterized the community as consisting of two groups, millennials and aging hippies and said the younger group may just be testing the lifestyle to see how it fits, whereas the older cohort have come to veganism through learning and life experience. Since western culture idealizes youth, aging well is a necessity for women to maintain influence. Thus, older women in the vegan movement can easily find themselves marginalized rather than accorded status and respect as the vital contributors that they are.
Furthermore, subjects did not view their portrayal in the vegan media favorably. Vegan media messaging links veganism with youth and fitness. Participants resented the typical stereotypes, since the majority were vegans for ethical rather than health reasons. Indeed, they viewed themselves primarily as targets for product advertising such as drugs or supplements. Otherwise, they felt mostly invisible.
Despite the lack of inclusivity, the community did act as a social shield for some subjects by providing them like-minded associates, Some of the women reported increased stress in social interactions, a finding observed in prior studies of vegans. Judgment by non-vegans stung, but perhaps even more painful was the resistance from family members. To cope with the social strain, respondents reported creating social boundaries or retreating to the vegan community. Stepping away from longstanding relationships with friends, family, and church can be especially problematic for older adults as they are already vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness.
This study’s small, convenience sample limits its generalizability, since these 20 voices can’t begin to capture the breadth of the vegan experience in the United States. However, it’s a good place to start. Advocates may find themselves with uncomfortable questions about how truly inclusive the community is. Yet, it is the advocates themselves that can effect the change they want to see. If they desire a community in which all are welcome, they have the power to make that a reality. And in so doing, they save even more animals from needless suffering and death.