You Are What You Eat – Exploring Veg*nism As A Social Identity
Social identities form from the groups within which people think they belong. For example, an individual may identify as a mom, a nurse, and a Christian. Social identities often call up certain expectations for personality and behavior (for example, that nurses are caring and hardworking). Specific situations can also change how someone expresses a particular identity. The same person might identify as a go-getting executive at the office and as a loving parent at home.
Identifying with specific groups helps people to navigate their social worlds. People tend to communicate better with members of their “in” group. Individuals also tend to view others within their own social group in a more positive light.
Veganism and vegetarianism fit social science’s definition of “identities.” Because eating is often a public activity, veg*nism is a socially visible choice. Veg*n’s food choices place them in a distinctive social group, separate from omnivores. Some veg*ns use their diet to express beliefs and connect to others with similar values. Eventually, living as a veg*n can influence a person’s broader life outlook, moral views, health priorities, career path, or life goals.
Still, the relationship between meat consumption and identity is complex. There are several factors that shape how and to what degree a meat-free diet relates to identity. This study set out to better define how this happens.
First, not all veg*ns chose their diet. This article focused mainly on people who are ve*gns by choice. When veg*nism is a choice, dietary habits do not always match with identity. Some people may not eat any meat but also not identify with the veg*n label. Others may identify as a veg*n but still eat some meat. 5% of adults in the United States identify as veg*n but only 3% eat a diet that excludes all animal products.
For this reason, the number of people identifying as veg*n may not always match with the amount of meat or plant foods consumed. The proportions of the U.K. and U.S. populations that identify as veg*n have remained fairly consistent for the past 20 years. But there has also been a decline in beef consumption in North America and a large increase in sales of plant-based mock meats. It’s likely that these change came at least in part from people who reduced their consumption of beef or meat, but did not identify as vegan or vegetarian.
Taking on a veg*n identity can influence behavior. When a veg*n goes out to eat with friends, they may only choose restaurants with options that suit their diet. A person who limits their meat consumption but does not identify as veg*n is less likely to change their behavior when going out to eat.
For those who do identify as vegan or vegetarian, specific motivations for eliminating animal products are important to identity. The three most common motivations for veg*nism are animal welfare, health, and the environment. Most veg*ns cite a combination of these three factors as the reason they stick to their diet.
One study found that a veg*n’s primary motivation was correlated with certain behaviors and diet outcomes. Veg*ns who were highly motivated by health concerns were more likely to eat a restrictive diet. Those motivated mainly by environmental concerns were more likely to report that non-veg*ns saw them in a negative light. Environmental veg*ns also experienced lower self-esteem.
Identity may also develop differently based on the specific kind of diet a person follows. Veganism and vegetarianism exist as distinct identities. Vegans see other vegans in a more positive light than they see vegetarians. They also hold a lower opinion of omnivores than vegetarians do.
As a whole, veg*ns have traits distinct from omnivores. They tend to be more concerned with the well-being of other people and society. Veg*ns also tend to have more liberal political views. According to the author here, various studies have found that veg*ns are:
- More likely to be altruistic.
- More likely to emphasize protecting the environment, social justice, and equality.
- More empathetic and more likely to have an emotional response to images of suffering.
- More likely to oppose hierarchy, authoritarianism, capital punishment, or any form of violence.
- More likely to identify with the United States Democratic party.
- Less likely to have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
- Less likely to approve of Donald Trump’s performance as president.
- More likely to work for a charitable organization, in local government, or in education.
At the same time, vegans tend to have worse mental health when compared to omnivores. Among other factors, vegans and vegetarians report:
- Being more neurotic, depressed, and anxious.
- Having lower daily self-esteem.
- Finding less meaning in life.
- Experiencing more negative moods.
- Having more negative social experiences overall, and as a result of being veg*n.
A possible explanation for this is that veg*ns are social minorities. Even by the most generous estimates, veg*ns make up less than 10% of the population. Social minorities are more likely to experience criticism, judgment, and alienation by mainstream culture. One study confirmed that omnivores tended to associate vegans and vegetarians with negative terms and self-righteousness.
Veg*ns may also suffer as a result of their values and beliefs. Income inequality, deforestation, global warming, and species extinction are all increasing threats. These problems can feel overwhelming to anyone, but especially those who care deeply about animals and people. Studies confirm that prosocial attitudes relate to decreased well-being in the general population.
There is not enough information available to form a complete picture of veg*n identity. While we have a lot of clues and some data, we still haven’t perfectly triangulated what causes veg*ns to develop their beliefs, values, or behaviors. Additionally, more research is needed to understand veg*n identity in cultures outside of the U.S. and the U.K.
Still, this article offers important insights about who veg*ns are and how they tend to differ from omnivores. This information can help animal advocates to communicate their messages in ways that are more relevant and effective to their target audience.