Friday, August 15, 2008

GUEST POST: Vegetarianism Served up with a Side Dish of Feminism

Jessica Zalph is a student at Hunter College High School in Manhattan and will be in ninth grade this coming fall. She is a member of Writopia Lab and has won various awards in the Scholastic writing contests. As an author, Jessica usually writes short stories and poetry, but she decided to break out of character to write this “coming out” piece about vegetarianism. With a dash o’ feminism mixed in. Here’s Jessica! -GWP

October is Vegetarian Awareness Month. If only people knew about it.

“Among men [vegetarianism is] regarded as, if not a girl thing, then at least a girlie thing — an anemic regimen for sensitive souls subsisting on rabbit food and tofurkey,” says Holly Brubach in her recent New York Times article “Real Men Eat Meat.” If the male gender sees vegetarianism as a “girl thing,” then that’s got to be our hardest obstacle to overcome. Whenever compassion and eating “rabbit food” became a girl thing, it became taboo for boys, because sexism is rooted so deeply in our society that girls are seen as weaker overall. But maybe making a harder decision wouldn’t be weak at all. Maybe it’d be more macho, if that’s what you’re after, to overcome the stereotypes. Overcoming the expectations society has of you could be “manly,” no?

I’ve been a vegetarian for the fourteen years of my existence – my parents stopped eating meat four years before I was born. They were told by a number of smug acquaintances that, just wait, I would become all “teenager-y” and start eating meat once I became obsessed with fitting in and defying my parents out of spite. We’re still waiting.

Probably the reason I’ve stuck with vegetarianism and animal rights is because it’s not just an arbitrary ritual I inherited, but is based on the unfortunate reality that the thing on the plate is the same as the cute little thing on the farm. I know I must have adopted this concept at an early age, because I recall feeling appalled fury at a boy in my preschool class who took the unsuspecting snails out of their tank and stepped on them.

Most of the attitudes I’ve encountered haven’t seemed to change much over time.

“Vegetarians are stupid” is the bluntest of the accusations I’ve received – this one coming just recently in our eighth grade hallway from a guy flaunting an anti-Wendy’s flyer, sparking the debate that flares up every now and again at school. It’s only in hindsight that I realize that these heated I-wish-they-were-discussions-not-shouting-matches are generally divided by gender. Girls my age tend to be considerably more tolerant, even if they don’t adopt the practice of not eating meat themselves, because boys, in general, have macho stereotypes driven into their heads from babyhood.

The anti-Wendy’s flyer is waved tauntingly. “Meat is good,” comes the challenge, which lingers in the air. Whatever futile hope has caused me to take this bait all these years rises in me again. And so it begins. Detailed description – the cruelty the animals face, the fact that they can feel emotions and pain, even if they don’t have your intellect, thank-you-very-much. Wild rebuttal – ending with “Vegetarians are stupid,” and exasperated disappointment from me. It’s not worth it.

And yet, in a grasping-at-straws way, it is. It’s a success any time that you can make someone confront the cruelty involved in butchering animals, because getting people to face the truth is the hardest thing you can make someone do, and possibly the first step toward creating a change.

I’m not sure when vegetarianism became seen as a sign of weakness. Maybe it always has been. “It’s human nature to eat meat. The food chain and all that,” says my friend. And maybe it is human nature to eat meat, but it’s also human nature to use violence to get and keep political power, and yet many countries have incorporated democracy to overcome this problem. If we can overcome our natural tendency to physically fight for power, surely this October we can overcome the meat-eating part of our omnivore selves as well.

Chew on that.


anniegirl1138 said...

Awesome. Very thought provoking.

We are raising are little one sans meat and I wondered if it will stick once she is a teen. Nice to see evidence that it does.

I think that vegetarianism is associated with weakness based on the old hunter gatherer thing. The strong forage and hunt game while the weak farm. The adventuress roam and the timid put down roots.

There is also the misconception that you can't possibly be strong and vigorous without animal protein in your diet.

And of course, different is always fair game and people who are easily intimidated or followers will pounce on those of us "outside".

Great piece. I loved it.

smilla's simple life said...

wow, anniegirl and I are on fire with comments this week!

I have a little different perspective -- my husband and I became vegetarians 5 years ago (and were vegan for a year, before I got pregnant and CRAVED eggs). We ate a plant-based diet because of a result of four Buddhism and Yoga practice, and knowledge of the horrible practices in care, slaughter, and packing of animal food products.

We raised our son as a vegetarian until 3 months ago. At 3 1/2, he began announcing that he was a meat eater. He said, "I know it is a pig. I know it is dead. And I am eating it," and grabbed the pork chop off my step-mom's plate. He also, on his own, began saying he was a polar bear and ate salmon.

Aaron (my husband) and I watched this with some interest - and noticed that Wyatt (our son) really did seem to need meat protein at this stage in his development -- not coincidentally, though he is still nursing, he's only doing it for about 5 seconds a day; I assume he is needing this form of protein and Omega3s. He grew (he's always been 2nd percentile for height - we're not worried, cause we're small, but it was nice to see him add some height), and where he previously wouldn't eat breakfast - he'd sit down to a nice little meal of elk sausage and fruit, happily.

We've decided to listen to his body's wisdom, and allow him to eat meat, and to add meat back into our diet for the short term at least. We're trying to eat meat ethically -- locally raised, humanely slaughtered (OK I shudder to say humanely slaughtered), ethically employed packers. This is difficult and expensive, and we're not perfect.

I feel EXTREMELY conflicted about it - I want to honor his own body's wisdom, and I understand buddhist teachings' prohibition on killing to be much more broad than the slaughter of animals, and I want to be compassionate towards myself in my failings around this issue --- and we've just moved back to the midwest, where it is much harder to be a vegetarian than it was where we started in southern california .... I imagine that we'll be vegetarians again in the future.

Treat me gently in replies, please!

smilla's simple life said...

wanted to add that the original essay, tying nonviolence, vegetarianism, and feminism together, is stunningly well done! ... lost that original impetus for commenting in my own angst about our return to meat-eating....

Tricia said...

Jess -- You are an amazing writer and quite convincing, too!! I think you will be happy to know that this summer, I have consumed mostly veggie burgers and salad, as I am a campaign girl on the go, and I really enjoy them. As a matter of fact, I just found the "tofu" section at the supermarket, and I have been trying random items. I will certainly continue the practice into the fall when I return to teaching! Alexandra may well be following in your footsteps, as the idea of meat and fish, in the last few months, turns her stomach! Keep writing and forward your results! Tricia

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