I never grew up with an extraordinary love and compassion for animals. I didn’t wake up one day as a university sophomore and realise that I was of the treehugger variety and start campaigning in front of the library about animal cruelty and slaughterhouse conditions. I didn’t watch an eye opening documentary one day that made me sick enough to my stomach to immediately go cold turkey and give up all things cheese. (Though I have, indeed, watched many…)
I’m not even completely sure when it happened. And I still, sometimes, feel strange about handing myself over to the label.
But alas, it happened, and here I am: living the life of “is there butter in this?” and giving a polite “no thanks” to all things birthday cake and seafood without ever once feeling badly about it. I’m that person in the office you turn to when there’s a sudden smell of citrus in the air or a watermelon in the office fridge that’s too pink to be true … and “how do you pick a good watermelon anyway?”. I’m that person in the office you go to when you are searching for a lychee tree because you’re tired of eating them from a can. I’m that person you approach politely when you decide you want to try your hand at gardening and want to know whether your flowers will be in bloom by springtime if you plant them now from seed.
I’m also, naturally, the person you turn to when you’ve decided you want to change your diet so you can be in better health, fight disease/lethargy etc., or simply challenge yourself and see how you feel after. Because you’ve seen me live it long enough and, surprise, I’m not dead yet.
If that’s you, I’m here to tell you that you rock.
You are a better person than me because I only slip and fell into veganism over the course of a two-decade picky-eater lifetime. I never tiptoed my way into it gracefully, slowly dropping one bad “food” after another behind me. I didn’t develop a strategy for getting there, or pin it up as a goal on my vision board. Not because I didn’t have the guts to aim for it, or even because I particularly enjoyed eating animals. I just never believed in veganism. No, I was never the person in the comment section spewing out insult after insult to someone who was dedicated enough to be a vegan. Nor was I the person in the bar discussion critizising the choice because I secretly envied their passion. I was just the person in the back of the room minding my own business who thought: “well hats off to you, I guess. But I don’t think that’s even a real thing. Veganism doesn’t exist in the universe.”
And guess what? I still believe that. Does it make me a fraud or a hypocrite? I guess that’s for you to decide. But for me, my eating habits are much more than a clearly defined label or newly created stereotype box to place me in for conversation. My diet doesn’t need to be at the forefront of every tabletop discussion, nor does it need to be the first thing someone knows about me. I don’t think it makes me different from anyone else, and certainly not better. All I did was start thinking for myself. I used my brain and then I experimented. I used cleanses as my reset button and gave myself a chance to really observe the effects of certain foods on my body, and then I started giving it what it deserves. I started treating my body like it belonged to someone I love. I realised, 200 injections later, that my allergies weren’t environmental, they were internal. My incessant sneezes weren’t a reaction to the dust in the corner of the room. I was reacting to the BHT in the cereal and the Bath & Body Works lotion. I didn’t have mucus in my sinuses because of the time of year, I had it because I ate three slices of pizza yesterday. As I went along discovering this, I realised what I needed to do. And as stupid as it may sound, I didn’t let go of dairy. Dairy let go of me.
The cleanses cut my ties with addictive foods like bread and cheese (which by the way is basically an opiate). When I thought I’d never be able to give up shrimp, the cleanse washed away the parasites in my stomach that made me think I enjoyed it. When I told myself I would never stop eating pizza, my nose told me it was tired of running. When I told myself I could never be a vegan, the cleanse told me that I didn’t have a choice.
I stopped consuming animal products because I simply didn’t want to eat them anymore. (And we all know that as humans, it’s easier to resist when you want to resist, rather than when you feel like you have to. Forbidden fruit is always more appealing.)
Over time, I cultivated an internal environment that was no longer conducive to trash. That, I think, is the key.
As I tell everyone who comes to me about diet changes, it isn’t so much about what you’re giving up as what you’re adding. It’s not the thought of “I’m going to stop eating this” so much as it is “homemade lentil burgers? Don’t mind if I do.” I added and added, as I discovered all the possibilities of plant life, until I no longer had room for animal flesh or the byproducts. I discovered the world of walnut tacos, Gobi Manchurian, and collard green burritos and all of a sudden steamed fish wasn’t that appealing. All of a sudden, I couldn’t really bear the smell of it.
This, I realised, was the path I was meant to travel over the course of the last decade since I first decided to make diet changes. While I had the clearly outlined intent to give up cows 10 years ago thanks to Fast Food Nation, the chicken, sea creatures, and dairy were just a natural transition thereafter. (Chicken first then dairy and seafood.) We parted ways amicably, with no hard feelings, and I’ve added so much to my diet in the last few years that I hardly even have a chance to miss the hormones or antibiotics.
And, above all, I’ve realised that this was always my choice.
Once I became old enough to buy my own food, I no longer had to be in the passenger seat of my life and health. I can choose what type of fuel to put inside this engine. Of course, I have no desire to be overly consumed with my eating habits to the point of insanity, and I understand that sometimes someone will slip some fish paste or chicken stock into my food without my knowing. But it will always be my choice to keep learning and growing. And that is enough.
So for those of you who are interested in self-improvement, don’t let anyone or any of these labels be your prison. Experiment with your body and, ultimately, choose what you want for yourself. Don’t let it be chosen for you–neither by your culture, your budget, or these food-scientist corporations. You are the only human tasked with keeping yourself alive in this reality, so be an active participant in your own well-being.
And whatever you do, don’t ever let anyone else make you feel bad about doing so.