I met someone new the other day. We talked, rather, we chatted, garrulously; about the weather, about Ljubljana, about travel, our work, our music collections and a ream of other stock items that people turn to in those initial exploratory first meetings. As is the way in plutonic conversations such as these, our menu of topics very much scraped the top soil of emotion, staying well away from any roots. It is this emotional safety that enabled me to speak freely. Before long however, the topic of my purportedly grass-like diet surfaced and immediately I clammed up; reluctant to expound in a single conversation, what it has taken me half of my life to explore. At this moment I realised for the first time just how much of a disjunction exists between the view that Vegetarianism with a capital ‘v’ is only about what someone eats on a daily basis, and the notion that it is in fact an essential facet of who that person is. The problem is of course, that no one could reasonably be expected to know whether I write Vegetarianism with a capital letter or not when I first meet them! Note to self; lay off the disapproving attitude when randoms ask about veggiedom. I was being asked about what I ate, but the question I heard was, who are you? what makes you tick? My reluctance to answer such a well-meant question, and one which was intended to be simple, does little to ingratiate me I’m sure. Equally however, having responded with a suitably neutral, ‘because it just feels like a good thing to do’ or ‘yes, I eat eggs, everyone has to draw a line somewhere’, the stream of flummery that follows in reply about a long established curiosity with vegetarianism, the best friend they once had who was Vegetarian, or the fact that they rarely eat meat and ‘might as well be vegetarian’, is, I must say, also far from ingratiating. Asking someone about their Vegetarianism then, can be personal, extremely personal; a conversation about being Vegetarian requires much more willingness to be open and to reveal oneself than would normally be expected when meeting someone for the first time. It might be akin to asking how someone feels about being Gay? Or what their Black skin means to them? It’s about Identity. Clearly I’m not suggesting that responding to questions about being a veggie is quite as challenging as the afore-mentioned, not remotely; Vegetarianism is not generally stigmatised, pitied, feared or subject to extremes of oppression or aggression, rather, I just want to make the parallel for myself to illustrate why I find the question ‘why are you Vegetarian?’ so hard to answer.
So, if I’m talking about Identity and questioning my vegetarianism, then ultimately I’m talking about changing my identity to some extent – sounds dramatic, but it’s not. Identity is fluid, our identities are ever-changing. Recently I finally acknowledged for myself that being single and flighty are also oh-too-dearly held identity markers for me. If I intend to move on, and I do, I need to really work on, not just the practicalities of changing these situations, but possibly more importantly, how I use these labels to identify myself. Along with being single and travelling round the world, choosing Vegetarianism belongs to 17 years ago. At 37 (near as damn it), I remain single and I still flit around the world like a 20 year old. Though just because I’m finally allowing myself to let these go, should not mean that being Vegetarian must necessarily go with it. My vice-like grip on the label however, I believe could beneficially be released?
Vegetarianism has become a marker of me as a young, idealistic liberal, but am I still that person? Answering ‘yes’ to this question is problematic as I’m clearly a very different person to the me of 17 years ago, however answering ‘no’ is also unsatisfactory as this would bring an abrupt end to my formative years. As I have just remarked, we are, of course, dynamic creatures and so aside the black and white, a little grey is needed here. I want to suggest that although I am still young, idealistic and liberal at heart, I no longer have anything to prove to anyone but myself. It is this which means that I no longer have need for an external method of demonstrating these traits – which crudely, is what Vegetarianism can be, and as I suggested in my last blog, is probably exactly what it was for me at 19. If this is true, it gives me ‘permission’ to stop being veggie, but it also certainly doesn’t oblige me to. Why should being veggie necessarily continue to be anything to do with identity? I have no intention to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the process of spring cleaning my life continues, and potentially washes away some of the hooks and labels that I’ve unquestioningly held dear for the last 17 years, I wonder whether my Vegetarianism will prove to be one of the most indelible?
It strikes me that identity is not just about how I see myself however, but also how I project myself to the world and how the world therefore sees me. I have to admit to loving my ‘Vegetarian’ label. Clearly when people first realise you are veggie they want to know more – it’s a subject that interests people, it’s a choice that most people can empathise with if not quite understand fully. It brings with it assumptions that I am healthy, principled, a passivist even. Regardless of the truth of these assumptions, I enjoy them; it’s what I want to be. It’s also a hook for others to identify me with; to remember me, and don’t we all want that? Maybe I do still feel the need to ‘prove’ myself to others? For me, the most fascinating manifestation of these assumptions is when I tell someone about my dietary choices and they respond by saying ‘oh yes, you look vegetarian!’ – really? I do? Well, I guess to some extent there’s some sense to this; maybe I look like the stereotype of a Vegetarian. I’m thin, unshaven and generally I dress casually, it’s not much, but if you’re looking for a connection between me and the wider phalanx of Vegetarians, maybe it’s enough to assume we’re all emaciated pseudo-hippies? Can’t say as that idea bothers me too much, though I imagine if you’re a smart, buff, rugby-playing vegan, being lumped in to such assumptions will probably grate quite sorely. Anyway, this feels important. Not being able to tell someone I’m veggie; being yet another meat-eater, somehow feels disappointing. As much as stereotyping is dangerous, it also provides us with a sense of belonging, should we choose to accept it, and I want; I need it.