The Fatphobic Problem in Plant-Based Living

Saturday, 6 May 2017



Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably heard all about the Lush controversy. I won’t get too bogged down in the nitty gritty of the issue, but in an nutshell, they shared some rather insensitive ‘medical facts’ relating to obesity, lifestyle and early death on their Instagram feed. Ultimately, as Lush is a brand who has claimed heart-felt ethics, inclusivity and has used body positivity as a marketing tool in the past, it didn’t go down well that they were sharing content that – medical fact or not – alienated and shamed swathes of their own customers.

In the wake of those posts, a lot of problematic issues in various communities came bubbling to the surface. Slews of bloggers rushed to their defence, in one way or another, creating a divide in the body positive community between those whose body positivity extends only as far as healthy (read: acceptable looking) bodies, and those who believe that all bodies deserve respect and love irrespective of health.

Obviously, there is a lot to be said about that, but I’m not the one to say it today. Instead, I want to address a couple of different groups that intersect here – the vegan, plant-based and general ‘wellness’ communities. Given the circles I surround myself with in the blogosphere, it’s not surprising that a few of my fellow plant-based Internetizens had a few things to say about this, and honestly, what many did share didn’t surprise me at all.

Veganism and plant-based living have long been equated with fatphobia; a certain amount of it I would argue is created by those outside, looking in. A lot of omnivores have a certain image of those who abstain from animal products as being super skinny, athletic and existing with 1% body fat on nothing but veggies and copious amounts of fruit, and many of those same omnivores might dip their toes into plant-based diets purely for the supposed health benefits. Vegans who don’t fit this skinny, fit mould or who are just straight up fat occasionally find non-vegans questioning whether or not they’re really vegan, because ‘aren’t vegans all really slim and skinny and healthy-looking?’

That said, the nature of some of the arguments behind why we should go vegan leads plenty of those who promote plant-based and vegan living down a hella fatphobic road. The health benefits of a varied, plant-based diet are many – eating large amounts of certain animal products is correlated to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, high cholesterol and, on the whole, dying earlier than those who don’t eat these things. Not to mention the fact that meat and animal products are also generally less nutritious than they were fifty years ago (thanks to industrial farming and animals reared in unnatural environments and on less nutritious meals themselves) and are also often hormone-, drug- and/or disease-ridden.

Given all of that, it’s only natural to want to spread the word about how eating fewer animal products and more plants can help to improve your health. I’ve felt plenty of major health benefits from going vegan myself; I’m more energetic, I look healthier and more radiant, my hair and nails are stronger, my IBS symptoms have improved and my hormones are less all-over-the-place than they were pre-veganism. How we go about doing that though, is where the problem lies.

Vegans and plant-based folks are often accused of fatphobia and bodyshaming because, well, they often are fatphobic and bodyshame. For some, fat bodies become a tool used to guilt and scare people into giving up animal products.  For example, I’ve seen a number of illustrations shared among the plant-based social media communities in the past, depicting fat silhouettes filled with illustrations of burgers, chips, chicken wings, donuts etc. contrasted with skinny silhouettes filled with vegetables, fruits and nuts.  Pro-plant-based cartoons and illustrations depict images like fat people lounging on sofas, stuffing meat-based fast food into their mouths with ‘ironic’ speech bubbles such as ‘I won’t go vegan, that’s not a healthy lifestyle’. The identities of fat people and the fact that they are living, breathing humans deserving of respect are stripped away, and instead they become a cautionary tale or a side-by-side comparison essentially to say ‘this is what a vegan body looks like, but this is what a body that eats meat and cheese looks like – yuck!’

Warnings about the so-called obesity epidemic are rife in plant-based communities, because plant-based diets are viewed (understandably) as a solution to that ‘problem’. And this isn’t just vegans, of course, it’s the ‘wellness’, ethical and sustainable living communities too. Basically, any group of people for whom what we eat is a large part of our lifestyle and our view of the world around us. The issue here though, is the fact that folks who use this as ammunition in their fight to promote these lifestyles are often dehumanising other people. They’re reducing fat bodies to a societal problem to be solved, a symptom that can be cured if only you would only put down your bacon sandwich and pick up a green smoothie instead, and that is not okay.

For a start, at least in the vegan world, not every vegan or plant-based individual is healthy. You can be vegan and exist on little more than potatoes, Oreos and pizzas smothered in Tesco free-from mozzarella – that’s not healthy. Secondly, not every fat person is unhealthy. Regardless of whatever statistics you want to try to throw at me, ill health and being fat might be correlated in some circumstances but are not intrinsically linked; a fat person can eat well, get plenty of exercise and still be fat. Fat people can even suffer from eating disorders and, yep, you guessed it! still be fat. You simply cannot know just by looking at the size of someone’s body what their lifestyle and diet are like. Finally, and this is the kicker that has come out of all of this, even if someone is unhealthy it doesn’t mean that they are undeserving of respect and being treated like a human being.

It’s absolutely okay to use statistics and facts to back up the very real health benefits of giving up animal products, but what’s not okay is to use living, breathing people and entire body types as expendable props and horror stories to justify our arguments. You just need to learn the damn difference.

Sharing with a friend that those who eat a wholefoods, plant-based diet have a much lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who eat your average, animal product inclusive diet is totally cool. What’s not cool, for example, is the sharing of ‘shocking’ images of fat bodies and talking about how diet-based lifestyle choices are going to kill you and how going vegan would ease the strain of obesity on the NHS. Nor is talking about how obesity and being overweight is killing us all, and that ‘lifestyle choices’ (i.e. being fat) are a major cause of death, so 'lol go vegan!'. Nor is using the simple idea of looking fat as a cautionary tale for giving up animal products, and promoting thin bodies as a holy grail you can finally find if you go vegan or plant-based. In the first example, you’re sharing an objective statistic about the benefits of a plant-based diet. In the others, while they may be ‘facts’, you’re demonising and dehumanising an already marginalised group of people, equating body size with total body health, and reducing fat bodies to curable, medical conditions that are at best just lazy and at worst burdensome.

Those might sound like odd or extreme examples, but they’re all examples that I’ve seen. There are certain vocal members of plant-based communities who feel the need to comment on Instagram images of fat people, and share why they should go vegan for the sake of their health and appearances. There are plant-based YouTubers who tell their viewers that if you’re plant-based and fat, then you’re being lazy, not working hard enough and you’re doing it wrong. There are plant-based people who fight for the rights of animals to not be used as objects for human consumption, yet at the same time will reduce fat people to faceless fat bodies, unsightly creatures and problems viewed from a medical lens – essentially, turning them into objects, using the same tactics commonly used in the media used to scare the public and serve certain agendas.  Hypocrisy much?

If we can extend our compassion to animals and the environment, we should be able to extend our compassion to other groups of humans who are so often marginalised and mistreated by society. Veganism and plant-based diets have plenty of benefits without having to resort to turning fat bodies into objects to use to promote our lifestyles. If ‘but you can be skinny instead of looking like THAT’ or ‘but don’t you know obesity is costly and deadly and you’re less likely to be obese if you’re vegan/plant-based’ are the only arguments you can think of to adequately fight your corner then, honestly, you’ve got some problems with your ethics there, sort yourself out. Fat people are people; not statistics, not propaganda. Fat bodies are deserving of respect regardless of whether or not they are healthy, and fat people deserve more than to be treated like medical symptoms, deterrents or fucking wake-up calls.

If you take away nothing else from this, then at least remember that as a movement that can benefit so, so many, it simply doesn’t make sense to alienate and exclude groups of people in the way that this approach to plant-based activism does. This type of behaviour and this use of other people as ammo for your cause does little to sway many towards plant-based living and gives veganism and plant-based communities a terrible, exclusive and uncompassionate reputation.

Basically, don’t be that guy.

8 comments

  1. Thanks for this! <3 I'm putting together a zine at the moment using contributions from fat vegans (bigfatveganzine.tumblr.com) I wrote a piece for Femsplain about this too recently :) https://femsplain.com/on-being-a-bad-vegan-fatty-bac8e3a1606a

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    1. Thank you Jenny, and thanks so much for sharing your Femsplain post - it's spot on and I'd been somewhat aware of for a while but never quite put my finger on the rejection you've talked about being unapologetically fat AND unapologetically vegan!

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  2. I hadn't heard about the Lush controversy because er, I live under a rock. Great article. Well said. Love your blog.

    http://becksbunnyfreebeauty.blogspot.co.uk/

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    1. You're lucky you missed the fallout, Twitter was ablaze! Thanks so much!

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  3. I think there is a huge air of superiority in the vegan community, not just to fat people but to people who eat 'dirty' things. The whole idea of 'clean' eating is dangerous and only adds to the fat phobia. I think after reading all the facts and choosing this lifestyle we can't deny that it is better for us and comes with some amazing health benefits, but it does not give us the power to shame others for their choice of lifestyle, of course you can be fat and healthy, people forget that a lot! I do however believe that veganism as a weight loss diet is much healthier than some out there and I have had friends wanting to lose weight and going to slimming world and being fat shamed and being un-happy. And I've suggested to them to go vegan for two weeks and they feel so much better and more positive about themselves and their lifestyle. But I know veganism is not for everyone and this idea that vegans are higher than others and use that to marginalise an already vulnerable group of people is just not on mate! This is brilliantly worded and a very important subject, breaking down stigma on both sides.

    Marbl☾☽Moon

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    1. Absolutely! I've seen vegans shame other vegans for sharing reviews of vegan junk food or pictures of sugary snacks, as if we're all supposed to be 'clean' eating, raw-til-4 health nuts and living any other way is somehow inferior. Thanks so much for your kind words and for taking the time to read!

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  4. The idea that wellness fads and clean eating culture doubly feeds into fat phobia has ways been so interesting to me because it's like the devil in sheep's clothing. When Kate Moss said "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels" it was easy to stand against because that kind of fat shaming is so blatantly not cool, but the intricasies of essentially the same message (that a lifestyle should be overhauled in pursuit of thinness to some degree) are so much harder to see when they're expressed behind a veil of healthy living, wellness, and "positivity." I've even seen this extend into mental health as well to a degree with the idea that depression can be "fixed" through a clean, vegan eating and if you can't "choose happy" through these lifestyle changes, you really just aren't trying hard enough. Great post!

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  5. I'm on board with you in that I see a lot of fat shaming coming from the vegan community but also people outside assuming that all vegans are obsessed with "wellness" and health and fitness but I would go as far to say sharing those stats about going vegan reducing the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes is not ok either. It's basically trying to scare someone in to veganism.

    I'm a pescatarian, in recovery from an eating disorder and I would never go vegan. One of the issues that I think people on the outside of the community have picked up on is that for some vegans, not all but some, they just use it as another means to restrict their diet. I know of several vegans who are "recovered" anorexics or orthorexics but they're clearly not. They've just switched one variety of disordered eating for another especially as many of them switch over to veganism as an attempt to avoid gaining weight in recovery.

    Again it's one of those things that if diet culture didn't exist and everyone was genuinely just doing what they wanted it wouldn't be an issue but veganism has been sucked under the "clean eating" umbrella and that is so damaging, for vegans and those of us who are not.

    V <3
    http://sirvikalot.wordpress.com

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