Who am I without Veganism?
Why should my diet define me?
In the space of climate activism, an unwavering, total commitment to the cause appears to be a prerequisite. Self-sacrifice is a must, and an existence outside the walls of your cause labels you bad, uncommitted or inconsistent.
This narrative not only endangers mental well-being, but threatens progress, by forcing an arch that individuals will, and must, hold full responsibility for developing climate solutions.
A commitment to following a plant-based lifestyle or vegan diet has become increasingly popular, and rightly so. According to a 2023 study by Oxford University, adopting a plant-based diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent. The health and planetary benefits of plant-based diets are undeniable, and certainly, a reduction of the consumption of meat and dairy is becoming an increasing necessity to keep warming to 1.5 degrees. However, this dietary choice is typically met with an all or nothing approach. ‘Once a vegan, always a vegan’, and to stray from this often comes with accusations of bad activism. In perpetuating the idea that responsibility falls on the individual, this branch of pressure often fails to account to potential negative mental impacts of adopting a vegan diet.
I first went vegan when I was 16. In the midst of navigating that confusing period between school and college, I started becoming conscious of what I was eating, and more importantly, who I was eating. I educated myself on the animal agriculture industry, and the ethical horrors that animals went through to make it onto our plates. Almost immediately, I went ‘cold-turkey’ and started to wear the label of ‘Vegan‘ with pride. Over the following years, I threw myself into veganism, and it became inseparable from who I was. As I started researching and working in the environmental space, my reasons for being vegan started to account for the environmental impacts of the meat industry and thus shaped a huge part of my desire to enter the space of activism. At the time, I’d also began to develop atypical anorexia and bulimia nervosa, however I was convinced that my veganism was motivated by nothing but the welfare of animals and the environment.
Having created this identity for myself, I believed that if I slipped off a purely vegan diet I had failed, not only myself but as an activist. How can I claim to care about the future of our planet and animal justice if I have a cereal bar that ‘may contain traces of milk’? The narrative, made stronger by the media, of perfect activism started to sink into my reality, and the fear of falling away from this became all-consuming.
This identity of ‘Iz the vegan’ seemed to stick, and became almost inseparable from who I was. The air at family dinners would be filled with “Iz can’t eat that, she’s a vegan!”, “Sorry that you’ve had to make two dishes”, “She’s so expensive to cater for!”. The inescapability of this label only served to fuel my bulimia and restriction around food; I would eat egg-risen cakes and dairy sprinkled pizzas in secret, and when the wave of guilt washed over me, I would tie up my hair, ‘run a bath’, and weep for the planet and the animals.
When I moved to Edinburgh to pursue a master’s in Environmental and Climate Change Law, my world seemed to shift. I found an avenue where I could channel the deep desire I had to be an advocate for the planet that did not compromise my mental health. The label of ‘the vegan’ slowly loosened from around my neck, as I explored the power of policy, storytelling and research writing that could tackle climate injustice around the world.
Rebuilding my identity without veganism has been, and continues to be a challenge. In re-framing who I am in front of family and friends, I have had to push for a new form of self-acceptance of being ‘imperfect’. This movement toward food freedom has been met with relapses and intense periods of guilt and imposter syndrome; and a constant, niggling shame of calling myself an advocate for the planet whilst no longer being a committed vegan.
Thankfully, the narrative of perfect activism is slowly quietening. The misplaced responsibility on young people to have their whole identity tied up in activism is shifting, and a slower, more gentle approach to advocating for climate justice is rising. With more and more public activists preaching the importance of rest, and highlighting their ‘imperfections’, we are building a community where individuals are more than their activism, and personal wellbeing is recognised as a non-negotiable. How can we pour love into the planet if our own watering can is running on empty?
Only now am I learning that my activism and my choice to recover can happily co-exist. To be a sustainable activist, we must put our personal sustainability and longevity first; for me, this looks like leaning into food freedom, and finding other avenues to fight for a more climate just world. To you, it may look totally different. And that is not only okay, but utterly and unquestionably necessary. After all, “we don’t need a hundred perfect activists, but millions of imperfect ones.”
To read more from Isabel, you can find her blog here.