“Oh my gosh, seriously?” “What do you even eat?” “Aren’t you always hungry?” “I could never do that.”
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, these are probably the all-too-common responses you receive upon sharing your dietary choices with most omnivores. If you’re not a member of either group, these are probably the all-too-common responses you give upon learning of someone’s choice to abstain from meat and-or animal products. Whether you’re a devoted carnivore or die-hard herbivore, it’s hard to disagree that a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is deviant from the norm, although 3.2 percent of people in the United States identify as vegetarian and approximately half of those people are vegan. The social implications of this “other” way of life are far reaching, whether it be in an intimate conversation or in a restaurant filled to maximum capacity.
In general, reactions to vegetarians and vegans include an outpouring of support, slight confusion but overall acceptance or complete and utter disgust. The latter opinion stems from the symbolism of meat as a staple in U.S. culture, and according to sociologist Anna Lindquist, this dates back to “the cowboy as land steward and provider, rugged individualism, man’s dominion over animals and gendered meat consumption.” Coupled with propaganda and government policy promoting avid meat and animal-product consumption, it’s no wonder that a rejection of these products can be met with such adversity.
In one study of the social effects of vegetarianism and veganism, a common theme expressed by participants was a feeling of stigmatization. Whether it be from family, friends or complete strangers, almost all interviewees cited at least one negative interaction that was solely based on their diet. One woman cited an instance in which her classmates would throw hot dogs at her while mooing, while another subject felt as if her family chose to ignore that facet of her identity.
The researcher conducting the study tied her findings back to Erving Goffman’s deviance theory. This ideology gives reasoning to the social effects of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle seeing as it is quite alternative from the average U.S. diet. This rejection of social norms prevents others from making accurate predictions about the outcomes of social interactions, making them intimidating and sometimes causing discomfort. This outlook can justify the alienation or negativity that is faced by those who choose to outwardly identify as a vegetarian or vegan.
Although they appear to be more common, unfavorable reactions to vegetarians and vegans can be offset with positive and supportive ones. In the same study, most of the participants were members of organizations in which they connected with other “social deviants” who lived similar lifestyles. Being that some participants in the study cited “other people” as being the greatest challenge in their quest to live a meat- or animal product-free life, these groups acted as a positive reinforcement for their choices. A common misconception about vegetarianism or veganism is that the most difficult aspect is finding food to eat, but as this study shows, the social consequences are sometimes more detrimental.
To acknowledge another common stigma attributed to vegetarians or vegans, this is by no means an attempt to judge anyone who chooses to consume meat or animal products. On the contrary, it is an effort to prevent this same judgement that omnivores may pass on those who live as herbivores. Everyone has a choice as to what they put in their body, whether it be leaves from a tree or the muscle of an animal. Vast contrast exists between every person in almost every aspect of their lives. One aspect of someone’s identity, even though it may go against the norms, does not justify hostility or alienation, but should rather spark conversation and intrigue.
Savanna Vidal is a sophomore majoring in biology.