Julia Aldrich | Contributor
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian – for our purposes, I’ll stick with “veg” as an interchangeable abbreviation referring to both – you’ve probably encountered your fair share of veg jokes. “How do you tell if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Or perhaps something about how plant-based diets are killing all the plants. Hilarious, am I right? These types of jokes are endless and, while generally harmless, irksome at best. Most of these jokes only articulate the lack of understanding there is for the importance of a veg lifestyle, but the origins of some veg-directed jokes expose the complicated relationship between veg diets and privilege.
Take the episode of Portlandia, for example, where characters Peter and Nancy relentlessly question their waitress on the exact origins and life details of the chicken on the menu, asking her for specific documentation including the chicken’s name (Colin) and evidence that it lived a happy, free life. This episode, which isn’t directly about those who are veg, instead comments on the phenomenon of “ethical food” that has arisen in the United States over the past few decades, particularly regarding veg lifestyles.
Much of the stigma surrounding plant-based eaters arises from the fact that veg diets have become a trendy option for wealthy, modern-day hippies. Being veg comes with an array of stereotypes, including that of being pretentious or overbearing – the “how do you tell someone is a vegan” joke exists for a reason. Many of the stereotypes, as stereotypes tend to do, exaggerate features of veg life, while others are downright sexist, such as the conceptualization of veg diets as “feminine” in negative contrast to a “masculine” carnivorous diet. However, perhaps some of these stereotypes involving a class, wealth, or privilege component paint a portrait of what veg life has become in the United States. What jokes like the Portlandia episode point out is that choosing to be veg and to dedicate so much time concerning oneself with the origins of our food is an option that is only feasible to those with the privilege to do so.
Making the choice to be veg is a privileged decision in that one must have the resources and time to make the transition. Many Americans do not have access to the resources that would allow them to even consider making the switch. For example, a family living below the poverty line must focus on ensuring that everyone is provided for than whether or not their shopping cart is environmentally friendly or ethically sourced.
In addition, a balanced veg diet requires access to fresh foods. Food deserts are an all too common problem in impoverished communities, including Pittsburgh. Other limitations make a restricted diet difficult, such as a college student depending on dining hall food. As a student and a vegetarian, I often found it difficult to find options other than salad and pizza. I’m extremely fortunate to have never actually struggled with food, but I can attest that living a veg life as a student is difficult.
Taking the steps to becoming a veg in the United States is far from a seamless undertaking. Whether you are only cutting out meat, or animal products entirely, you are taking on a challenge that is consuming in terms of both time and money. Fresh produce is not always cheap, and depending on where you live, it can be impossible to find. What many people fail to realize, militant vegans and vegetarians especially, is how difficult and privileged a veg lifestyle in the United States really is.
It needs to be acknowledged that being veg is a privileged lifestyle choice that many people are unable to make. Rather than condemning non-veg people, those within veg communities need to acknowledge the underlying factors that inhibit many people from incorporating more fresh foods into their diets, including lack of access, time constraints, and the high expense of a fresh plant-based diet. The overinflated stereotypes that stem from the relationship between privilege and veg diets alienate those who may not have access to the resources necessary to become veg, and may also discourage those who would be able to make the diet change. Vegetarianism and veganism are by no means easy lifestyle choices, and the stereotypes regarding them, though perhaps exaggerated, are telling.