by Ashley Michelle
Before I made the big decision to change my life, I had been toying with taking the plunge for quite a while. No, I’m NOT talking about marriage. I’m talking about going V-E-G-A-N.
The ironic thing is going vegan hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be in terms what food I can and cannot eat. The real challenge has been learning how to handle friends, family, and co-workers who don’t understand the path I’ve chosen to take.
But first … a little background about how I got here in the first place.
I tried to “proclaim” myself a vegetarian when I was in fifth grade, and while I’m not sure what exactly prompted this declaration, I suppose deep down I must have had some sort of awareness that eating animals wasn’t for me. Unfortunately, when you live with a family of meat eaters and you’re just shy of 11 years old, you don’t have much of a say about what’s for dinner. From my family’s perspective, I was being “picky” and “high-maintenance,” and I’m certain they wished I would have just eaten a hot dog for dinner like every other kid my age.
Out of sheer trepidation that my aversion to meat would forever label me as a “problem” for others, I ended up spending the rest of my adolescence avoiding meat (when I could), fearing restaurant outings, and forcing down food in social situations where I had no other choice (such as family parties, dinner with the boyfriend’s parents, work events, etc.). I was so worried about pleasing others, and I was so afraid of making them uncomfortable, that I resorted to making myself more uncomfortable instead.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how crazy my anxiety over food was. Why on earth was I sacrificing my beliefs out of fear that I would offend someone else? College was my first opportunity to live how I wanted to, do my own research, and truly learn the healthy ways to live a vegetarian lifestyle without judgment.
I started to become more aware of my overall health, and I began looking at what the food I consumed was made of. I worked to replace all that processed and supposedly “healthy” food with natural, clean, whole foods full of real ingredients that would benefit my body inside and out. Immediately upon making this switch, I started to feel amazing. I was full of energy, my skin cleared up, and I was sleeping better than ever. And, wouldn’t you know, by the time I graduated, my family was a little bit better (not perfect) about accepting my choices.
Yet even though I was feeling more confident about my lifestyle, something was still nagging inside me. It was then that I knew I was ready to take on my next challenge and transition to a 100% vegan lifestyle. If I thought the backlash against my food choices was long over, boy was I wrong!
Right away the term “vegan” was met by hostile response. At holidays, my family accused me of being “rude” and looked at me as though I was a “food snob.” At dinner with some girlfriends, they acted as if my motivation was to be “diet trendy” or “one-up” them as if my eating habits were a secret way to personally attack theirs. The most difficult place to be a vegan, however, is at work.
It seems as though we celebrate a birthday every other day in my office. This means an abundance of cakes and cookies and afternoon treats around every corner (NONE of which are vegan). I’d always dreaded these celebrations in the past, but I’ve come to dread them even more because of the food guilt I face and the pressure I feel from others to take part in the desserts. While I love my colleagues and always attend these get-togethers with a birthday card in hand, a smile on my face, and often a healthier goodie in tow, it never seems to be enough, no matter how many times I politely decline the proffered sweets, and delicately explain I’m vegan.
Someone is always pleading, “Oh, c’mon, just one bite! It’s soooo good!” Oftentimes it’s my boss or another person of authority doing the begging. Other times, I am met with blank stares, silence, or passive-aggressive comments as soon as I bring this detail up. I suddenly find myself feeling out of place without a fork in my hand and cake in my mouth. It’s quite an uncomfortable situation as if unless I am stuffing my face with an artificial, sugar-laden, non-vegan dessert, I simply don’t belong.
In social situations such as this, I am torn because I never wish to offend anyone, especially my superiors, but I do wish to stay true to my beliefs and decisions about my body and health. It’s unfortunate for anyone to be put in a position where they feel as though they must choose one principle over the other.
I find it impossible to understand how and why so many people seem to take it personally when a person has a lifestyle preference different from their own. Whether it be choosing to go vegan, trying to lose weight, or practicing Buddhism, it seems that there will always be someone, somewhere, trying to bash your efforts. Sometimes I get so frustrated inside and I wish I could yell, “You don’t see me trying to stuff tofu down your throat, do you?!? Don’t try to force something I don’t want down mine!” But I keep it in check; I won’t stoop to their inconsiderate level, and besides, I don’t want to give my fellow vegans a bad name!
Another difficult part of my journey has been following a vegan lifestyle while living with an omnivore boyfriend. He and I met in college and moved in together a year ago. While he’s been supportive and always knew I was a healthy eater who teetered between vegetarian and vegan, I don’t think he expected my choices to ever affect his life in any way. The truth is, when you’re a meat-loving guy living with a veggie-loving vegan girlfriend, things can get a little tricky.
For instance, grocery shopping and cooking are not dual tasks. When we first moved in together, I had visions of us going to farmers’ markets on Sunday mornings and spending the rest of the day cooking organic fare for dinner. This is NOT our reality! Instead, on Sunday afternoon, we go our separate ways. The boyfriend heads to Market Basket to stock up on good bargains and stops at a local butcher to pick up meat for the week. I, on the other hand, head to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to pick up items like nutritional yeast, spirulina powder, organic produce, nori, and tofu.
When we finally do meet up back home, it’s time to do the kitchen dance!
Our kitchen is rather tiny, so two people cooking at once is a nightmare. Instead we attempt to coordinate who needs to use the stove or countertop first and then take turns so that we can both sit down at the same time and enjoy a nice romantic meal (even though the dishes are different). We aim to do this every weekend since our schedules are so hectic during the week and we rarely get to sit down and eat together Monday through Friday.
Not everything always works out nicely though. Such different diets definitely has its drawbacks. For example, going out to dinner can be a hassle. My boyfriend may want to hit the nearest burger place or BBQ joint, but they may not have many, if any, vegan-friendly options. I don’t want my diet to deprive him in any way, so I often try to accommodate him when I can by looking at the menu and creating a meal from various side dishes or salads.
The same thing happens with friends. When we go on weekend trips, normally everyone pitches in and buys food in bulk from Costco or BJ’s for the whole stay , but I usually end up trying to buy my own stash to hold me over. I don’t mind doing it, but the jokes and jabs about being high maintenance make me feel like the oddball and can ruin the mood a bit, for me anyway.
Lately, however, I’ve been aiming to overcome some of these obstacles with friends and co-workers by bringing vegan food that tastes more “mainstream” to events. I’ll just quietly place it down with all the other food on the table and, wouldn’t you know, when you don’t draw attention to it as something healthy or vegan, people often eat it and will even ask who made the fabulous dish.
I didn’t choose to take the plunge and become vegan because it’s popular in Hollywood or because I have friends doing the same thin. In fact, I don’t know ANYONE in my circle of friends and family who is vegan. I chose this path because it makes me feel happy and healthy, inside and out! Isn’t that what life is all about? After all, why should I care if I am “singled out” for being different as long as I’m proud to be who I am? (Cue the snaps, please!)
The most important thing for me to do now, and this is possibly the biggest mistake I have made in the past, is to have a little more confidence in the healthy lifestyle I’ve chosen. I find there is a fine line between educating others about your health-related choices and flaunting them, so I must attempt to “live vegan” without seeming as though I am preaching about my eating habits.
My boyfriend supports my choices, even though he still thinks I’m a little weird from time to time, and my family may never fully understand where I am coming from (although my Mom has been tinkering with a clean diet recently … maybe her next step is vegetarian!). But what I now know is that I need to spend less time worrying about what others think, and spend more time trying getting them to sample my fabulous vegan cooking skills!
It is possible to be a vegan in a world of omnivores, and my goal is to prove it. I don’t like being judged for how I live my life, and I’ve promised myself I won’t do this to others. You never know; maybe if I don’t push the vegan lifestyle, others will eventually test the waters on their own!
Related post: “Transitioning to Healthier Eating”
Ashley Michelle is a self-professed health and fitness nut from Boston who has a passion for all things nutrition. She is also a former vegetarian who recently took the plunge into a 100% vegan lifestyle. A believer in positive thinking and the power of promoting positive body image, she also has a strong interest in the effects of society and media on women and girls today. She writes about her vegan journey, her life, and her culinary experiences along with all things health and fitness in her new blog, Pretty Fit Life, and can be followed on Twitter at @iTweetPretty.