One Size Does Not Fit All
I’m fat. Not size-14, average-American-woman fat. Really fat. And I am healthy. Why? I would say I am healthy because I strive to maintain a vegan diet. This was not always the case. I used to have high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, migraine headaches (weekly) and a general fear of my body caving in on me. I got some test results, and I was upset. I didn’t want to take medication for the rest of my life. I didn’t need the condescending look and fear-induced shaming coming from my doctor. She suggested gastric bypass in addition to many prescriptions. I told her I had to think about it.
That was a lie. I knew I was not interested in weight-loss surgery. I am a strong woman who loves independence, compassion and fierce questioning of many models. This would be no different. I was fat, but I believed I could be healthy. A documentary on raw diets and Type 2 diabetes led me to ask questions of lovely wellness-living friends, to read many books from my local library (“The China Study,” “Becoming Vegan,” “Why We Eat Pigs, Wear Cows and Love Dogs”) and eventually, I was led to “Crazy Sexy Diet.” The joy for life, for food and for compassion I found there solidified my choices.
I am not on a diet. I am changing my life. That may result in some weight loss. But I want to be clear that my intentions are about health, clarity and compassion — for myself as well as animals. I am a big, fat, proud vegan. And that has been interesting.
I live in a little, seemingly progressive university town in the Midwest. There are lovely people here and lots of supportive places for veg-friendly eats — we have local farmers who sell yummy greens at the farmers market; a local co-op with bulk bins that can help with the expense of eating organic and healthy; there are options at most restaurants and a wonderful apple orchard to wander with the kids. But, as a fat, vegan wellness woman, there are also many sidelong glances, questioning stares and blatant stereotyping. A recent interaction at an event with food went something like this:
“We have a vegan option available, and we ask that only the vegans partake so there is enough for all.”
I lined up in the vegan line.
Woman: “You are vegan?”
Me: “Yep. Why?”
Woman: “I just … well … with your body type?”
She body-checks me.
Woman: “Well, clearly you eat other things.”
I stood there a bit shocked. We all know the feeling. I couldn’t find my response fast enough and ended up walking away. Only to think later, “What the hell?”
This may seem like no big deal. She was stereotyping; no harm done. Maybe now she’ll change her views. But I encounter this kind of comment all the time. Worse — people often feel like they can comment on eating habits without being invited. Add size to that equation, and people are full of comments, criticisms and, of course, dieting advice.
A coworker of mine, for example, is always telling me how dairy is fine and even the strictest vegetarians in other countries understand how wonderful cow’s milk is. I get it. To be confronted with the ways our eating is harming the world and ourselves is scary. Saying something to passively defend oneself may be a natural response. But I find that as a fat woman, I get these responses much more often. I am less likely to be seen as health-conscious, or even animal-aware. I am more likely to be seen as trying some fad to lose weight (and only because I must be so miserable fat).
Even John McDougall, a wonderful resource for veganism and healthful living, wrote an article on the fat vegan. He called us “an oxymoron,” claiming we are not showing compassion for the animal in ourselves.
The reality is this — if I were trying to lose weight, it wouldn’t happen overnight. I didn’t gain it all that way, either. Becoming vegan is an important step for health at any size. I drink my green juice (and like it!), roast my brussels sprouts and occasionally make vegan mac and cheese, too. I am just like any other vegan trying to live a life of compassion, clarity and consciousness. And I am fat too. I may remain fat. I will still be healthier because of my diet choices.
So the next time you’re faced with a sister vegan, and she isn’t what you expect, just smile. Revel in the reality of our differences and the joy of our shared journeys. Make a green juice toast, and share a recipe for compassion. Vegans come in all sizes.
Shell Feijo is a vegan mama striving for health, compassion, and lots of laughter. Her book, “Pigs Are People Too: Experiences of a Fat Woman in America” is forthcoming — just in time for the after-holiday diet season. She lives in Iowa City.