There are a lot of things that have surprised me about being a vegan, but the most fundamental one has got to be that I'm a vegan in the first place. I used to judge vegans as either hipsters or animal rights nuts who were malnourished and thought they were better than me. That wasn't who I wanted to be, and the fact that vegans were so devoted to animals when there is so much human suffering in the world kind of pissed me off.
And yet. I was never comfortable eating meat, even as a kid. I had no rationale for why I ate it anyway, besides peer pressure and a mumbled idea of there being a "food chain." I knew I wasn't living in accordance with my values, but it wasn't like that was anything new. I also bought clothing produced in sweatshops and often willfully ignored homeless people. "Why even try when everything's so f*cked up" was my go-to rational.
It wasn't until I finally made the leap to becoming a vegetarian that I felt an immense weight lift. It was a relief to stop eating animals, like I had stopped living a lie I didn't even realize I was lying about. Months later, I finally felt ready to watch the movie Earthlings, which shows real footage of all the ways animals are used for food, clothing, and our entertainment. After I finished, I realized there was no way I could continue eating and wearing some animal products and not others. I made the leap to veganism, though the label continued to make me squirm.
Since then, many things have surprised me about being vegan, but perhaps none more than the seven things on this list.
1. People Get Much More Aggressive With Vegans Than They Do With Vegetarians
As a rule, I don't bring up my veganism out of nowhere, not even with close friends. I don't want them to feel like I'm judging them or preaching — plus, I never need to. People always bring it up with me first, and often in a very antagonistic way.
Interestingly, my being a vegetarian was almost never questioned. People never got angry about it or asked me to explain myself unless we were already having an in-depth conversation about the choice to eat animals. Once I became a vegan, however, it was as though everyone, from family members to strangers, demanded proof that I wasn't an elitist asshole who was losing her mind. Not eating animals, we get. But not eating their secretions or wearing their skin? Too far, you crazy snob! Too far!
In the past year, I've learned that this defensive reaction to my personal dietary choices is actually a good way to delicately open up a conversation. When I calmly explain that I'm actually a vegan because of my feminism and fundamental belief in all beings' right to autonomy over their own bodies, people are confused, but they want to know more.
I don't eat this way because I find the label "vegan" glamorous or superior — far from it. Usually, it seems to make people presume things about me. I'm vegan simply because since I saw it, I can't get the images of cows locked into milking machines, pumped full of hormones and crying for their newborn babies, out of my head. But I'm not judging you for eating dairy or meat. That's because I was you, just a year ago.
2. I Don't Really Get Stuffed Or Bloated Anymore
What's even weirder is that even when I eat a huge meal, I also don't really ever feel "stuffed" anymore. I feel full and satisfied, absolutely. But stuffed? I can't explain it, but that just doesn't tend to happen now that I'm not eating meat or dairy. Sure, sometimes I can overdo it on vegan cookies, but even then, the feeling isn't so much one of being bloated as it is just one of eating a bunch of sugar.
This is likely because I've cut out some of the hardest foods for our body to process, and because, like most of us, I had a harder time digesting dairy than I realized. Since I eat a healthy vegan diet — not just cereal and soy milk — when I eat a big meal, it's often just a lot of delicious veggies, whole grains, and other stuff that your body can usually break down much more easily. Sure, a ton of Brussels sprouts can make you gassy, but the feeling just isn't the same.
3. I Don't Miss The Foods I Thought I Would
But don't you miss cheese? To my own surprise, I don't, actually. As I've written about before, much of what we find appetizing is about our associations with it. Because I've changed my association with animal products by viewing videos of how they're actually made, I truly don't find them appetizing in the same way anymore. The only way I can explain it is if you've ever thrown up a food and found yourself with a strong aversion to it from thereon out. It's not quite that intense a feeling of revulsion; just an absence of desire when I see the food.
It also helps that I feel like my culinary world has actually expanded since going vegan. It's been a great excuse to try new restaurants and foods. Who knew nutritional yeast was the healthiest, tastiest alternative to Parmesan ever? Or that coconut milk yogurt is actually totally delicious and doesn't make me feel bloated? Or that New York City has a whole world of gourmet vegan restaurants I now have a great excuse to try? I'm eating more new foods now than I was before I cut out animal products. I haven't even had to say goodbye to my favorite cuisines; it turns out that pretty much all the Indian, Ethiopian, and Asian dishes I loved were all already vegan. If anything, I feel more culinarily adventurous.
3. It's Been Shockingly Hard To Find A Warm, Ethically-Made Vegan Sweater Under $100
Since I became a vegan, I've had to revamp my winter wardrobe, which was mostly made out of animal suffering in the form of wool, angora, and cashmere. Because for me, being a vegan is about living more in line with my own morals, I've also made it a point to only buy ethically-made or recycled clothing from here on out. After all, what good is a sweater made of cotton if children in a sweatshop assembled it?
Mostly, finding new vegan winter clothes has been really fun. But what's surprised me is just how tough it's been to find sweaters that are warm, ethically-made, vegan, cute, AND under $100. Seriously, animal people, we need to get on this. Or if I'm missing something, please tweet me your recommendations. I'm chilly.
5. People Ask Me About Honey Like It's A Litmus Test For How Crazy I Am
... But you eat honey, right? This question is usually asked by vegan sympathizers, people already in the know who perhaps already try to curb their animal intake, but who haven't fully cut it out. It seems to be a way of saying, That's cool and all, but you're not, like, crazy about this are you? My answer — that I'm not so strict about asking about honey in desserts at restaurants, but try to avoid buying or eating it — seems to make them think I'm one of the "unreasonable" vegans. I get it. Bees? Who cares about bees? They're just doing their thing, it's not like they get hurt, right?
Unfortunately, that's not quite the case, and the fact that most honey is made by confining bees in their equivalent of a factory farm goes against my core principle that I should not participate in the slavery of others, or make them do anything with their bodies that they haven't volunteered to do. I honestly don't know how much bees suffer, but why decide not to care about them when I don't need or miss the honey? So yes, I try to avoid it. But no, I'm not "crazy" about it. I'm just trying to be consistent. But like any animal product, I know there are times I'll eat it unknowingly, and I'm not stressing or militant about it.
6. It's Completely Changed My Relationship With Food
Before I became a vegan, I ate in a way that was often based in fear. At one point, I feared that gluten would make me sick, even though that turned out not to be the case. I often labeled certain foods "bad" or "unhealthy" in my mind, and how I decided what to eat was based entirely on what those foods might do to me and my body. When I became a vegan, a part of me was concerned that I could trigger even more of this thinking by deeming so many foods prohibited.
As it's turned out, going vegan has been one of the most healing things I could do for my relationship with food. My dietary choices are no longer just about me, and they are based in love instead of fear. It's completely changed the way I relate to food and my diet, even to what "healthy" really means. I now realize that the need I had before to feel control over my body and what I put in it was misplaced.
Eating vegan, I feel the sense of consistency I think so many of us crave in our diets, but I almost never have to think about it — my "diet" is simply to follow my ethics, and it's actually pretty simple and healthy. When I say "no" to a food now, it's hardly ever out of a concern of what that food will do to me — it's out of a desire not to participate in what it did to other beings.
As a result, I eat with less guilt and self-denial than ever before. I have more appreciation for food than ever, and feel a sense of abundance rather than lack. I feel privileged every day that I'm able to eat such a rich vegan diet without feeling that I'm denied anything. I feel grateful for my food, and lucky that I don't have to eat suffering in order to feel satisfied. I feel full.
7. I Feel More Compassion For Humans Now
Like I said, for me, being a vegan is and isn't about the animals. It is fundamentally about the realization that all oppression of the "other" — whether that be women, minorities, immigrants, or animals — is based on the same logic that things are just different for "them" than it is for "us." By refusing to participate in that logic when I eat and get dressed, I get to reaffirm for myself every day my core belief that I believe in the freedom and rights of all living beings.
What's surprised me is how much that decision has made me see the vulnerable animal in all of us. Sometimes, I'll see a baby clinging to its mother's chest and think of a baby orangutan and its mother. Other times, I'll look around the subway car at all the tired, sad faces on their way to work and get a flash of scared cows on dairy farms, hooked up to milking machines, forced to participate in a system that they must feel powerless against. Finding more empathy for animals has helped remind me that we humans are also just animals who need love, shelter, food, compassion, and freedom.
I care more about humans now, even more reaffirmed in my belief in a woman's right to choose. Before I became a vegan, I thought it would mean declaring myself an "animal person" — someone who somehow cared more about animals than people. I feel excited to find out that it's just the opposite. There is no finite "Love And Caring Pie" that you can run out of slices for. In fact, the more you love and care, the more you realize just how much everyone deserves a piece.
Images: Herbivore Clothing; Meme Generator