Perfect vegetarians? 11/03/10
Claire Martens looks at just how far are we willing to take this whole vegetarian thing.
Seven years ago I decided to change my eating habits to reflect my growing awareness around health, social, ethical and environmental matters. I was still in residence at University in South Africa, so my first step was to choose more appropriate meals. At the time, this meant that I stopped eating any meals that contained red meat; instead I chose the “health” option or the vegetarian meal. I was still not opposed to eating fish or chicken and my decision as to why was confined to the fact that going cold-turkey (not very appropriate terminology) didn’t seem like a sustainable way to start changing my eating patterns.
After a few months of research, and because becoming veg-conscious opened my eyes to the world in a new way, I realised that eating chicken could not be condoned. I continued to eat fish because I enjoyed it and because I felt like it was keeping me healthy.
It was only six years later that I stopped eating fish completely. During that time I also occasionally ate a venison steak. I was a blood donor at the time and felt very weak every time I donated (I even collapsed once) and so I ate a steak meal before every donation. This amounted to very little meat once every six weeks or so, but it caused a lot of controversy in my circle of friends, as they could not understand why I still called myself a vegetarian.
Although contradictory behaviour at first glance, I refused to feel guilty about it. Being a vegetarian is a personal choice and I used to feel very annoyed with people who imposed their judgements and opinions on me. I had to be very strong-willed to focus on what I believed. If I was happy with my way of being, and if I felt like I was progressing in my beliefs and causes, then nothing they could say would affect me.
One day, not too long ago, I was eating cream cheese and my friend, who is also a vegetarian, told me that it contains gelatine and that I shouldn’t be eating it. Into my head, at the time, popped some very inappropriate words. The truth is, her comment really caused me frustration. I thought to myself, I have progressed this far and I am doing my best, what more does the world want from me? Do I have to give up my leather shoes, my favourite sweets, my favourite shampoo and my car? How far do I have to go before people stop judging me?
I realised too that once you label yourself a vegetarian, the outside world judges you in a certain way, lending itself towards pre-conceived notions of what that means. They expect you to be a perfect person, engaging in every activity under the sun that is vaguely green, hippy-like or eco-friendly. But this is not true. In a capitalist world, it becomes increasingly more difficult to be a perfect greenie, and in a contradictory way, more expensive to be one too. How far does one really have to go in order to feel happy and justified in ones’ actions, without being pre-judged for what you do or don’t do?
I have always maintained that people should not have to be pushed too far out of their comfort zones in order to make a difference to this world. Yes, I agree that becoming vegetarian involves a change of lifestyle, to some degree, but it shouldn’t be a prison sentence. I support flexibility and change. It took me seven years to completely cut out meat from my diet and I am happy with the choices I made. Everyone should approach their vegetarianism differently, as you would any diet. I feel that as long as you are aware of the consequences of your actions, and that you are making choices based on what you know and what you are happy with, that any small contribution is welcome. I also believe that, if you are a socially and ethically aware person, you could also engage in other pursuits which contribute towards the environment and society.
I will never forget a lecture given to us by a passionate environmentalist. At the end we spoke of what we can do to contribute towards environmentalism. What he said was very true, that by adopting a profession which deals directly with environmental issues, we were contributing in the biggest and best way possible. The idea of an environmental profession is not confined to being a game ranger either; lawyers, social development practitioners, journalists and all kind of other people make small and big impacts every day.
I am not suggesting that everyone becomes environmentalists; but I would suggest that, should you want to make positive changes, being a perfect vegetarian is not the only thing that you can do. Small life decisions make ripples in many ponds. Be a green mom, an indigenous gardener, a courageous recycler or a cycling fanatic.
The question is: how far are you willing to take it?