Today in our little words series we’re tackling the topic of labels. If you’ve been a reader or a listener of our podcast before, you know we’ve discussed labels (especially as it pertains to veganism and perfectionism) many times. Today though, we’re looking at labels from a wider lens as we’ve just done with patience, excess, change and fear. The idea behind this series is that we use these little words as motivation or mantras to help us on our journey to improving our relationship with food, on our vegan journey, our body image journey, and our general sense of wellness, so things go back to being simple and we are a bit more self aware.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we use labels on ourselves and place them on others on a regular basis. This can go from the very simple act of referring to ourselves or others as athletic or lazy, as introverts or extroverts, as annoying, smart, nerdy or busybodies, when we say we’re vegan, vegetarian, omnivores or pescatarians, and all the way up to labels that are deeply rooted in society and intertwined with identity, such as being a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or a part of other belief systems or religions. We have labels for sexual orientations, labels for personality traits, labels for our political views, and of course, labels for the way we eat.
The way I like to see it, whenever we make a statement such as “I am…. X”, we’re dealing in one way or another with labels. In this way, judgements are often associated and attached to people, such as when you’ve worked with someone and on that first encounter you labelled them as difficult, something that will likely leech over to all future encounters with this person, even though we know that others, just like us, are multifaceted and can have tougher days and better days. When someone carries the label of feminist, liberal, conservative, Christian, etc., most of us have a reel of images forming in our heads that immediately categorizes and helps us make assumptions about this person. Labels are a normal part of being humans in a world full of information and people we interact with, it’s a way to organize information in our brains, and we do it without noticing with everyone we encounter, and we especially do it with ourselves.
Just as an example, here are some of the labels I’ve often used to refer to myself.
A girly girl
Vegan (previously hardcore carnivore as I like to call it)
Very spiritual but non-religious
Kind, and loving, but hard on myself
Too perfectionistic to a fault
Athletic but not sporty
An intuitive eater
A writer in training, an avid reader, a good cook, a good teacher, bad at maths, bad at spacial abilities, terrible at understanding time travel movies or when the time changes or using instruction manuals. (ha!).
These are just some off the top of my head, but I could carry on with the list as I’m sure you could with yours.
People have often asked me where I stand on using labels for the way we eat, on saying “I am vegan”, something you’ve heard me say many times in this blog and our podcast. The answer to this is that I think it has helped push veganism, and most importantly for the sake of animals, it has pushed vegan options right into the mainstream. When we identify as vegan, and companies know that the number of vegans has increased, the result is more options, at lower prices, more accesible to everyone. Same thing happens with people who aren’t vegan but associate this label with a way of eating they’re happy to support and try out, therefore purchasing products labelled as such. The vegan label gives the way we eat a name so we can quickly spot something in a menu, it helps us find books, recipes and information, it helps us find community with people who eat the same way we do. Does it have a downside? Yes, of course it does.
I can’t tell you how many times someone has confessed to me that when they found out I was vegan they were really surprised once they realized I was nothing like the other vegans they had met before. There it was, a label being used in action to organize and categorize information. I remember once listening to a podcast interview in which an author was tackling the question of whether or not vegans didn’t mind eating with omnivores while they were eating meat, and what happened was so interesting. She posed the question and got very quiet to give listeners the chance to give an answer in their head, and I was really surprised that mine was very different from what she and probably many others answered. In spite of being a vegan for ethical reasons I truly didn’t mind eating at a restaurant with my non-vegan friends while they were eating animal products, probably because I’m well aware of the fact that that was once me, and that they’re going through their own journey with food. I can also say that I’ve openly talked about my very different views on whether anyone can or should be vegan, giving shades of grey to my answer in saying that people struggling through food insecurity or in a situation of poverty, or people going through an eating disorder might be better served by a different option. I can give you many examples of things typically associated with the vegan label that I’ve never felt ringing true for me. That author interview in my very early months of being vegan made me do a double take and wonder if I was making a mistake by thinking the way I thought. Was I supposed to let the label come before what I believed as a person? This is the part of labels I love getting into, when the label becomes a bulldozer for your own and very individual traits and thoughts as a person.
Many times I have been left on the sidelines of what “most vegans” think, do and believe. I’ve felt sidelined when I see other vegans take this way of living to a rigid extreme of perfection. I’ve felt sidelined when vegans talk about additional labels, such as being a raw vegan, a whole foods vegan, an oil free vegan, a sugar free vegan. Labels that through the years have made many leave all forms of vegan labels behind because their lifestyle became unsustainable or unhealthy. I’ve felt sidelined when I see the amount of “othering” that happens within the vegan community, where I see the boundaries of the vegan label getting closer and closer, tighter and tighter.
When it comes to my intuitive eating journey, a way of eating that gave me my physical and mental health back and made my life and eating easier and gentler on myself, I often find myself on the sidelines when people who use this label for themselves think that not eating animals constitutes a breach of intuitive eating principles, no matter the reason behind it.
For some reason, added to all of this is the fact that for the very many new labels and lifestyle options that exist for people (which is great), I’ve been noticing lately that we’re immersed in a world of black and white thinking much more than before. Black and white thinking is very enticing, and perhaps it’s one of the things that brought me into the vegan world with such passion when I first went vegan. Finely defined labels bring us safety and a sense of belonging, but the further I’ve gone on my own journey with food and with the aspects of my personality that have influenced my relationship with food, the more I’ve seen that we also need to be able to separate ourselves from what we think a label means, and take an honest look at ourselves and what is true for each one of us.
A few years ago I would have labelled myself as a clean eater. I was checking the labels of everything that went in my mouth, staying away from anything processed, seeing sugar and carbs as things to be avoided as much as possible. Along the way this pulled me further from health, but because of the label, it was hard for me to regain a more balanced relationship with food, because I held the “clean/healthy/perfect eater” as a girl scout badge.
Although I label myself as a vegan, I’ve had to make this work for me, seeing that veganism (at least my way of seeing it), is not about the way we eat per se, but it’s about helping animals and the planet we’re in. This meant it wasn’t about a prize at the end of the animal product abstinence road, in which we never let a single ounce of an animal product cross our lips. Instead, it became about being a different example of what veganism could be for someone like me, meaning, that when the most popular diner in my town began to offer a vegan burger in a bun that might have had a 1% of milk or eggs in it, I would decide to eat it anyway and support the fact that there’s an option without meat in hundreds of locations across the country now. It became about showing veganism as an approachable imperfect way of eating, in which I try my best and understand where others are coming from because I went through my own journey as well.
I think labels are great, especially when they’ve helped push social justice movements forward, and gave a sense of community to people who always felt alienated and like they didn’t have a place in the world. I also think though, and this is my challenge/homework for you this week, that we also need to look at the labels we use for ourselves and others as separate from ourselves and others, not the ultimate truth. Just like we did with our fear sticker, we can peel off our labels and see them as something we’ve chosen but not our entire identity in and of itself. This means that it isn’t necessarily true that we’re “lazy”. It isn’t necessarily true that we’re “addicted to food”. It isn’t necessarily true that we’re everything that people automatically include as a stereotype when they hear the word vegan, Christian, liberal, conservative, etc. This exercise also gives us the amazing advantage of being able to remove the label stickers we’ve placed on others, and actually be able to see people for who they are, and what they bring to the table, for sure bringing more empathy and understanding for others and ourselves along with it.
It can be so helpful in our journeys with food to be able to do this exercise of removing this label sticker from who we are for a few moments, and be able to see and notice differences and similarities, what works for us or what doesn’t. It allows us to practice living in the grey a little bit, and grey is such a pretty color when you’re trying to find your own secure and accepting place in this world, as well as creating a safe space for others.
A Little Exercise
This week let’s do a little exercise together. Find something you feel is true about yourself, something you use to identify yourself with. Peel that label sticker off and stick it next to you. Try to find how you, with all the qualities that make you unique (whether you consider them positive or negative), actually fit in to that label, find the little grey area and sit there for a bit. You might discover that you actually are a morning person when you’ve gotten enough sleep, that you’re vegan but don’t believe X rings true for you, that you actually enjoy some forms of exercise and you can accept your couch potato label status sometimes, but it isn’t always a fact. That perhaps you’ve been a runner your whole life but you don’t truly enjoy running every day. That you follow a political line of thought but disagree with it in some aspects. You might discover that even though you’ve proclaimed yourself a carnivore and meat eater, you actually enjoyed that Beyond burger you had the other day and burying it and enjoying it along with what you eat doesn’t mean you are any less yourself. It might mean that you’ve been a very conservative or religious person, but when someone close to you tells you they’re gay, you can find it in yourself to truly accept and love this person just as much as before. It might mean that no matter what you see on TV and in magazines you’ve actually never felt your bigger body has to change. It might mean that you can be on your intuitive eating journey, which asks you to put weight loss on the back burner while you connect back with your body, and still have an inner desire to lose weight. It might mean that in spite of always having labelled yourself an excellent student, having such high expectations for yourself in trying to be perfect, you discover a way to be kinder to yourself and find acceptance even when you don’t reach those high standards.
It’s true that labels provide a sense of direction and belonging, but I feel many of us really need to ask ourselves “what do I think?”, “what do I believe?”, “how do I fit into this?”, and give ourselves permission to use the labels we proudly carry, with our own sense of understanding and acceptance of who we are as individuals. I think when we make an effort to do this, we take the good that comes with labels but we also find a safe space within ourselves, and that can provide the greatest sense of belonging of all.