Why I’m Vegan: Ecofeminism

I’ve been holding myself up, preventing myself from writing about why I’m vegan and how central food is to my understanding of justice. I’ve been holding myself up because this writing feels especially important, like it needs to be good, and, therefore, is triggering my need to counter perfectionism.

I’ve also been holding myself up because it’s so damn hard to write about being vegan without re-inscribing notions of whiteness and privilege. Especially from my positionality as a privileged white woman. For example, check out the commentary “Here’s Why Black People Don’t Go Vegan” or the edited collection Sistah Vegan.

I’ve been holding myself up, too, because I want to amplify vegan voices of color and question how to put my voice in the mix. Vegans of color are explaining how meat is linked to white supremacy and an intersectional web of oppression. I’ve mentioned before the blogs Black Vegans Rock and The Sistah Vegan Project. If I could accomplish nothing else, I’d hope to send readers to these and other great resources.

Against this backdrop, I still want/need to explain why I’m vegan, and a sense of urgency is becoming clear. In just one week, I’ve had three different people ask me the familiar question: “Why are you vegan?” I’ve been invited to a vegan potluck, asked to provide vegan snacks for a campus event, and asked to support a student’s vegan activism. It’s clear I need to claim and explain why veganism means so much to me.

My first two answers to why I’m vegan—cookie dough and doing something small and sustained—are pieces of the larger puzzle. For this post, I’ll attempt to share a more philosophical piece: ecofeminism.

So, Why Am I Vegan?

Short answers include the following:

  • Veganism presents daily reminders for me to acknowledge and to counter violence in all its manifestations. It asks me to look at myself, my positioning, and how I’m relating (or not) with others.
  • Structures of oppression build on each other, and so I want to break down speciesism alongside and as part of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, sizeism, etc.
  • I want to affirm rights, including human rights, civil rights, linguistic and epistemic rights, and—yes, animal rights.
  • I value “all my relations,” including with animals and the earth, and I continue to learn the wisdom of interconnectedness through Malea Powell’s and others’ scholarship on indigenous epistemologies and relational worldviews.

These and other answers have emerged over decades of thinking about and reframing many relationships, including with what I eat and why. I’ve been vegan for more than three years, since December 2013. Before that, I’d been vegetarian since 2000. Though the transition from vegetarian to vegan was surprisingly smooth, I still end up at restaurants and in gatherings where options are scarce and where people look at me with tilted heads in total disbelief.

I’m frequently asked the question at the center of this series: “Why are you vegan?”

Related questions include:

  • Was is hard to give up ______ (fill in a popular food)?
  • How do you get enough ______ (fill in any vitamin, mineral, or protein)?
  • Aren’t you still doing harm by eating ______ (e.g., quinoa, grapes, almond milk)?
  • Aren’t you still killing plants?

As a recovering perfectionist, I recognize in these questions all-or-nothing thinking—or the idea that only a perfect/complete solution is a solution worth seeking.

In contrast, I believe we must invest in small and sustained actions—in whatever form they might take and however they might look.

Clearly, I was vegetarian long before vegan, and my reasons for being vegetarian are largely the same for being vegan. This is why I start with my “origin story” of learning about and wanting to strive toward ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism

Perhaps the trickiest and yet most true answer to why I’m vegan is that I believe in ecofeminism, which is a feminist belief in the equity and rights of all beings. I believe in countering all instances of exploitation, oppression, and injustice. And in affirming all forms of justice, including social, racial, gender, and economic justice. Relatedly, I see instances of injustice/justice as intimately woven together. To begin unweaving the tapestry, I take a thread that’s possible to pull. This thread is my relationship with food.

In one of my first women’s studies courses, I remember studying a pyramid like this one:

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This hierarchical structure places god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth. It represents domination and helps with visualizing the interconnected nature of –isms. The closer to the god, the more godly, good, worthy, and worthwhile. The further from god, the more exploited, demeaned, undermined, and devalued.

The goal of ecofeminism, then, is flattening hierarchies. This means seeing all beings—god, men, women, children, animals, and the earth—as worthy and worthwhile, as all having innate value and rights. This means not prioritizing men over women or humans over animals, but asking tough and sticky ethical questions that imagine relations of equity and justice.

It was studying this pyramid and imagining flattened, interconnected relations that led me to become vegetarian while still in college. From this starting point, I have continued to learn, and the more I learn, the more I see the need for everyday practices—like eating vegan—that lead to more questioning, more learning, and more desire to make change.

Dismantling systems of oppression involves, I believe, dismantling the hierarchies that are both internalized and normalized. And dismantling this pyramid is about not only countering sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also countering white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and other forms of oppression. This is similarly what intersectional veganism seeks to address.

Ecofeminism is why I embrace animal rights, while emphasizing and affirming human rights. People have historically been dehumanized by being associated with animals (e.g., “dogs” or “monkeys”). As a strategy to deny human, civil, linguistic, and other rights, the association of humans with animals assumes that animals are lesser-than and unworthy of having rights. If we affirm animals as beings who also have rights, then we can disrupt dehumanization and the related stripping of human rights. Black vegan feminist theorist Aph Ko has an AWESOME video about how animal oppression relates to human oppression.

There’s a LOT more I want to write about why I’m vegan, which is why this is just one post in an ongoing series. What I can say simply is that my commitments to feminism and racial justice relate to environmental justice and veganism. So, one answer—and the one that defines my origin story and shares my philosophy—is ecofeminism. I’m certainly on a path to live and learn more, and I look forward to following where this philosophy might lead.

Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose

I’m attending a friend’s wedding this weekend, and I wish I could say that I’m experiencing the joy, gratitude, and love associated with celebration. Instead, I’ve been experiencing worry, shame, anger, and grief—so many unresolved emotions and resurfacing memories associated with the trauma of sexism.

I’m wrestling with a very real and raw question: Do I wear pantyhose to my friend’s wedding?

I’m wrestling with the pit in my stomach that relates not just to clothing, but to weddings as rituals of heteronormativity and codified expectations related to gender, race, class, religion, ability, and other intersectional identities. I’m wrestling with “beauty within and without,” as bell hooks names this issue in Feminism Is for Everybody. I’m wrestling with the question of what it means to live for justice when wanting to support my friend, yet finding my stomach churning.

What Should I Wear to the Wedding?

2017-04-15 10.57.27For the past week—since my mom asked simply, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”—I’ve had an embodied meltdown-into-outburst. At first I thought I’d wear a suit. Then I realized that I like hiding inside suits because they feel protective—like shields. I had to ask myself if I want to act as though I’m under attack, as though I’m in need of protection.

These questions led me to the Goodwill, where I found a green dress, and I loved the green color because it represents the fourth chakra and heart opening. Love: perfect for a wedding and perfect for protection with shielding.

2017-04-15 10.53.51But when I shared the dress with my mom and best friend, they both asked about accessories. What?!? I was willing to wear a dress, and I thought I was making an effort to be vulnerable, to embrace the feminine. But they were right: I would need to have shoes, a wrap, and … pantyhose?

So, I departed from my usual walk home from school and stopped into a department store, where I bought a pair of pantyhose. And here’s where I’m stuck in the stickiness, in the mess of seemingly simple, benign questions:

  • What do I wear to my friend’s wedding (weddings being particularly tough for me)?
  • Do I wear a suit, which feels protective and, for a woman, more subversive (ironic because suits mark status and the status quo)?
  • Or do I wear a dress (more aligned with the request for “cocktail attire,” which is tripping me up because I don’t want to play into feminine norms and norming)?
  • If I wear a dress, do I wear pantyhose (an object that I trace to my earliest memories of feeling constrained within a gendered and female body)?
  • Is there a way to wear pantyhose and still feel free (to redefine what’s for me an object of patriarchal containment and control of my body)?
  • Is this the occasion for shaking up/off my history with pantyhose?

Looking Back to Look Forward: Early Associations of Pantyhose with Constraint

I’ve written before about the lies of internalized sexism, and I’m aware that my earliest memories involve me learning what it means to be socialized into and gendered as a girl/woman. And a particular sort of girl/woman—within the United States, within white supremacy, within Protestant Christianity, within class and other privileges, and within the “mythical norm.”

These early memories include two distinct occasions of getting dressed up for “big events”: a wedding and an easter morning. This weekend now brings these events together—literally, a wedding on Saturday and easter on Sunday—helping me to re-read their meaning side-by-side.

I can’t say which occasion happened first in childhood, but I remember being at a big wedding and feeling both thrilled and overwhelmed by the many people around me. I was not only dressed up, but “dolled up,” and wanted nothing more than to be free of both the uncomfortable clothing and articulations of how “cute” I was. I remember taking off shoes, then hair ribbons, and then tights (childhood equivalent of “hose” or “pantyhose”). And I remember that the potential joy of running freely within a large party space was mitigated and matched only by the constraint of those tights. They seemed the physical embodiment of being “lady-like.” And I wanted nothing to do with that constraint.

Also in childhood (when I was only 3 or 4 years old), I went tumbling down hallway stairs on an easter morning. I had a new dress with new hair bows, new tights, and new shoes. I was excited and moving quickly, which didn’t match the slick underside of new shoes. When I fell down the stairs, I caught the hose, tearing holes in both knees. What I held onto from this early-and-still-vague memory was a sense that dressing up is dangerous, uncomfortable, and likely to result in scraped knees.

Both memories resurfaced this week when talking with a friend who said (or more likely didn’t say, but I heard): “Beth, it’s only pantyhose.”

I could feel heat rush through my body, because pantyhose aren’t ONLY pantyhose for me. They represent “the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of beauty” (hooks 34). And attending a wedding, I’m positioned to embody this industry whether or not I wear pantyhose. Wearing them means identifying with the industry’s notion of beauty. Not wearing them means identifying against it and as a feminist who’s “big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly” (hooks 32). Nothing about this double-bind is new; it’s just showing up newly for me through this decision and around this event. How do I respect my values without making myself an issue or distraction for the friend who’s getting married?

“I’m Never Wearing Pantyhose Again”

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As soon as I was old enough to make clothing decisions, I let go of hose and other things I found uncomfortable—all of which linked physical discomfort and femininity. Objects like barrettes, headbands, and ponytail holders were gone. Tights, leggings, and pantyhose: gone.

I made these decisions young enough that I resisted make-up before I had time to learn about it. In high school, I had a few pairs of shoes with slight heels, but those were gone by college. Only cloth (no clasp) bras would do (and bras are still itchy and dis-preferred). I stopped shaving years ago. I buy pants with pockets large enough for my phone and don’t own a purse. All of these decisions are connected to an assertion I made as a young adult: “I’m never wearing pantyhose again.”

Nevers are dangerous, as I’ve now purchased a pair, whether I wear them or not. And this decision—like all of these detailed here—feels incredibly personal and political. Writing about these decisions feels important and yet far-too-intimate. I imagine that each can easily lead to judgment because, truly, we all (are taught to) judge a women’s worth—and virtue and respectability—based on such embodied decisions, performances, and actions.

To illustrate, when I google “cocktail attire” (the instructions on my wedding invitation), here’s what I find:

DRESS CODE: COCKTAIL
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.
Read more: http://stylecaster.com/dress-code/#ixzz4eFnznDU8

I’m so upset with the gender binary. I’m so upset with the short, less-than-one-line instruction for “guys,” alongside several lines on how to be “party-ready,” “fun,” “bright,” and “feminine” for women. And googling “pantyhose,” I’m literally blown back remembering that they are still required in some workplaces and praised for “covering blemishes.” It hurts to think how much time goes into both uncovering and covering up women’s bodies. Why not rewrite-rethink-reclaim the body and its blemishes as beautiful?

Judgments follow codes, and I think it’s having a clear code—“cocktail attire”—that’s kicked up this trouble for me. For as much as we might credit second and third wave feminism with fostering “greater care, ease, and respect for women’s bodies” (hooks 33), the care, ease, and respect are still far from enough. The rhetoric of “options” falls short. And even within the double-bind I face, I still have the privilege of making choices. For many, many, many women, marginalization, oppression, and dehumanization prevent even that.

So, Will I Wear Pantyhose?

hooksIf this question were purely procedural, the answer might be simple. Yet, the question is deeply symbolic and embodied for me. As a girl, I learned to associate sexism with pantyhose, and the symbol today makes me feel both anger (at the injustice) and shame (at my imperfect body and at having internalized the messages I am so adamantly against). In Feminism Is for Everybody, hooks explains, “Girls today are just as self-hating when it comes to their bodies as their pre-feminist counterparts were” (35). It’s clear to me, therefore, that I need to make the decision with both the awareness of self-hate and the practice of self-love.

My plan is to see how I’m feeling just before the wedding. I’ll hold my hands over my heart and belly and imagine each clothing option. I’ll wear the option with the deepest, fullest breath, using the breath to honor my body’s wisdom and to find agency within constraint. If I choose to wear a dress, I can take off or put on pantyhose during the event. Instead of straight-up following the dress code, I’ll follow my body’s requests, desires, and communication.

Perhaps in looking for freedom and flexibility, I find a feminist orientation. For my body’s wisdom, I am grateful. For bell hooks (as a guide and companion), I am grateful. For the divine timing of re-reading Feminism Is for Everybody, I am grateful. For friends who consider these questions with me, I am grateful. For remembering and rethinking the past, I am grateful. For the possibilities of healing personal and political hurt, I am grateful. For processing the wedding through writing, I am grateful. For the reorientation toward gratitude, yes: I am grateful.

Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!

“Do you consider yourself a writer?”

I’ve been teaching for almost two decades, and throughout this time, I’ve routinely asked this question on the first and last days of the semester (and often in-between). I’ve found my own strong YES to the question, asserting: “I don’t just study writing. I write. I am a writer.” And I hope that students, colleagues, friends, and family will similarly see themselves as writers, as people who write (who do the embodied act of writing). I believe there’s power in claiming this identity, as writers are positioned to speak up and speak out.

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View of my writing activity.
Writing and the relationships built around writing have the potential for countering injustice and bringing about more equitable relations. As I have explored in my dissertation and subsequent publications, writing has the potential to challenge and transform power relations. It has the potential to clarify and make actionable commitments to social and racial justice.

But what about art?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of writing to art, and I’ve been asking myself a twist on the familiar question, contemplating: “Do you consider yourself an artist?”

This question has been lingering since I wrote “It’s Time to Go to Work—Time to Write from the Heart, Head, and Hands” for the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL):

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To read this post, visit <aeplblog.wordpress.com>.
In this post, I respond to Toni Morrison’s call for action, call for art in tough political times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.”

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And I think: artists … Artists go to work.

Early in my life, I was quick to call myself an artist. I loved painting, drawing, sculpting, storytelling, and dancing. One of my earliest memories (around the age of three) involved being in big, big trouble for decorating the apartment door with crayons. Throughout elementary and middle school, I loved visual art, photography, calligraphy, and clogging classes. I put myself in charge of constantly changing seasonal decorations. I created my first books—a novel and scrapbook—in fourth grade. My mom found the owner of local bait and tackle shop to teach me crocheting one summer. I designed my first science fair projects to focus on art: understanding the color wheel and visualizing rock sediments with layers of colored sand. I submitted photographs to 4-H youth competitions. And I learned to bake, to make bracelets, and to write poetry. My memories of youth are full of creation. (Growing up rural East Tennessee pre-internet days, creation came naturally.)

Yet, somewhere along the way, I began to struggle with this self-definition, as I internalized a sense that only some people could be artists, and those people were ones who produced “great works” recognized by others. Though I still flirted with art and briefly considered minoring in visual art, I let go of the self-identification of “artist.” I considered friends—those who really studied and perfected their crafts—to be artists. I learned to hold the identity of “artist” at arm’s length—likely for the same reasons that many of my students hold the identity of “writer” as something “out there,” something that others can claim only after recognized achievement.

Today I’m wondering if my reluctance to claim “artist” might be another form of playing small. Might this be another form of internalized inferiority, especially since my art was often feminized and I’d learned not to associate myself too closely with the feminine? If so, might claiming the identify of “artist” be another way to embrace feminine energy and feminist activism?

Recognizing the need for encouragement, I’ve started speaking to myself as I do when mentoring students, urging myself to claim the identity of artist. Since childhood, I have continued to create art—writing, storytelling, taking and editing photographs, designing cards, creating recipes, crocheting, and now blogging. I choose to believe the identity of “artist” is in the doing, just as I believe that one becomes a “writer” simply by writing.

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View of my artistic activity.
As further encouragement and a great synchronicity (or “god wink”), I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and this week’s queued episode was titled: “Who Gets to Decide Whether You’re a Legitimate Artist?” As you might imagine, the episode made the sort of argument I’m making here: it’s important to focus on the doing—the verb—of creating, making, writing, artist-ing.

So, if I embrace this identity—artist—and want to answer Morrison’s call “to go to work,” I can ask some new questions:

  • Where do I find inspiration, and how might I inspire others?
  • What needs to be said now, even if it’s been said before?
  • Whose voices need to be amplified, cited, credited, and made visible?
  • What am I called to create, and how might I listen to and hear the call more clearly?
  • How might creation help to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be”?

I ask these questions on a day in which students and I have generated lists of the genres (types of writing) through which we “write for social justice.” We showed each other the work we’re engaged in and the possibilities that lie ahead. One student urged me to “blog about this class”; another suggested creative nonfiction; and still another encouraged me to keep working on my academic book project. This encouragement reminds me that students see me as a creator (a writer, researcher, and artist), even as I’m encouraging as them to step into and claim these roles—to become writers and artists for justice.

I also ask these questions on a day when a friend shares the article, “Finding Steady Ground: Strengthening Our Spirits to Resist and Thrive in These Times.” Of the seven behaviors outlined here for strengthening ourselves and taking strategic action, #5 pops out to me: “I will be aware of myself as one who creates.” How about this for an affirmation? For a reminder that art isn’t frivolous, but part of resilience and resistance?

As I create—as I write, teach, research, blog, and share my work with others—I must say, “I am an artist.” And as an artist, I encourage artistic activism. I hope you’ll join me. I hope you’ll claim the identities of writer, artist, and activist. I hope you’ll create and act in the world, countering passivity and taking up Morrison’s call.

Refueling with Feminists of Color

My last post shared blogs I love—blogs by feminists and womanists of color. I was motivated to write this post while working on a related one for the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin:

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Refueling with Feminists of Color” shares books, blogs, and events to refuel the activist fire or to get fired up. Especially at this time of ever-increasing violence (symbolic, cultural, structural, and direct violence), I seek ways to keep commitments alight, to keep visions burning brightly.

I find much inspiration among feminists and womanists of color—in the books highlighted in this post for the YWCA, in the blogs I read on a daily basis, and in the events that allow me to connect with and learn from others.

I’m also returning this week from a professional conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Powerful presentations reminded me, yet again, of how much I have to learn from feminist and womanist scholars, particularly women of color and indigenous women. Scholar-activists are enacting, modeling, and sharing with us (white folks, able-bodied folks, cis-gender folks—those of us who have much to learn) what it means to do feminism.

To do feminism as an act of love. To do feminism for racial and social justice. To do feminism toward humanizing, recognizing, and valuing all people. To do feminism that rewrites the world as it is and imagines the world as it “ought to be.”

At this moment (a moment when words feel far away and hard to find), I say simply: thank you!

Thank you to the many feminists and womanists of color who teach through words, through actions, and through lives on fire. Thank you for sharing fuel for the fire. And I commit again—today and as a daily practice—to listening, learning, and striving to live a life for justice.

Blogs I Love: Reading Suggestions for Women’s History Month

Recently, I’ve been fielding questions about which blogs I read and recommend. This comes during Women’s History Month when I’ve been thinking about how to center the voices, intellectual contributions, and leadership of women of color. So, I’ve begun tracking where I spend my time online and compiling lists of my favorite blogs by feminists and womanists of color.

What I’ve created are some initial lists—and I say initial as there are many important blogs. I also include links to similar lists that others have compiled—to give starting points for podcasts, YouTube channels, and other media you might follow.

As a white woman committed to racial justice, I see Women’s History Month as a time to make explicit the commitment to racial justice as a commitment to all women.

Women’s History Month is a time to learn from the writing, art, and activism that feminists and womanists of color share in the world. It’s a time to get fired up with powerful critiques of “what is” and mobilizing visions for “what ought to be.” It’s a time to see beyond inherited (and typically normalized and uninterrogated) ways of understanding the world. It’s a time to explore white racial privilege/power and to imagine different ways of seeing, being, and doing.

I believe we all have a lot to learn from feminists and womanists of color. And I center feminism because it’s an ever-evolving movement to end oppression, including sexism, racism, and other –isms. Feminism is a movement for unlearning internalized oppression and supremacy. Feminism is movement that asks us to understand injustice and to enact more equitable and just worlds.

May you find a blog (or a few) to love from this list. And please share what you’re reading, exploring, or doing for Women’s History Month.

Blogs sharing news and commentary:

  • Awesomely Luvvie—“all things pop culture, from TV to social media to travel to race and whatever else is in my little shadeful heart at the moment.”
  • Black Girl Dangerous—“amplifying the voices of queer and trans people of color.”
  • Crunk Feminist Collective—a rhetorical space for “hip hop generation feminists of color, queer and straight, in the academy and without.”
  • For Harriet—“community for women of African ancestry” for “celebrating the fullness of Black womanhood” and aspiring to “educate, inspire, and entertain.”
  • INCITE—“a nation-wide network of radical feminists of color working to end violence against women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color, and our communities.”
  • Kinfolk Kolletive—“here for black people without qualifiers,” featuring writing that is “brutally honest, methodical and gripping with well-supported arguments.”

Blogs by feminist scholars of color:

Blogs related to vegan activism:

Feminist blogs that regularly feature women of color:

  • Feministing—“online community run by and for young feminists,” offering “sharp, uncompromising feminist analysis of everything from pop culture to politics.”
  • Everyday Feminism—“intersectional feminism for your everyday life.”
  • The Feminist Wire—“socio-political and cultural critique of anti-feminist, racist, and imperialist politics pervasive in all forms and spaces of private and public lives of individuals globally.”

Blogs addressing racial justice from a feminist lens:

  • Decolonizing Yoga—highlighting “the voices of queer people, people of color, disability activists and more in relationship to yoga, spirituality and social justice.”
  • Native Appropriations—“a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, activism, and more.”
  • The Body Is Not an Apology—“radical self-love for everybody and every body.”

Lists of blogs and podcasts (more online spaces to explore):