loneliness Archive


Saving face with home-made cake (or loneliness, Pt.2)

“I didn’t take you for a baker,” one of my students said, after I’d offered some vegan carrot cake round the class yesterday morning.

“If you’re vegan, you probably need to make your own,” said another. “Otherwise you’d never have any cake at all.”

“There’s one place,” I explained, “in Newcastle’s Grainger Market, the Health Box, that makes vegan cakes. But it’s only on certain days. Tuesdays or Saturdays, I think. So yes, I bake my own quite a lot.”

I’d originally made the cake for finishers at the Newcastle Town Moor Marathon, but I was marshalling a way from the finish line and didn’t want to leave my spot, as cheering on the runners, fast and slow, had become an important and enjoyable role. So I had too much cake on my hands for personal consumption, and I brought it into work/class.

Cake was already on the curriculum, however. It was one of the students’ birthdays, and the others had bought her a chocolate caterpillar cake, possibly the hardest of all the food types to resist–for me, anyway, having been brought up on sugary foods, chocolate and cake (my mother worked for Nestle, so brought home plenty of goods, and was also an excellent baker herself).

“It’s probably the worst thing you could give up being vegan for,” said the same student, pointing to the caterpillar cake. “It’s even shaped like an animal.”

It brought a laugh, but it’s rather a relevant point. So much food we eat doesn’t look like the animal from which it came. As I read somewhere recently, it is strange that meat eaters pillory vegans for having ‘fake’ foods that look like ‘meat’ such as sausages and burgers, when these, in their ‘original’ forms, are completely artificial shapes and bear no resemblance to the animal they came from.

Which is not a problem with vegan carrot cake. Although if it were shaped like a face of some sort, it would be, perhaps, a saving face. That’s because, as Jessica Greenebaum from Central Connecticut State University, suggests in the journal of Humanity and Society, we vegans use a number of “face-saving strategies” to maintain our social relations while managing vegan living.

Most people strive to create an image of the self in a positive light; people don’t like to be shunned, discredited, or have people respond to us aggressively. For the vegetarians and vegans in Greenebaum’s study, it was “critically important to represent vegetarianism and veganism in a positive light in order for their audience to listen and accept what they hear” (312). Many of them, when first becoming vegan, would be proactive, blunt, advocating for change in powerful and emotional terms. But nearly all found this didn’t work:

Stephanie (vegetarian) concurs: “I learned along the way that the majority of people have no idea how the animal gets to that plate. They are just completely ignorant about that. And when I start talking about it they just tell me to shut up.” Many of the participants were told at some point during their tenure as vegetarian or vegan they they were “wrong,” “biased” or “making it up”.

According to Carol Adams, in Living Among Meat Eaters, this is no real surprise, because such facts are “experienced emotionally by the omnivore.”

In a way how could they not be? If the meat eater knows what is going on and doesn’t care; or if the meat eater doesn’t want to know, because they know that it would change their entire life, and they don’t want their life to change… either way, the realities of the Animal-Industrial Complex (warning: Graphic Images) would be an affront and challenge to their, they believe, absolute core values of living. That animals have no rights. That we have a right to eat meat and other animal products, regardless of the ways in which those products are produced.

What happens is that, to steal from Sara Ahmed’s work on feminist killjoys, the vegan or vegetarian is seen as the killjoy, the problem, for speaking out, or even simply embodying their values. When a woman/feminist points out something is sexist, she is belittled, seen as tiring, ruining everything. The same goes for the vegan, in my experience.

And this is alienating. As Greenebaum goes on to say: “Since many of the vegans in the study have felt alienated from the mainstream society, they recognize the threat of standing out and being rejected by omnivores after adopting a vegan lifestyle” (315). According to one of the participants, Leah (vegan), “the marginalization takes place in two ways. You marginalize yourself and others marginalize you:

When you decide to be vegan, you choose to in some ways marginalize yourself. There are assumptions about where you stand politically, but there are also assumptions about how you marginalize yourself and how you don’t take of other things. So you don’t get invited to other things as much because there’s an assumption that you are not going to go along with it or you want to go along with it. In addition to having people not invite me, I’ve also cut my social circle down. My partner has a lot of non-vegan friends and I don’t like to go to their events. I don’t even like to go to my partner’s mom’s house because I won’t have anything to eat there.

I understand this, as do many others struggling with being “vegan in a non-vegan world“. Would you want to go to a party with a load of sexists and racists? I guess not — you’d end up playing with the dog. For a vegan, well, at least for me, going to a party full of meat eaters is a party full of speciesists. I don’t particularly want to go there either, especially when food is a central part of the event (e.g. a friend’s summer barbecue). How do you negotiate this?

As Greenebaum summarises: “Initially, many of the vegetarians or vegans used traditional tactics of confrontation, but they found that it was not an effective way to get people to listen to them. Aggressively defending this identity created boundaries that left them feeling isolated. They created strategies that proactively protect relationships with omnivores using technique that ‘save face’ for all involved in the vegan encounter” (322).

Which is why I bake vegan carrot cake and share it around. First with a very accepting running clubplant-based athletes are welcomed as perfectly normal, I’ve found, in their search for improved nutrition and fitness. And now with work and students. That by baking something that tastes good — “It’s just like a normal carrot cake, for normal people,” said my student — it’s something that is positive about veganism and about my lifestyle choices, while also planting some seeds of how veganism isn’t unbearable or lonely or, in the end, too difficult.

If the food system makes it “possible, even necessary, to not think about the production and quality of food, particularly food that comes from animals” (323) then offering alternatives, and using those alternatives to talk about the reasons why veganism is a healthier, happier, more compassionate way of living, is a way forward for vegans and omnivores.

[Update 29/10: more people thinking Veganism via Sara Ahmed’s Feminist Killjoys concept, such as James Stanescu on his blog]

Greenebaum, J (2012) Managing Impressions: “Face-Saving” Strategies of Vegetarians and Vegans. Humanity and Society 36(4).


Vegan in the midst of loneliness

I have lived alone for the most part of the last five years, apart from my cat, Misha. It’s a significant social trend – rising from 17% of households in 1971 to 31% today. It is a theme that keeps coming back to us, intermittently reported upon by The Guardian, as a result of our economic model and austerity, the Joseph Rowntree foundation as part of changing childhood patterns, and by Psychologies as the loss of communities.

I feel alone sometimes, and sometimes it’s not comfortable. Sometimes that is to do with what Sara Ahmed in the Politics of Happiness calls the loss of an affective community, as my core social group all age, pair off, and have children* — something I have not done, and may not do, and therefore the ideals we have of the “good life” diverge. We no longer attach ourselves to the same ideals that we did when we formed as a group, 20 years ago next year (fun, careers, futures, support, care). I understand from my female friends that this is even tougher for women, losing their core social communities, to which they were bonded by affects of pleasure, empathy and “feeling affective together”, to be replaced by constant talk of children.

And I’ve started to feel — although how much this sense of feelings can be trusted at face-value should be questioned — divided from my core social group through my choice to go vegan. I am struggling with their choice of continuing to consume animal products, and in particular, to socialise their children into eating animals (or as Matthew Cole, a sociologist from the Open University, put it recently at the Animal Machines conference, “how to eat their friends”).

I’m working on a letter on this subject, addressed to my friends, for the Letters to a New Vegan project. But it was lovely the other day to hear from a friend that he is publishing a new vegan cookbook from the author Chandra Moscowitz; and even though this is a growing area of his job, he had the care to suggest that his foray into vegan publishing was some sub-conscious means of continuing to bond with me through an affective connection around something that was important to me. In one instance, it changed what I was going to write in that letter (“desert all your friends! make a stand at the annual summer barbecue! show their kids some PETA videos!”) into something much more thoughtful, less aggressive and less arrogant, on my behalf.

It was a moment of feeling less alone. I’m very glad my friend picked up the phone. And I’m glad he’s been thinking along those lines. It made me consider how I have reached out to my friends — through bringing gifts for their children, through setting up a trust fund, even through considering the roll of Manny, which is now too bloody popular to even get a book-from-blog out of it — to re-bond myself into their affective lives, as their lives change. And how I can remain open to their reciprocation even as our moral views on animals differ.

That is, and something else I want to research, is to let go of the vegan anger towards others. Save that for the ex-vegans, I guess 😉 I actually believed I didn’t have any of this ‘vegan anger’. But I think it’s just simmering as frustration. Often, particularly, with those I think who love me, and so cannot understand why their love does not change them along the lines of my principles I share with them. But that’s something else to unpack, later.

Any feelings of loneliness I have are certainly not caused by going vegan. But an added isolation that it has brought — of leaving one affective community before finding another — does create a sense of isolation that is an added difficulty in developing compentency in vegan living.

Especially when in fact that was not what I meant to blog about today. I was trying to figure out some thoughts on the fact that feeling lonely, exacerbated by living alone, often makes it very hard to stick to my vegan food practices, because of the way I grew up in a home that reached for food as comfort against feelings of inadequacy, isolation and overwhelm (love using that word as a noun). Guess I’ll have to save this for another day.

Today, I’m looking forward to Christmas and my friends cooking a vegan Sunday lunch for me from the new cookbook, as I read to their daughters from the books I will have brought them.