It has probably been close to a decade since I last ate ground beef, and maybe 6 since I’ve eaten poultry. I don’t purchase meat, I don’t cook with meat or meat stock, and I don’t order meat in restaurants. For me, every day is Meatless Monday. But, I also don’t call myself a vegetarian. For many, many reasons.
In my experience, the “vegetarian” label has come with a whole suite of baggage that I just don’t feel like toting around with me. It makes people want to talk about the Animal Liberation Front and PETA and humane wool and leather–all of which I have strong opinions about, but none of which I find to be conversations I very often like to have. Moreover, calling myself a “vegetarian” nearly leads to one big question: “Why?”
I have a complicated relationship with meat (and not eating it). The reasons for my avoidance of most animal protein run deep, from the environmental and health impacts of raising, processing and shipping the volume of meat that America does, to the inhumane practices of most commercial farms, to the safety issues of preparing and eating me, to my own personal understanding that, because I don’t have the stomach to slaughter and dress an animal myself, I shouldn’t be eating it, either. But gathered around the dinner table isn’t exactly the time to share this kind of thing. Dropping “vegetarian” (or, heaven forbid, “pescatarian”, which is a verbal abomination) from my vocabulary has helped me avoid these conversations, and stick with a polite “No thanks” when offered a ham sandwich.
But the main reason I don’t label? Mostly, I really don’t like making others feel as if they have to make special provisions for my diet, and I really don’t like it when people assume that I expect them to be made.
Avoiding meat is a decision that I’ve made, for myself–I never want it to impact anyone else, and I never expect anyone to tip-toe around it. I bring non-meat grillables to barbecues to share, usually make sure I’ve eaten before a party, and work quietly around other potential pitfalls. Everyone else wants to get burgers tonight? No problem, there’s probably a veggie burger or a side salad I can get down with. Thanksgiving dinner? There are plenty of non-meat sides, and I know to avoid most brands of boxed stuffing, because they’re usually made with chicken stock. Done and done. No need to call ahead, no need to awkwardly explain, no need to inconvenience anyone because of a choice I made.
For a lot of people, the word “vegetarian” is a powerful title that they’ve adopted themselves, and I would never want to detract from those whom it’s very serious business. But what would be worse, I think, is for me, a person who is certainly not as rigid in my meat avoiding as many people (gelatin, for example, slips by me sometimes), to give those who eat meat a deceptive idea of what it means to be a true, 100% vegetarian.
I’m definitely not against the word itself, or its uses and meanings for others. But “vegetarian” is just not a label that fits me or what I eat or do.
Image: Cloris Leachman for PETA.