By Ruby Martin
I recently read Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian by Han Kang after picking it up in a charity shop. I had picked it up largely because of the title alone, but as a self-identifying (somewhat) vegetarian since the age of eight, I was quickly intrigued by the blurb selling vegetarianism as “the ultimate act of subversion”.
My interest was piqued. How could choosing the falafel wrap at Tesco be a subversive act? With even the most mainstream chains such as Pret embracing veggie branches, my dietary lifestyle hardly seemed ‘fringe’, despite being a leftie creative type in a liberal bubble. It seems that vegetarianism and veganism is the trend du jour in the UK, with veganism rising by over 360% in the past decade and – among women in particular – general meat consumption across the UK having been reduced, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
There are various possibilities, but evidence from a recent Mintel survey suggests that health is the top reason for limiting meat consumption. Does this mean that women are more health conscious than men? And if so many people cite health as a reason for giving up meat, can we still interpret that as a subversive act? In the same Mintel survey, around half of respondents had also said they had tried to lose weight, with 57% of those respondents being women. Now whilst losing weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are various industries who profit from the population dieting, the most obvious being weight loss, but more general food companies such as Quorn and Linda McCartney will still profit off those who think that eating less meat will help lose weight. This affects gender as advertising companies have been known to target different audiences and throughout the years, companies have sold very different ideals to what men and women should be.
Whilst no doubt men are encouraged to lose weight, they are also encouraged to get “ripped”; women are often simply encouraged to be thin and talk purely in terms of fat rather than muscle. This is shown in the examples below, in adverts for the same diet products, HCG. To men, HCG sell the idea of keeping muscle whilst to women, muscle is not mentioned at all; instead the focus is on losing pounds and reducing bodily size.
This is shown in the same way Instagram fads such as ‘clean eating’ and other diets are aggressively sold towards women. Now this may seem like obvious stuff, but combined with the notion that vegetarianism is a healthier way to live, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that more women may incorporate it as a weight loss strategy thanks to cultural pressure.
However, before all hope is lost, we can now address how vegetarianism can be a force for good.
Whilst we could assume that all these women are turning veggie for them sweet inch losses, I believe that fails to recognise the individual agency and personal reasons behind the decision. When asked, each person I know who identifies as vegetarian had a completely different combination of reasons for giving up meat, and while health (and weight) played a part for some, other factors such as the environment, personal taste, financial considerations and animal welfare were given equal importance. When asked why they became a vegetarian, these were just a few examples given:
“Primarily upbringing”- T, London
“Environmental reasons. The final reason why was a book I read which, in the epilogue spoke of the downfall of the west due to our over-exploitation of resources, the effects of which could be mitigated by, for example, eating less meat.” -A, Switzerland
“For me it’s a mental health thing. If I eat meat, I feel that ‘this animal died for me’. I can’t live with that” – J, Oxford
This admittedly non-scientific straw poll reminded me that everyone lives within a different cultural context which needs to be considered, and indeed that those contexts can be weaponised and used in women’s everyday politics. This idea of using consumption – or indeed non-consumption – as a weapon is something that captivated me in Kang’s book since the main character, Yeong-hye, is seen to not only reject a staple element of the cuisine that surrounds her, but she also rejects and defies her husband’s and family’s wishes and expectations through her actions. She refuses to make the meals her husband wants and implicitly expects from his wife, simultaneously rejecting entrenched food traditions and normative husband/wife power dynamics of marriage. In fact, Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian becomes a catalyst for other behaviour seen as rebellious and very much in opposition to expectations of her as a wife and daughter. In this context, vegetarianism is a potent act of subversion.
Interestingly, all of the flexitarians (and some meat-eaters) I talked to, told me how they still eat meat as part of family traditions such as Christmas, to avoid what they believe to be inconveniencing their parents or family. This is in contrast to many of the full-time vegetarians I know (including myself) who have at least one other vegetarian family member and thus for whom the decision not to eat meat seems less controversial. Whilst in the ‘cushy London bubble’, to go veggie is a minor rebellion, for those elsewhere in stricter upbringings this gesture could perhaps have far more force.
More radical interpretations of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism in The Vegetarian – and indeed vegetarianism more generally – might follow those feminist philosophies which endorse the all-out rejection of every practice and material goods deemed as forced upon women by the patriarchy, e.g. the wearing of bras or marriage. However, some voices in the newer feminist waves call for a more individualist take, where women’s agency and individual desires are acknowledged and there is a belief that each woman should be able to do as she pleases, without shame, e.g. dressing up in a sexy manner for your own pleasure than someone else’s. This individualist stance relies heavily on the notion that this woman does what she wants for herself and that no external and possible patriarchal force is at play.
Now this individual stance certainly makes day-to-day living easier as it does not focus on complex sociocultural factors, but it is worth remembering that many ideas have been engrained in popular culture that we unconsciously absorb and accept to the point we may no longer question its historic roots, having been sold other notions along the way to make it politically more acceptable. This can range from hair removal to marriage, and this more accepting strand of feminism can sometimes be used to avoid critically engaging with our consumption choices. This is not to say this isn’t a usable feminism, but to think about why we do things can allow us to change the systems in place as to ignore history can allow for the same mistakes to be repeated.
A politicised view of consumption that sees the choices women make as potential acts of rebellion might seem a far cry from the simple act of choosing the vegetarian option at lunchtime. However, the decision to go meat-free can bring up questions and thoughts that either buy into or reject current ideals of not only how women ‘should’ look, but how the current capitalist system can manipulate our supposed free will. Whilst most companies in the past have targeted consumers (and particularly female consumers) by making them feel bad, some companies seem to be realising that young women are on to them and are not happy. This has led to some brands starting to sell themselves as allies through mainstream ‘feminist’ notions. For example, Dove’s Real Women campaigns aligned themselves with body positivity, while many clothing brands such as H&M often incorporate feminist phrases into clothing to tap into the shifting market. The importance of motive is definitely worth thinking about with food companies, a prime example being ‘clean eating’ and similar diets selling themselves as a healthy option to ‘empower’ women. However in reality the product or the message hasn’t changed, just the wrapping.
To be vegetarian for environmental reasons amongst others is to reject a level of consumerism which is damaging our world as we know it, since meat farming has been shown to be damaging to the rainforests amongst many. Also, to be morally against the murdering of animals can show a reaction /resistance to the idea that we must kill to survive, a notion that is still somewhat fetishized in the variety of ‘one man against nature’ shows such as Bear Grylls. The moral dilemma can be problematic however, as vegan dish favourites such as quinoa can be shown to be harvested in tumultuous conditions which damage human workers, so it’s often a case of deciding where your ethics lie.
To conclude, our politics can be what we eat, with vegetarianism being just a small example of how the choices we make can buy into or subvert consumerist or cultural narratives imposed upon us and our gender. Whilst we must work hard to challenge these ideals when it becomes unhealthy, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the pesto pasta meal deal either!
About the author
Ruby is a writer and comedian based in London who, when not taking on too many projects at the same time, likes to spend her time watching videos of animals being friends and carefully curating her Twitter. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from UCL and spent a year living and studying in Venice, which has only fuelled her appreciation for pizza and ugly paintings of the baby Jesus.
Unnatural Selection by Maggie Chiang.