You Are How You Eat? Femininity, Normalization, and Veganism as an Ethical Practice of Freedom
3. Normative Femininity and Diet
4. Diet as a Practice of the Self
5. Ethical Practices of Freedom
6. Veganism as a Practice of Freedom
7.1. Vegetarianism is an Eating Disorder
7.2. Veganism and Healthism
The lesson I’ve learned, though, is that healthful choices can coexist peacefully—even synergistically—with ones that are (superficially, anyway) less healthful. My love of vegetables is not undone by the extra cups of coffee I drink when I know I’ve really had enough, the vegan treats that delight my senses, no matter how sweet they are, the late nights I sometimes spend out or listening to music or chatting with friends when sleep might be more prudent. My life can accommodate all of those pleasurable moments, and many more.
Conflicts of Interest
References and Notes
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- 1I will use “eating”, and sometimes “diet”, as short hand for alimentary practices throughout the paper.
- 2This phrasing may be misleading. It is necessary, on my view, to always be “practicing” ourselves into new identities or subjectivities rather than just practicing ourselves out of the ones we already have. In other words, we can’t just erase the unsavory identity and be left with nothing, or something neutral.
- 3This paper is not meant as an exhaustive consideration of the resistant (or normalizing) possibilities of veganism, nor as an exhaustive account of possible alimentary practices of freedom. It is also not meant to suggest that veganism is somehow a “cure” for disordered eating.
- 4Normalizing judgment explicitly gives standards a normative force—one should conform to, or at least work toward that standard. Once one has been identified in relation to the norm, one is called to compensate for one’s failings through better (or more) disciplinary practice. It is a personal failure to not do so; one must show one’s proper comportment and respect for the norm through engagement in disciplinary practices.
- 5It at the same time serves to pathologize anyone who cannot, or does not, become who they “really” are. As Heyes  points out, identities form around recalcitrant failures to meet the norm, as with the institution of homosexuality as an identity. Once this happens, a normalizing structure is deployed within this “abnormal” identity as well. On another note, although masculinity is also a norm, its content is much different from the feminine (cf., ) and the effects of those engaged in the normative project of masculinity are much different. If men achieve masculinity, they have real world power; but as Bartky  tells us, a woman who achieves normative femininity is still only just a woman.
- 6One example of normative feminine gestures and comportments is the way women sit in a closed, tightly compact way, taking up as little space as possible. The ornamentation of the feminine body includes the way the body smells, the smoothness and hairlessness of the skin, and facial features like rosy cheeks and long eyelashes which, if not “gifted” by nature, must be approximated with cosmetic techniques or procedures. Women are beholden to norms in all three of these areas; a “hot body” with the wrong clothes, a sweaty smell, or a unibrow fails to achieve normative femininity, just as the fat person with the pretty face.
- 7It is important to distinguish this framework from a means/ends structure of motivation. Intentions are relevant, but the ethical framework should be identifiable from the “outside”. It is not simply what the person claims to be doing but what makes the practice possible and intelligible in a more general sense.
- 8Cf.,  (p. 9).
- 10Bartky claims that the norms of femininity are “impossible to realize, requiring as they do a virtual transcendence of nature”  (p. 80), generating experiences of constant bodily failure. The experience of failure inspires further engagement in disciplinary practices, seemingly the only options to mitigate the suffering following from such failure. Hence, as Bartky says, “the compulsive or even ritualistic character” of these practices  (p. 72).
- 11I accept that disordered eating and eating disorders are crystallization of cultures in large part, but this is not to say that there are not other factors at play, especially in the extreme cases.
- 12Oksala  identifies four distinct uses of freedom in Foucault’s work, only two of which are central to our discussions here. First, she posits freedom as ontological contingency, the fact that things need not be as they are. Secondly, there is freedom as ethics or the deliberate practice or realization of this ontological contingency. Freedom is also the ethos of the Enlightenment, adopted as a value by Foucault. Lastly, she defines freedom in a negative sense as the “precondition and permanent provocation of power” (p. 191). This is freedom as, by definition, a feature of power relations.
- 13Genealogical analyses like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish  and more contemporary ones like McWhorter’s Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America , may be particularly helpful as they will throw into relief which practices are central to self-constitution in a given context, which sorts of power relations they reinforce, and the particular institutions involved. This can help us decide which practices to change.
- 14Within the normalizing patriarchal framework of eating, for example, rich and fatty foods—ones which do not promote the weight loss required by most of these projects—can only be enjoyed if they are controlled. We need prepackaged servings of indulgent treats because our appetites are out of control. These tiny treats are meant to assuage our unruly appetites, and in this way help us achieve our goals, since they will (supposedly) prevent “binging” on full size treats later.
- 15I do not mean to suggest that veganism is the only possible practice of freedom with regard to patriarchal normalization. Rather, I simply offer it up here as a promising path suggested by these narratives.
- 16This demographic information is not usually explicitly given in the narratives, but can be inferred from the text and photographs of the authors.
- 17The GR narratives and the Choosing Raw blog more often make interchangeable use of the terms “veganism” and “plant-based diet”. Veganism strictly considered requires a focus on animals, while plant-based diets are more general and can be taken up for a variety of reasons (most commonly, health). Because all of these motivations play a role in the narratives, I remain ambiguous about the definition of the term. However, I do believe, as will become clear, that veganism centered in concern for animals and environment (what some might call “real” veganism) is most promising as a practice of freedom.
- 18This shift to concern for what is “outside” the self, the relation of the self to others, and more specifically, to a community of both non-human and human animals echoes Tanke’s claim that: “vegetarian subjectivities are more open to the holistic experience of existence, the political implications of personal ethics, and the strengths of community”  (p. 93).
- 19Most contributors invoke both animals and environment and health as aspects of their new “outlooks”, so I don’t mean to suggest that they are exclusive.
- 20Many Foucauldians would be skeptical, and rightly so, that a phenomenological freedom is indicative of any real freedom. But I think that in conjunction with the more general, “external” picture of the shift here, it is indicative of something meaningfully free.
- 22Tanke argues that conceiving of veganism as a Foucauldian practice of the self rather than as a normative set of moral rules (as many moral philosophers do) will help to undercut this problem .
- 23Vegetarianism is a diet that excludes all animal flesh, but can include eggs and dairy. These studies consider veganism a subset or more exclusive version of vegetarianism.
- 24To summarize the findings in more detail: Lindemann et al.  argue that vegetarianism and eating disorders are “intertwined” phenomena. Their study found that vegetarians had higher rates of anorexic attitudes and behaviours than the non-vegetarian control sample. These behaviours are also found in other groups of dieters. They suggest that vegetarianism, as a form of “cognitively regulated eating” may be a risk factor for eating disorders. Klopp et al.  suggest that among college women, vegetarians were “more likely to display disordered eating attitudes”. Robinson-O'Brien et al.  had a larger study that looked at both current and former vegetarians, arguing that “current vegetarians may be at risk for binge eating with loss of control, while former vegetarians may be at increased risk for extreme unhealthful weight-control behaviors” (p. 648). They suggest that clinicians question the motives of vegetarian adolescents or those who have “experimented” with it. Bardone-Cone et al.  argue that those individuals with eating disordered pasts are more likely to become vegetarian for weight-related reasons. They note that vegetarianism is unlikely to be the cause of eating disordered behaviour, but rather is adopted by those who already display such behaviours. They suggest that vegetarianism may impede recovery.
- 25Moreover, one study  noted that the weight control behaviours were more common amongst semi-vegetarians than so called strict vegetarians—which seems to support my argument here.
- 26There is a related objection: One might argue that subjects who leave behind disordered eating for veganism do not constitute themselves any differently. Such people have a psychological need for strict rules and regulations about eating; mainstream dieting rules filled that role for a while, and now it is vegan rules. The particular set of rules by which one eats is largely irrelevant; it is the fact that one needs the rules that determines one’s subjectivity. As I just mentioned, someone could easily use veganism as a weight-loss diet. If so, then the shift to veganism would mean little more to the subject than a shift to South Beach diet or Atkins. But given the shift in ethical framework—not just the contents of one’s diet, but the entire ethical framework within which the diet makes sense—I do believe that the subject must change. Of course, this will be unconvincing if one rejects Taylor’s claim that alimentary practices are central self-constituting practices. But even then, the GR narratives suggest that “vegan rules” allow for more joy, more pleasure, and more time and energy for non-eating related activities than mainstream dieting rules. In this sense, they are preferable, even if they do not alter some psychic need for rules and regulations about eating. Thanks to Cressida Heyes for raising this worry.
- 27Welsh  also raises the connection of health imperative to economic and social factors, and makes health into an individual issue and responsibility—rather than one with structural economic, social causes. Thus there are structural oppressions at play here as well.
- 28The VegNews May/June 2013 issue  includes articles on punk and hip-hop vegan communities, and Breeze Harper’s work, for instance [39,40], provides a critical race perspective on veganism, which includes health but does not privilege it over concerns about justice, for instance. For some vegan junk food see .
© 2014 by the authors; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).
Dean, M.A. You Are How You Eat? Femininity, Normalization, and Veganism as an Ethical Practice of Freedom. Societies 2014, 4, 127-147. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc4020127
Dean MA. You Are How You Eat? Femininity, Normalization, and Veganism as an Ethical Practice of Freedom. Societies. 2014; 4(2):127-147. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc4020127Chicago/Turabian Style
Dean, Megan A. 2014. "You Are How You Eat? Femininity, Normalization, and Veganism as an Ethical Practice of Freedom" Societies 4, no. 2: 127-147. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc4020127