Vegetarianism: Politics, Body Image, and a Little Personal Struggle

I have been a vegetarian for 7 years.  I gave up eating meat upon my graduation from high school (do the math 🙂 ) for two reasons, both health-related.  First, my dad had a pretty bad heart attach toward the end of my senior year, and my whole family tried to be healthier; I tried vegetarianism because of its benefits for the heart, and it stuck.  Second, because of the stress of graduating and moving away combined with the end of my fall activity (Marching band.  I know.  Geek alert.) I gained a few pounds in the spring.  This wasn’t much to speak of, considering I was probably a bit underweight to begin with, but the fear of the freshman 15 had me searching for a healthier diet.  Needless to say, animal rights played only a small role in my decision and, because of this, it does not bother me when people around me eat meat.

It wasn’t until I got to college and was surrounded by like-minded people that I realized the political implications of my vegetarianism – how it is better for the environment, the economy, etc.  It wasn’t until I became involved with the feminist community that I realized the feminist implications of my vegetarianism (see links below for more information on feminism and vegetarianism).  When I read and heard these things, I was proud to say I was a vegetarian, and I continued with the exclusion of meat.

Recently, however, a few things in my life have changed drastically.  I moved home, switched jobs, met a wonderful man, and started grad school all within a few months last summer.  This drastically changed my eating habits; it is very difficult to make good, well-rounded, healthy, vegetarian meals and follow a workout schedule when you’re working a full-time job and taking graduate courses and having a social life.  I end up making quick meals or eating out, neither of which are very healthy and, while I haven’t gained any weight, I feel different.  I find myself sad more often, wearing baggier clothes, feeling… just gross.  Tired and lifeless.  I’m not quite sure how to explain it.  Recently, I also find myself eating more often because I am hungry more often.  The vegetarian fare isn’t keeping me as full as it used to.  This makes me want to eat more fatty foods to satisfy my hunger.  We all know where this ends up.

So, now, I’m left with a choice.  I know I could be healthier and feel better and eat less if I started eating meat again.  I’ve already started eating fish or seafood about once a week and I have been feeling a lot better.  However, that would mean abandoning one of the most powerful political and feminist statements I feel I have ever adopted.

What’s a girl to do?

If you have any information, advice, or have been through this crisis of vegetarian faith, please feel free to add comments.

Links for more information about vegetarianism and feminism:
Veggie Eats – The Undomestic Goddess
Is Vegetarianism a Feminist Issue? – Adventures of a Young Feminist
Carol J. Adams’ site – Author of The Sexual Politics of Meat
V for Vegan: Horizontal Women – Kin
The Feminist-Vegetarian Connection
Day 6: Vegetarian Feminism – Veggie Styles
Carol Adam’s Vegan-Feminist Manifesto – Vegifem: Perspectives on Vegan Feminist Ethics

15 thoughts on “Vegetarianism: Politics, Body Image, and a Little Personal Struggle

  1. I’m not a vegetarian by any means, but I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately. I read RMJ’s vegetarian post and read Cook Food at the same time, so I’m trying to figure out how to shift the way I think about food.

    Cook Food doesn’t officially come out until September I think (I got a review copy), but when it does, I recommend you get it. Lisa Jervis tries to convey how quick and easy it is to cook healthy meals. I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, but I plan on doing so this week and will let folks know how it goes. =)

  2. harpegirl on

    I’m also a happy little veggie, but I try not to “force” my veggie ways on others. For example, the boyfriend eats meat and I have no issues with this, though he has cut back a lot since we got together (and he seems to be OK with this). I’m not sure that a feminist-veggie could easily find a way to reconcile the idea that eating meat is a form of oppression similar to the oppression of women, but there are ways to get about some other ethical/environmental conundrums that come with eating meat. Choose meat that is organic, ethically raised, and comes from a smaller, non-corporate farm. However (and this is a big “however”) this option is not cheap, by any means. So as a student, it may not work for you. And if you have a problem with eating meat in general, then it’s probably not for you.

    I think too, given what you’ve mentioned about your lifestyle, that planning and pre-making larger batches of food might help. For example, I found a great recipe for a chick pea curry/couscous thing, and it makes a large amount of food that keeps really well and reheats in no time. Food like this really saves me, both time and from eating junk. Having a tool kit of foods like this can be the lifeline for the busy veggie. Good luck!

  3. MsSheila on


    I think I need a little clarification on what’s going on. What it sounds like is that you are eating less healthy “fast food” and that is making you feel unhealthy, “gross”, listless, etc. But you draw the conclusion that adding meat to your diet will definitely make you feel better. I’m confused by this, since the absence of meat is not what’s making you feel bad, right?

    I assume you mean that meat is easier or quicker to prepare than vegetarian dishes, so that means you will eat healthier meat dishes instead of unhealthy fast food?

    For me, as a vegetarian, the most inconvenient part of making meals is just chopping up the vegetables. If you can put aside some time after going grocery shopping to quickly chop up your veggies and put them in reusable containers in the fridge, then I could see you having a healthy, fortifying diet that is easy to maintain.

    Here’s what I use to make quick veggie meals:

    * canned beans – black beans and chickpeas mostly
    * ‘flavored’ couscous (SUPER quick) packages, also rice or risotto mixes
    * pasta w/ veggies and marinara sauce
    * frozen pizza with my own veggies added on top
    * mac n’ cheese or other pasta boxes w/ veggies added in
    * veggies and rice (s.times with tofu or tempeh) with a prepared marinade or sauce (like thai peanut sauce)
    * Amy’s organic soups with bread or tortillas and avocados
    * prepared baked tofu – just slice or cube and throw in any dish to heat up briefly
    * Ramen noodles with veggies and tofu and soy sauce or other Asian sauce

    If you’re in grad school and running around a lot, you might be having a hard time getting food on the go though….like sandwiches or something? But you could make tofu, tempeh or avocado sandwiches to bring with you.

    Also, aren’t there are any Asian or Indian restaurants with good to-go service? Those would be healthy, vegetarian options for a quick schedule.

    As far as seafood goes, here is a great resource to make sure you’re eating seafood that is healthy and sustainable (so, avoiding mercury and also overfishing/trawling issues):

  4. I second the recommendation for Lisa Jervis’ book, Cook Food. And both Martha Rose Shulman and Mark Bittman have great, (relatively) easy-to-make recipes online in The New York Times. Shulman focuses on a different farmer’s market or pantry item each week and provides several recipes built around that item. I find this is one way to really get to know a food — and that makes it easier (and faster) to use repeatedly.

    I’m also a big fan of prepared baked tofu. I’ll cut a piece in the afternoon when I’m lagging and pair it with an apple or put it in a sandwich. A quick frozen dinner standby is Amy’s (cheeseless) roasted vegetable pizza — throw some spinach or arugula on top, or more veggies, and it’s practically a homemade meal : ) Maybe one of these days we can do a veggie potluck in Chicago …

  5. Ashley on

    At the request of MsSheila, I will clarify what I meant about my eating habits:

    I do have to eat quickly often. I have 25 minutes for lunch, which is barely enough time to microwave something and inhale it before students come back into my classroom. And I have to walk to the microwave, which is relatively inconvenient. Also, I am very active during the day – always on my feet – and once I get hungry, I start getting dizzy and become useless fairly quickly. This is not an option for my job. So, as it stands, I have a few options. I can eat a huge lunch full of fatty things like peanut butter or pasta or whatever (tofu, couscous, hummus… just doesn’t fill me up the way those things do) or I can snack throughout the day. Both of these options add unnecessary calories to my diet and weigh me down, making me feel “gross.”

    Then, when I’m on the move, I never go to fast food places like McDonald’s or Burger King. I can eat pizza, and do so fairly often, but that’s not great for sure. I try to go to places like Panera or other restaurants like that, but salads without any protein on them (like fish) don’t fill me up. The only think that would is a sandwich, and this is definitely bulkier and more calorie-filled than, say, a salad with chicken.

    Plus, it seems that eating fish, for me anyway, gives me a more sustainable type of energy than eating other sources of protein like eggs, tofu, or the like. And, on top of that, I have a sensitive digestive system (I get stomach aches fairly often) and things like beans and soy products tend to exacerbate this problem when consumed in quantities large enough to stop my hunger.

    Being a vegetarian for so long has made me very aware of my health and what I consume daily, and that will never change. I will never eat red meat again, and if I do start with white meat, it will only be for one meal a day. And, like harpegirl said, organic or locally-produced meat would be the way to go.

    I guess my question was, do I have to give up the political statement along with the vegetarianism? Is there a way to get long-term energy that doesn’t weigh me down from vegetarian entrees?

    I will definitely check out this Cook Food book, though. Thanks for the recommendation, frau sally and Christine. And I would LOVE a veggie potluck in Chicago!

  6. As the author of Cook Food, of course I second (third?) the recommendation (thanks, Christine and frau sally!!); I think it can give you some good ideas for things you can cook quickly and (sooo important, as harpegirl points out) have leftovers of to feed you all week. But also I think you might want to reexamine your reluctance to snack. If you get dizzy and useless soon after you start to feel hungry, your body needs food frequently. It’s telling you to eat. Plus eating lots of small meals is really healthy. It keeps your blood sugar levels even, and it sounds like that would really help you. Snacking when you are hungry isn’t eating unnecessary calories–any calories that keep you from feeling impaired by hunger are totally necessary! I recommend keeping some nuts and dried fruit with you at all times (fresh fruit, too, though that can be harder to carry around).

    Also, you note that you have digestive issues with beans–have you tried eating sprouted beans? They are often more digestible (and I think they taste awesome–I eat them in salads all the time).

    On the same listening-to-your body tip, it sounds like your body is telling you to try out some animal protein again. And it makes sense to listen. Being a politically aware eater (i.e., being thoughtful in your choices and how they affect the environment and on other beings) doesn’t have to mean being an absolutist, especially if you might be damaging yourself in the process. Eating a little bit of meat is the right choice for a lot of people. If you’re careful about sourcing, it doesn’t mean you’re abandoning your politics at all.

  7. As someone who incorporates meat into her diet (fish and fowl basically) for her health, I have to say that it can be rough to continue making a political statement about these things.

    My digestive problems (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) have made a lot of vegetarian options completely unusable. IBS causes such rapid movement through the intestines that when I get an attack I am getting substantially less nutrients from the food than would justify eating it in the first place (it was part of the reason why I had such a hard time making back the weight I had lost from mono nucleosis).

    So in order to be functional and keep my protein needs met, I do need to eat some kinds of meat. I try to go free range, and avoid most red meats. Pork is, for the most part, an IBS trigger so that one I normally avoid anyways. And I do keep my eyes open for vegetarian solutions to my issue. I’ve even gone so far as to enlist Daisy as my diet ninja with the hope that her greater level of veg background will help me find what I need XD

    So I think that if someone is making an honest effort to find vegetarian solutions then no reasonable person can expect you to harm your health until those solutions are found. I certainly won’t.

  8. I go through periods of wanting to feel something “heavier” in my stomach that veggies and fruits. Beans, lentils, pizza and bread are all what I go to for feeling full up. Here’s hoping you find a way to make vegetarianism keep working for you! I’ve only been doing it for a year and a half but I would be so sad if I had to start eating meat again. After seven years I’d think that would be even more so! Good luck.

  9. I have never connected vegetarianism and feminism. I stopped eating red meat at 12 years old and other meat at 18 (I just turned 40 this month, though I will lie and say I’m 35). I’ve never had an issue with beans or tofu re: digestion. I don’t know what I’d do if I did. I have cut out most dairy (I’ll eat a bit of feta or goat cheese on a salad when I’m out on occasion) which makes me feel much better. There are many excellent dairy substitutes. As far as being on the go, I can relate: I’ve been pursuing a nursing degree for quite some time and always seem to be taking classes. Plus I have a weird schedule and it’s hard to find veggie options anyway. I love Amy’s products. I also cook couscous, Quinoa (excellent source of protein and filling as it is also a grain) with chick peas, an edamame/corn mix that I copied from Whole Foods to take to class with me. Sometimes I take hummus and veggies.

    I suggest checking out: Moosewood Cookbook, Veganimicon, Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook.

  10. Have you tried protein shakes? Not the SlimFast weight-loss things, but the work-out protein shakes (we refer to them as Weightgainer 4000, if you remember the South Park episode…)

    My husband work out regularly (weights and stuff to beef up), and he drinks protein shakes after his workouts. He got me hooked on them when I was training for a triathlon (as a vegetarian… this worried my mom, but I promised her I was getting enough protein), and now I just have them as meals. They’re quick, taste like chocolate milk, and you can drink them in class without the kids really making a fuss about you “eating” in front of them (I used to drink one every day in first period).

    We buy a generic brand (they’re just called “Premier nutrition Protein) from CostCo, or you can get more options at a GNC-type store (hubby drinks the EAS Myoplex, and those come in more flavors. The generic ones are just chocolate). I do not recommend Muscle Milk (I was not a fan of the texture… those seemed to have little pieces of stuff in them…)

    I don’t know if that helps or is something you’re looking for. I’m also a huge fan of Boca/Morning Star chik’n patties, because they go in the microwave for a minute and half and that’s it! (But I agree with you about walking to the microwave, and having to stand in line at the microwave, during your 25-minutes lunch hour. I ate peanut butter sandwiches every day.)

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