National animal advocacy organizations have always had a penchant for eye-catching, controversial advertisements, but there are times when the line gets crossed and we should make a stand. Embarrassing people for being fat in an effort to get them to go vegan is one such approach that should never be deemed acceptable by anyone. In their latest effort to target obesity, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) proposed a “tongue in cheek” TV commercial to American Airlines, making the automatic assertion that vegans are trim and fit, and degrades people for being fat. This ad is especially problematic because it goes past the ideas of health and appearance by suggesting that people who are overweight are a nuisance and that people would be willing to pay extra to not be around them. This brings fat-shaming to a whole new level.
Fat-shaming is nothing new, unfortunately, in the vegan community. But is especially ironic that an organization of doctors, people who presumably know the most about human physiology and metabolism, are promoting the simple reductive fallacy that vegan=skinny, skinny=healthy, fat=unhealthy. They of all people should know that being vegan does not necessarily make you thin, that being skinny does not automatically make you healthy, and that many vegans, no matter how sugar-free, fat-free, salt-free, and process-free their diet is, just will never be thin. Vegans come in all shapes and sizes, and using advertisements to humiliate people for being fat is offensive not just to non-vegans who are overweight, but to vegans who are not thin.
People who struggle with their weight already feel ashamed of their bodies. They do not need those feelings reinforced. Shaming people who are overweight into becoming vegan is mean-spirited and runs counter to the idea of veganism as a positive, inclusive, and compassionate force. How can treating others who are not thin with contempt endear them to our cause? By acting in such a way, we come across to non-vegans as obnoxious, and therefore, it does real harm to non-human animals when non-vegans, offended by our message, make up their minds to not consider veganism.
As shameful as this all is, it’s good to see that I am not alone in calling for a push-back; other noted vegan blogs in recent days have publicly called out PCRM for this ill-advised campaign, including Vegansaurus, The Thinking Vegan, and The Vegan RD. We should all speak out, as this kind of messaging — by anyone — is beneath us and should never be accepted.
This latest incident of body-shaming is endemic of a greater problem of relying solely on health and vanity as a motivation for people to adopt veganism. Obviously, obesity is a major problem in this country, alarmingly so, as the percentage of people who are obese rises every year, and as more and more children are developing diabetes from being obese, but to advertise veganism as a catch-all solution for weight loss is stretching the truth, and sets it up for failure, as people jump on board looking for a quick fix for their weight problem, only to abandon it the minute it fails to deliver on its promise.
Simply eliminating animal products, while addressing many of the health problems intrinsic with them, doesn’t address the other factors that can cause obesity and adversely affect health; while a properly planned vegan diet can help in reducing weight, there is no guarantee, and it is irresponsible for advocates to promote it as a wonder pill. And given the increased prevalence of vegan processed food that are high in sugars, fats, and salt — to mimic many of the foods people in this country are used to eating, one can very well be vegan and unhealthy. Making such simplistic claims and spreading disinformation is a disservice to everyone, both to humans and non-humans.
The focus on health and vanity ignores the ethics behind veganism. Eating a vegan diet does not automatically make you thinner, more attractive, grant you a higher libido or other benefits — being vegan means you have decided not to participate in a system of exploitation and killing of non-human animals. The benefits you may derive personally from being vegan are secondary to the benefits to the other sentient beings who aren’t being bred, used, altered, abused, and killed for your demand. The science behind health and nutrition are always in flux, and health arguments without proper research can be shown to be misleading or downright false, while the ethics behind veganism as a movement for justice have a much more solid footing. Anecdotal evidence, both from my own experience as an activist and from other activists with whom I am connected, suggests those who become vegan for ethical concerns are much more likely to remain vegan than those who become vegan for health reasons.
While PCRM is primarily concerned with public health, and therefore use arguments centered on health benefits of veganism, they can and should do much better than this. Vegan education and advocacy can do and should do better than this. Shaming others is detrimental to the movement and doesn’t help animals — indeed, our movement is best served by people of all shapes and sizes. We must be a community where everyone feels accepted, and be recognized for our kindness, empathy, and compassion.