Veganism, conversion, and adequation: How to make a strange diet seem familiar

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

Continuing with the Anthropology #22 Food issue, this next essay is from Aimee J. Hosemann, who is currently ABD at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Hosemann’s work focuses on linguistic and sociocultural anthropology. -R.A.

A May 7, 2015, piece on the website Science of Us, entitled “Diets are a Lot Like Religion”, cites Alan Levinovitz, a James Madison University professor who describes numerous parallels between religion and dietary regimes. Among reasons why dietary and religious practices are so similar is that both reduce complexity; play into nostalgia about a pastoral utopic past; engage discourses of morality using similar discourses of “good” and “bad”; and provide a sense of community (Dahl 2015).

I got interested in this as I was reading stories by people who have converted to vegan diets and share stories through blogs, books, and podcasts that detail their journeys through this new lifestyle (the Happy Herbivore Lindsey S. Nixon and No Meat Athlete Matt Frazier are but two examples). The stories often have all the elements of good conversion narratives – the teller is going about their business as usual, perhaps burying recognition of the ways they were cruising toward disaster at their own hands. Some series of increasingly threatening vignettes leads to a crisis in which it becomes clear that an immediate intervention is required for survival, and control is given over to some external power.  This higher power may be God, Alcoholics Anonymous, or the ethic behind a particular way of eating.

One thing I find particularly interesting about these conversion narratives is that conversion is not a one-time, completive event (Austin-Broos 2003, Coleman 2003). It is something that is continually re-enacted (Coleman 2003). I’ve chosen one focal figure for thinking about these issues, and about how the stories of conversion to veganism that get a lot of traction are those which convey aspects that most strongly resonate with what might be conventionally understood as some version of the American Dream (AD; see Copeland and Labuski 2013). Specifically, the AD includes, among other things, the ability to experience freedom through consumerism, individualism, and ability to work one’s way up the ladder (Copeland and Labuski 2013). This can be conceptualized as fine-tuning one’s physical and economic health through one’s diet. Just as with religious conversion, self-improvement can have internal emotional or psychological elements that make themselves visible through public action, especially through speech.

This is where adequation comes in. Adequation is a process by which one uses select discourses or discourse types to highlight elements of sameness while de-emphasizing discourses of difference that can prevent recognition of common identity (Bucholtz and Hall 2006).  One of the things I am interested in pursuing in further work is the idea that what makes certain vegan figures persuasive is that whatever popular connotations of radicalism might attach to vegan diets are submerged in favor of talk about how veganism can fit in with pre-existing individualist and consumerist behaviors. Further, these vegan conversion narratives and testimonials are attractive because they “sound like” stories with which people are already familiar. These narratives are intertextual resonances with stories people have heard at church, etc., themselves or through other people. The use of familiar language or discourse genres familiarizes the strangeness of veganism.

One of the recurring figures in this scene is Rich Roll, a former Los Angeles entertainment lawyer who has written a book (Roll 2012) and has a widely listened-to podcast series (www.richroll.com). He’s so prominent there is even a spoof Twitter handle, @richrole. The real Roll has also been featured in numerous publications listing people who have achieved amazing athletic feats, and when he appears in these publications, his veganism is sometimes mentioned as one of many factors that contribute to this kind of achievement.

Roll was named in 2009 one of the “25 Fittest Men in America” by Men’s Fitness magazine. In this same year, Lebron James and Usain Bolt also made the list. This ranking is proof of Roll’s success as a plant-powered athlete that helps him continue his media success and to sell vegan nutritional products with his wife, Julie Piatt (also known as SriMati; srimati.com), a figure with her own compelling food-related healing story.

While a competitive swimmer in college, he became an alcoholic, leading to disruption of work and personal relationships, DUIs, rehab, and AA (Roll 2012). Even after getting sober, he wasn’t safe. He became overweight by eating a meat-heavy diet of “bad” foods and not exercising, and had his epic crisis while climbing the stairs at home, when it became clear he was on track for a heart attack. This prompted him to undertake a massive lifestyle change, which leads to his participation a scant two years later in the 2008 Ultraman, a three-day triathlon in Kona, Hawai’i, comprising “a 6.2-mile swim in the ocean and 90-mile cross-country cycling race on Day 1, 170-mile cycle on Day 2, and a 52-mile “double marathon run on the searing hot lava fields of the Kona coast” on Day 3 (www.richroll.com/bio). His finish in the 11th position, “first among non-pros” (Men’s Fitness 2009), positions him as the protagonist in a story of dramatic personal achievement that has yet to hit its apex. The Men’s Fitness piece leaves out the vegan angle, thought that’s exactly the element that makes Roll a persuasive evangelist and which enables him to label himself as a “full-time wellness & plant-based advocate, motivational speaker, husband, father of 4 [sic] and inspiration to people worldwide as a transformative example of courageous and healthy living” (www.richroll.com/bio). Roll achieved this major transition by training 15 to 20 hours a week, and cutting out everything else except work and family (Men’s Fitness).

Roll’s message resonates with many people, and one measure of that is his ability to attract a wide array of guests to his podcasts to talk about their own dietary, career, or spiritual journeys, to the tune of 207 podcasts as of Jan. 12, 2016.  I suggest this is because Roll’s story suggests a way of being that is at once intensely strange and intensely familiar. Worry about money, his health, what his wife and kids would do without him, persistence – all these things are concerns with which a lot of American readers are conversant. Climbing the ladder of athletic performance very much fits the DIY narrative that underpins talk about the American Dream in the particularly neoliberal fashion it often gets talked about currently. But, there are important differences – many people do not have the luxury of choosing when and how much to work, focusing the bulk of their non-work time on athletic pursuits, or spouses who are willing to throw their faith and trust behind something that looks like a highly speculative enterprise the way his wife, Julie, did. So here, it becomes critical that the major take-away message for listeners and readers is about the ways in which they are like Roll already and how they can become more like him during their own journeys.

I noted at the beginning that not all vegans approach the diet the same way. There are a wide variety of ways to embody vegan principles –as part of the quest for a healthier self (Nixon), as a separate vegan-capitalist system (Ivonin and Donovan 2015); as a lifestyle of punk protest (Clark 2004); or as semi-religious belief system (Zeller 2015), and a single person can integrate multiple perspectives simultaneously. For “vegan abolitionists,” those who choose to adequate themselves with the consumerist, individualist everyman are complicit in forces of patriarchal  oppression and abuse (Vegan Feminist Network). Or, they see capitalism as the ultimate problem, and vegans who do not pursue economic “de-growth” neglect solidarity with the poor (Wheale 2015). For these vegans, the pursuit of the end of the exploitation of animals, women, and the poor are tied through fractal recursion that sees these as expressions of the same underlying tendencies.  And, here, there is recognition about the kinds of adequational work Roll does: as Lauren Corman (2014) notes in a column for Species and Class, vegans who take a capitalist orientation are doing so to subvert others’ panic about veganism.  To be fair to Roll, many of his podcasts do deal explicitly with issues of animal welfare and environmental protection, and many of his guests are interested in social justice issues. But from the vegan abolitionist perspective, people whose primary orientation is not to agitate for the destruction of property rights; communitarian values; the end of classism, racism, and sexism, and the equivalence of human and animal lives are not really vegans.

Veganism has become a hot issue, especially in a place like Austin, where I live. This is a city that hosts an annual Paleo conference, but is also the home of the “whole-foods plant-based” Engine 2 diet created by former local firefighter Rip Esselstyn, son Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, of one of the forces behind the documentary Forks over Knives. As veganism becomes more mainstream, we will have a fertile field for researching what happens when people change dietary and perhaps political orientations in large numbers, and gain insight into how practitioners of diets that have much in common (e.g., not eating animal products) are actually enacted with a tremendous degree of variety, symbolic value, and effects on identity.

References

Austin-Broos, Diane. 2003. The Anthropology of Conversion: An Introduction, In The Anthropology of Religious Conversion, ed. Andrew Buckser and Stephen D. Glazier. Lanham:  Rowan & Littlefield: 1-12.

Bucholtz, Mary and Kira Hall. 2006. Language and Identity, In A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. Alessandro Duranti, 369-394.  2006.

Clark, Dylan. 2004. The Raw and the Rotten: Punk Cuisine, Ethnology, 43: 19-31.

Coleman, Simon. 2003. “Continuous Conversion? The Rhetoric, Practice, and Rhetorical Practice of Charismatic Protestant Conversion,” In The Anthropology of Religious Conversion, ed. Andrew Buckser and Stephen D. Glazier. (Lanham:  Rowan & Littlefield, 2003), 15-28.

Nicholas Copeland and Christine Labuski. 2013. The World of Wal-Mart: Discounting the American Dream. New York: Routledge.

Lauren Corman. 2014. http://speciesandclass.com/2014/10/06/capitalism-veganism-and-the-animal-industrial-complex/, Accessed December 2015.

Dahl, Melissa. 2015. Diets are a lot like Religion, Accessed January 2015.

Frazier, M. No Meat Athlete. www.nomeatathelete.com

Ivonin, Mikhail and John Donovan, Vegan-Capitalism, Electronic document, http://www.readandenjoy.me/2015/04/08/vegan-capitalism/ April 8, 2015. Accessed June 2015.

Nixon, LS. The Happy Herbivore. www.happyherbivore.com.

Roll, Rich. Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself New York: Crown Archetype, 2012.

Vegan Feminist Network. www.veganfeministnetworkcom.

Wheale, Marv. “Veganism, Degrowth and Redistribution,” http://veganfeministnetwork.com/tag/intersectionality/, Nov. 25, 2015.

Zeller, BE. 2015. Totem and taboo in the grocery store: Quasi-religious foodways in North America, Religion and Food 26: 11-31.

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Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

3 thoughts on “Veganism, conversion, and adequation: How to make a strange diet seem familiar

  1. Nice piece. Since I have a vegetarian (not vegan) daughter, it resonates strongly with me. The traveler in me is reminded that Austin is, if not ground zero, close to the center of Texas BBQ culture. What kind of clashes do we see there? The anthropologist recalls that dietary restrictions of one kind or another are common in all sorts of religious traditions and were, at least a few decades ago, staples in anthropology classes, where questions like why some people could eat totemic animals while others could not, or why certain foods were tabooed for those in particular liminal conditions (menstruating women, expectant mothers, warriors not yet cleansed of the pollution of killing an enemy, for example) were hot topics. Lots to reflect on here.

  2. Hi, John. Great question! The vegan scene is growing here, with more restaurants and at least one dedicated grocery store. There are definitely tensions between vegans and non-vegans. One is the general idea that vegans (or vegetarians, too) are violating the default human position. Austin is where several meat-eating cultures come into contact – Western cowboy types, Southerners, Paleo/Primal diet practitioners, and also Latin American diets. The violation is of the presumed norm of meat-eating, but also of presumed gender relationships and “normal” experiences of conviviality. There’s definitely a manliness to the meat culture here, with all the connotations of aggressiveness, muscularity, virility, etc., that goes with hegemonic masculine ideals. There are also ethnic tensions around this, as well, and some pretty serious socioeconomic ones, with veganism readings as intensely white and upper class. As traditionally Black and Latinx spaces in Austin gentrify and push out minorities, food gentrifies, too.
    I spent 14 months working in local grocery stores, which was a great entree into these kinds of things. Beyond dietary practice, there are whole worlds of imagination vegans and non-vegans have about each other – who the other is, what their interests and desires are. While some of those imagined attributes might be wrong, what is correct is that cuisine isn’t just food. So while in this piece I look at veganism as dietary practice as refracted through neoliberal capitalist stances, it’s so much more than that. It can be a framework for cultivating ideas about music, human as animals, animals as persons, politics, relationships, and so much more.

  3. Aimee, thanks for continuing the conversation. Your reply evoked a comparative perspective, the Hindu caste system, with vegetarian (I don’t recall if they were strictly vegan) Brahmins at the top of the sacred hierarchy with warriors and other lower orders allowed or expected to eat meat. Seems similar to your contrast between “intensely white, upper class” Vegans and the manly cowboys and Latinos locally stereotyped as “lower.”

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