Hell Ghent for Leather
When I tell people that I don’t eat meat, the first thing they do is look down at the gorgeous, vintage cowboy boots I am inevitably wearing. These same people say, “Sam, your boots, while fabulous in a sleekly-rugged, just-the-right-amount-of-badass way, are made of leather. Leather, as you may know, is the tanned skin of cows young and old. Doesn’t that contradict your vegetarianism?”
My response: “Yes. No. Sort of. Should we get some sandwiches?”
I can’t answer this question. Ten meatless years went by before I could even sum up my choice in one sentence: I don’t feel that I have an automatic right to any sentient being’s body but my own. But does that make me a vegetarian? I wonder if this simple, inflexible word has outlived its usefulness. After all, the cowboy boots aren’t the only (almost literal!) skeletons in my closet: once every couple of months, my husband (another non-meat-eater) and I go out for sushi. And, come summer, I toast marshmallows (which are made with gelatin, an animal byproduct). So, I’m not a vegetarian, then? I’m a sushi-marshnallow-secondhand-leather-only-and-otherwise-no-meat-itarian? Hmm.
I quietly gave up meat during my first week of college (in the midst of the declining, post-Cobain grunge movement) because I was then, and still am, a softie, plain and simple. I like animals; I can see their personalities. This photograph in the Boston Globe of a 4H girl resting with her calf makes me happy. I wasn’t much of a meat eater as a child either; most kids, when they learn what meat is, are upset for about five minutes, but I never really got over it. At the time, I didn’t know of any environmental reasons to stop eating meat, but in 2006 the United Nations found that raising livestock produces more greenhouse gasses than driving cars. And in July, a Washington Post article cited a study from Carnegie Mellon that found going meatless just one day a week would have a greater positive impact on the environment than converting to a totally local diet. Who knew?
But despite the environmental and health benefits of eating less meat, the word vegetarian carries with it a nut-loaf-and-commune stigma that keeps some people from going even partially meatless. The word implies an “all-or-nothing” lifestyle that belies the flexibility required to maintain a low-meat diet on the long term (my occasional sushi binges, for example). There are plenty of people who don’t call themselves vegetarians but who are sensitive to animal rights and carefully weigh their choices every day, artfully balancing what is best for them, for the animals involved, and for the planet. Maybe we need a name for these people too, because they might be doing the most good.
On the other hand, maybe the idea of needing a name is part of the problem, in which case we should take a cue from the town of Ghent in Belgium, which declared that Thursdays are meatless days. Vegetarian meals will be served in schools and public cafeterias, and restaurants in town will promote vegetarian selections. The message is clear: one town eats veggie one day a week, no strings or stigma attached, and poof, it produces the environmental equivalent of removing 18,000 cars from the road. There’s a compact lesson here about something expansive: people don’t have to adopt a whole different lifestyle in order to have a positive effect on their bodies and on the planet, and small acts can be more important than bold statements of identity. In this case, maybe the shorthand (“vegetarian,” “vegan”) just comes up short.