OPINION – No such thing as a perfect vegan

Weighing into recent online debates about the limits, priorities and politics of being vegan in South Africa, ANELISA NOKOYO champions a non-judgmental approach

Over the years, I’ve witnessed veganism progress from being perceived as a fad diet to becoming a widespread global movement. And like any ideology it’s subject to different interpretations which evolve into social factions, with some members of the vegan community wanting to maintain the movement in a certain mould, while others assert the need for diversity and inclusion.

There’s also a growing sense of fanaticism that creates an energy of ‘us against them’ and this is usually perpetuated by those who consider themselves the gatekeepers of the vegan movement. For example, a famous raw vegan author and influencer recently drew harsh criticism from the vegan community for unknowingly wearing leather shoes.  She later revealed that the shoes were a gift and that she wasn’t aware of their origins. She also filmed a tour of her closet showing that 99 percent of her clothes are actually vegan and that the only non-vegan clothing and shoe items were either gifts or things she had before adopting a vegan lifestyle. Her harsh critics’ modus operandi reminded me of archaic religions and the way in which they’ve systematically restricted the evolution of their philosophy over the years.

Whichever Label You’re Comfortable With

Ideological hardliners within the vegan movement have similarly spurned various labels like ‘plant-based’, ‘rawtill4’, ‘raw veganism’, ‘living foods’ etc. that support all the different ways of being vegan, which I feel accommodate a broader spectrum of people within the movement. To me, these offshoots are a sign of growth and progress that should be encouraged, because any movement that grows to accommodate human diversity while still maintaining its core tenets, is a thriving movement.

This open mindedness is one of the qualities that attracted me to the vegan friends that introduced me to this lifestyle in the first place, so when I see behaviour that is contrary to that open ethic, I wonder what other non-vegans wanting to come into the lifestyle must be thinking. ‘It seems like a good idea; those vegans seem so angry though.’

Anyways, I think it’s a good idea to accept that we all come into this lifestyle for different reasons. It might be for the food, or because of one’s compassion for animals and environmental activism. We’re all attracted by different aspects of it – especially in the beginning.

I personally started out just for the food. I enjoyed feeling satisfied, light and energised after my vegan meals, which was a new experience for me. This new feeling of clarity and vitality made me realise just how detrimental animal products were to my health. I then started doing more research into the subject. Watching videos and documentaries on factory farming exposed me to the environmental and personal repercussions of industrialised farming.

I discovered that with purity of eating comes an awakened perspective on other aspects of the vegan lifestyle, such as animal activism, environmental sustainability and so on. So it’s more of a journey than a destination and it doesn’t always go in a straight line.

Let’s Not Ostracize Each Other

Thing is, most of us can only learn and grow from our own mistakes, and we all make a few that we’re not proud of along the journey; like unknowingly purchasing non-vegan products or feeling compelled to accept a non-vegan gift from a loved one. In these moments, it’s helpful to remind oneself about the bigger picture – the goals you’re aiming for and the milestones you’ve achieved so far on your journey as a vegan.

Also take stock of your intentions in making the mistake. Maybe you just wanted to be ‘nice’ or it just wasn’t a conscious purchase. That’s where empowering yourself with the right information comes in.

Use online resources to research vegan-friendly products and companies, and associate yourself with brands that support your lifestyle. SAVS currently contains a plethora of information including local vegan-friendly companies that are affordable and accessible. Either way, you’ll soon find that being vegan is a wonderful journey of self-discovery which makes it that much more compelling to share with others.

Speaking of which, associating oneself with like minded groups or individuals is also helpful in sharing your experiencing and gaining much needed support. You’ll soon find through sharing your experience that you’re not alone. And being in the same space with those that think and feel as you do (even if it’s online) will make you feel empowered and more likely to head in the right direction when it comes to making the right choices.

That said, I find the pressure to be a ‘perfect’ vegan quite burdensome and unnecessary.

There is no such thing as a perfect vegan. We all came into this journey and joined the vegan movement as imperfect beings with the intention to better ourselves through the lifestyle choices we make.

Sure, our carbon footprint is lower than the average human who’s on an omnivorous diet and we get to spare millions of animals’ lives through our diet choices. But we’re still human and as such have a long way to go before we can call ourselves perfect.

So it’s concerning to see vegans ostracizing one another over who’s a better vegan, and unfortunately this kind of judgmental bigotry is starting to happen more frequently in the community. It’s becoming commonplace to see people posting judgmental and discouraging social media comments – as well as making these negative judgments in real life. It seems like the more mainstream and larger the vegan community gets, the more fanatical some of its members become. Or maybe we’re just attracting more naturally bigoted and fanatical folks overall.

Either way, one of the things that attracted me to the vegan lifestyle was the fact that a lot of the vegans I encountered seemed to be balanced, peaceful and really nice people. Their lifestyle seemed to be working for them not just in the physical dimension, but spiritually and emotionally as well. The conflict I see today between influencers in the vegan community would not inspire me to even think of changing to this lifestyle because of how these people are carrying the message for the rest of us.

I mean, life is a long-term process that comes with myriad life choices of which veganism is only a part. All that we can do is to show our appreciation for the vegan lifestyle by living it to the best of our ability, inspiring those around us by example and not by force. So, #AngryVegansMustFall

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with encouraging one another to uphold the values for which the movement stands, but I feel we should do so with the same compassion that we hold for the animals whose lives we value and so passionately fight for.

Ours is a thriving and growing community that needs togetherness and understanding more than ever. Our home, mother earth and its animal inhabitants greatly depend on vegan voices to usher the rest of the population towards a lifestyle that is in harmony with our environment. And the more we support and encourage one another, the more effective and convincing our message will be to the world. Just as flowers attract bees with nectar, so will we attract more people to the movement through peace and harmony.

Let’s Lead by Example

I believe in leading by example; mainly because when I started my journey as a vegan I was very much misunderstood by my family and friends. This was mainly because sharing certain foods is an important ritual and a way to form deep spiritual and social ties with those who are close to us.

So when one misidentifies with an aspect of the social order – in this case food – it becomes a contentious issue and you come to be viewed as anti-social or just plain weird. I overcame that by continuing with my diet and enjoying the results.

At first I would try to explain these benefits to my family and friends and the response I always got was that I was fine before I went to this diet and I’d be fine after and that there was no need to be so extreme. Needless to say, such responses made me feel terribly misunderstood.

I then realised that, because my family wasn’t ready to listen to what I had to say, the best thing I could do was to live my life’s path the best way I could, asserting that being vegan was going to be a part of that path for the rest of my journey on Earth.

I’ve recently noticed that after a few years of me being a staunch vegan and seeing the results (it transformed my life), my family’s interest in the idea has grown to the point where the everyone now spends more time eating fresh fruits and vegetables than meat and its derivatives. Even extended family members are now willing to move beyond dietary boundaries to experience the healing effects of plant-based eating. Observing the gradual transformation from being misunderstood and ridiculed to eventually being accepted, I’m filled with a prickly excitement when considering the prospective ripple effects of one’s choices.

Power and potential

I’m not saying that it’s okay to wear leather shoes or eat eggs and cheese every now and then. Absolutely not. I’m not advocating for that kind of flexitarian lifestyle (which is quite common, by the way). But what I’m saying is that we should have a little more compassion for one another, a little more patience and understanding. We should choose to lead by example; and instead of force feeding people an ideology, invite them to a lifestyle. This movement is a lived phenomenon that goes way beyond our petty differences, so it would really help if we depicted it based on the amazing results that it has blessed each of us with.

Veganism has the potential to change the world for the better. We have the power and potential to rebuild forests, save millions of animal species from extinction, and lastly, to prevent the mass suffering of millions of humans on the SAD (Standard American Diet) with its accompanying illnesses. But none of this matters if we can’t treat one another with love, understanding, patience and encouragement.

So to all those who represent the vegan movement as influencers, product developers, publishers and gate keepers, lead by example and shine your light. Be the change you wish to see. Do not be deterred by your own or others’ shortcomings and perceived failures. Remember, we’re all on a journey together and your role is to serve as a reminder to others, of the amazing possibilities offered by this lifestyle, not just for individuals but for all animals – human and non-human. And remember that with each step that you take in the right direction, you move humanity towards a more humane, compassionate and inspiring world.

ANELISA NOYOKO is a freelance writer and entrepreneur from South Africa. Her interests include running, yoga, meditation, writing, reading, being in nature and driving change in her community by sharing a message of oneness. Other interests include vegan activism and promoting recycling and environmental awareness. To see more of her work, check out her favourite personal blog, Aphrodeity.



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