Like a lot of decisions I make, my choice to become vegetarian was rooted in the internet. Seven years ago, I came home from school and asked myself, “Why do people stop eating meat, anyway?” I was listening to a lot of Sublime that year, and doing my best to understand what I viewed as “hippie culture.” Vegetarianism, I thought, would be part and parcel to my weekly viewings of Across the Universe and my Beatles T-shirt collection.
A litany of Google searches later, I sat at my computer horrified at the violence inflicted on animals by the food industry. “PETA is garbage,” my mother would later tell me, rolling her eyes.
Be that as it may, even animal cruelty wasn’t enough to convince my teenage self to pass on sausage and chicken nuggets. No, what swayed me was a link claiming that vegetarians live longer than meat eaters. Now, a claim like that is going to appeal to anyone. But I am prone to excruciating bouts of hypochondria, anxiety that left me sleepless on more than a dozen occasions in my teen years as I lay in bed convincing myself I had cancer, aneurysms or tumors of every shape and size.
I read the website’s claims and furiously began searching “vegetarian life span,” “vegetarian live longer” and, probably, “how long do vegetarians live?” It was almost a decade ago, but a multitude of articles and webpages still list the same statistics.
In sum, it wasn’t guilt about the pain of chickens and cows, but fear of my own body that led me to announce to my parents that evening, “Um, I think I want to be a vegetarian.”
At first, they resisted, but after months of pouting my way through meat-centered meals, they gave up. I was seventeen and no longer ate meat.
Over the years that followed, I learned to ask servers what kind of broths were in soups, how to alter the Taco Bell menu appropriately and how to sheepishly apologize for the inconvenience when served meat by an unsuspecting relative or friend’s family.
But like when I wore only band T-shirts for a year, or when I thought I would double major in political science, the time has come when I must ask myself, “Why am I still doing this?”
It’s been seven years of disappointing and overpriced veggie burgers, sad cheese sandwiches, and meticulous scouring of every restaurant menu for the one thing I can eat.
What have I gained? I’ve learned to curry lentils, how many things you can make with black beans and have probably improved my cardiovascular health. These are delicious and valuable, respectively. But the younger me who thought that nixing a food group from my diet would extend my life isn’t so convinced that putting myself in a box for the sake of putting myself in a box is worth not eating steak-and-cheese sandwiches in when I visit Philadelphia, or refraining from fried chicken when I spend several days in South Carolina.
So, why am I still doing it? Well, because I’m embarrassed and ashamed of giving up and giving in to all the uncles who teased me at family parties, of the story about how I drunkenly ate a beef burger in the back of an Uber because I was too hungry to realize what I had done and of the impending I-told-you-so smirks from everyone in my life who was right, that it really was just a phase.
It’s my ego, it’s my pride, it’s my whatever.
To be clear, plenty of people refrain from meat-eating for a multitude of very, very valid reasons. Sometimes it’s related to religion and sometimes it’s related to health issues. My reasoning is neither. If I’m being completely honest, my vegetarianism was probably just a dumb, privileged thing I decided to do on a whim before my frontal lobe was even developed.
What about sustainability? you ask. There are socio-environmental reasons for refraining from meat consumption. Vegetarianism is said to help reduce methane production and salvage drinkable water, for example. This is the most difficult question for me in terms of deciding to give in. I’ve come to one workable conclusion: We must all do our part, but one person can’t do all of it all the time.
I know that may be touchy and that many ideological purists would disagree, but I’d like the freedom to, say, indulge in Thanksgiving turkey in November. Why does everything have to be so extreme?
Several vegetarian friends of mine have shirked their label in the past year or so, and when I ask them whether it was a big decision for them, they all respond, “No.” And explain that it wasn’t difficult because they realized, ultimately, that it was their decision to make, no one else’s. They still hardly eat meat, anyway, they say. Much like the decision to give it up in the first place, reverting to omnivorism was equally as personal.
I’m not quite there yet, but I’m thinking long and hard about it. Friends often ask me, “Is there anything you miss from when you ate meat?”
The short answer is always, “Yes.” The caveat is always: “But the concept of eating meat feels weird to me now.” The long explanation is often unspoken: I love the smell of bacon in the morning and fried chicken in the evening. The intoxicating fog of turkey roasting on Thanksgiving makes me salivate. I eat so much veggie sausage because I loved the real thing so much as a child, and yes, it all smells good. But I’m too ashamed to let you know that.
And finally, what I don’t say, ever, is that I don’t know, anymore, why I am resisting.
Photos via Getty Images.