Vegetarianism: Balancing the Intersection of Health, Ethics and Everything In-Between

You're Eating What?!

“Lindsay the Vegetarian”

 “McDonald’s ruthlessly kills chickens everyday and adds hundreds of chemical hormones just so you can enjoy a 5-pack of Chicken McNuggets. Sign up today to boycott all McDonald’s franchises!”

We’ve heard these protests before—outside fast-food establishments, in front of headquarters, on the streets—yet how often do you hear them coming from a 12-year-old girl handing around petitions in a middle school cafeteria? Well, at least once.

McCruelty: I'm Hating It

One ordinary day when I was twelve years old, I realized that the food my mother bought, sliced up and cooked for dinner every night was the flesh and bones of a once-living animal. That evening was witness to crying and likely some dramatic gesticulation…all followed by the vow to never eat another animal again. For eight years I followed that promise. Although I slowly became less involved with animal rights, I quickly became more educated about the health, environmental and social implications of becoming a vegetarian (and for a brief year and a half, vegan). All of these factors together helped create a new identity for me. The more stringent I became in my practices, the more publicly consistent I came across in my values, consequently strengthening my own commitment to being vegetarian. As I both meaningfully and at times unintentionally displayed the meaning of vegetarianism through my public choices, my adopted vegetarian identity quickly integrated into my personal identity. At school, at dance, anywhere I went with my friends…I was Lindsay the Vegetarian.

Clearly saddened after attending a dinner at "Le Pied de Cochon" (aka: The Foot of the Pig)
Clearly saddened after attending a dinner at “Le Pied de Cochon” (aka: The Foot of the Pig)

Now imagine that one day, everything you knew you and trusted—and everything that people knew you to stand for—was threatened. That’s exactly how I felt the first time I had a craving for chicken. There was nothing physically blocking me from straying from vegetarianism—after eight years, I actively realized that I was making a personal dietary choice. Yet even the thought of breaking away from vegetarianism brought on pangs of guilt, moral scrutiny and questions about my identity. I imagined this is how it would feel if a Christian were debating religious conversion to Judaism. If I wasn’t Lindsay the Vegetarian, who was I? Despite my close friends and family assuring me that it was my choice if I was vegetarian or not, I felt like I would be judged and would be placing myself a peg down in life.

This paper aims to examine some of the factors influencing my evolving relationship with vegetarianism, and the implications they have on society’s greater representation of vegetarianism—both as a Subculture and as a Social Movement. Some of the questions this paper will address include: Who makes up the vegetarian population today and what do they believe? Why is it difficult to cohesively persuade meat-eaters to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle? How do meat-eaters perceive of this subculture and their choices?

Vegetarianism Through A Subcultural And Social Movement Lens:

For decades it has been difficult to pin down a singular definition of vegetarianism, as individuals often use quite divergent language to describe their relationship with the lifestyle. Technically speaking, one can choose to be an ovo-lacto-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, pescatarianvegan or a even “flexitarian,” someone that allows meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion or in small quantities. Not only do the differences in type speak to mainstream society’s simplified perception of vegetarianism as just a dietary choice, they also provide insight into the various motivations for individuals to become vegetarians in the first place. According to Donna Maurer, author of Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment, some of the most commonly attributed reasons for adopting the diet include “personal health, concern about the treatment of farm animals (which often includes belief in animal rights), environmental issues, world hunger concerns, and disgust at the thought of consuming the flesh of a dead animal” (Maurer 4). When discussing vegetarianism with mainstream society—either through basic education or strong advocacy—the aforementioned reasons described are often boiled down and simplified to represent a more clear-cut dichotomy of health concerns vs. ethical/moral reasons. This feeds into the construction of vegetarianism’s representation, both from an in-group and mainstream perspective.

Why Be A Vegetarian?

Because food consumption patterns are often associated with social class, ethnicity and gender, it comes as little surprise that those willing to participate in a vegetarian lifestyle typically are white, middle-class females who “share characteristics such as being less likely than the general population to participate in conventional religions and being more likely to consider themselves liberal and to practice health-conscious behavior” (Maurer 8). While it will not be discussed in length in this paper, gender plays a large role in the vegetarian subculture. Representations of vegetarianism as a feminine diet are often reinforced by messages communicated through mainstream media, from books to films. For example, Ford supermodels Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin published a book advocating a vegan lifestyle in 2005 called Skinny Bitch, which is a “no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous” (Freedman, Barnouin cover). The language and tone of the book asserts that females must use veganism as a tool to obtain the ideal body, and consequently a happy life. Although the book is primarily grounded in the authors’ animal rights beliefs, the book pushes said beliefs by playing on women’s insecurities, which is problematic in itself.

Watch Now: In this video, co-author Kim Barnouin aligns her language to meet PETA’s goals of animal rights, rather than advocating for the topics she primarily describes in her book, which is health and beauty
Skinny Bitch Coauthor Rory Freedman for PETA

With this information in mind, many cast aside vegetarianism as a question of dietary choice rather than analyze it within the context of subcultures and social movements. According to Ken Gelder’s book on subcultural history and practices, there are six distinct ways of accounting for and identifying subcultures: (1) Understanding and evaluating the group in terms of their negative relation to labor or work; (2) Classifying them as ambivalent in relation to economic and social class; (3) Subcultural claim of space; (4) Group congregation outside of the domestic sphere, away from home and family; (5) Registering the “deviance” of a subculture through a range of excessive attributes; (6) Casting modern subcultures in opposition to the banalities of mass cultural forms (Gelder). At first glance, vegetarianism does not fit neatly into many of these categories (with the exception of excessiveness in the realm of veganism). However, vegetarianism does lie in a unique transitory space between subculture and social movement, borrowing aspects of each to demonstrate specific codes and values such as liberalism, equality and tolerance. Because vegetarianism is inherently “against” mainstream society (America is a largely carnivorous culture), members of this group exist as “potentially political forces.” T.V. Reed states that subcultural force “has to be mobilized or folded into social movements to reach its full disruptive potential [and that] the political valence of subcultures is also shaped by the degree of tolerance for alternatives that exists in a given society” (Reed 304-305). A 2013 study conducted by the Humane Research Council recently found that a relatively large degree of tolerance exists in American society for alternative diets, with about 50% of American voters viewing vegetarians favorably, and less than 25% viewing them unfavorably (HRC 2013). Because there is not a strong opposition to the change vegetarians are trying to achieve—that change being an overall more tolerant, plant-based dietary system—it is difficult for them to mobilize into a strong movement in the public’s eye.

Further weakening the representation of the subculture is how vegetarian leaders present their practices to the outside world. They oftentimes change their messages depending on what type of members they are looking to attract. For example, if trying to appeal to a more general public, advocates may emphasize the health components of vegetarianism rather than leveraging a morally or ethically based fish are friends, not food tactic (and vice versa). In this way, group rhetoric is continually changed for the purpose of external communication.

Vegetarian groups alter their appeals when targeting various individuals and interests


It should also be noted that rhetoric isn’t only changed to attract new members, but to compare members within the group or movement. Technical differences between what does or does not make one a vegetarian have long placed multiple divides within the overall group. The hierarchy of vegans down to ovo-lacto-vegetarians has created windows for individuals to scrutinize others for their lack of vegetarian “consistency,” creating a pseudo-competition to see who can be the most “morally consistent.” This paradigm is supported within the larger establishment of political correctness, where “those who are perceived as failing to prefigure the political goals of their movement within their own lives may be assumed to be weak in their beliefs and commitment, labeled hypocrites, or otherwise socially ostracized” (Epstein 1991; Veysey 1973, as quoted in Portwood-Stacer 9). As we will see, these issues and misconceptions falling under lifestyle politics are oftentimes not demonstrated in mass media representations, where the portrayal of vegetarianism is often diluted into a simpler, clear-cut message.

Moral controversies exist between vegan and vegetarian parties.

Moral controversies exist between vegan and vegetarian parties.

Representations of Vegetarianism in Video Media:

Representations of the vegetarian movement will be analyzed through two primary media forms: documentaries and short-form viral videos. It is necessary to look through both lenses to demonstrate how media forms, framing and biases affect the way mainstream society understands vegetarianism as a lifestyle and evaluates various motivations for joining.


Forks Over Knives is a 2011 documentary film by Lee Fulkerson examining the claim that most of the degenerative diseases afflicting Americans can be managed, or even reversed, by rejecting our current diet of animal-based and processed foods. While real-life vegetarian leaders are often careful not to demonstrate vegetarian extremism to potential members (with the exception of more radical organizations such as PETA), this documentary fully exemplifies the extreme from end to end, primarily leveraging a health-based argument. It begins with classic fear mongering, relying on the shock factor of quick scene cuts to show flashes of jarring food facts about health and drugs (without appropriate context) and images of obese individuals, all communicated through a strongly authoritative male voice. The documentary also focuses on the 180-degree transformation of individuals who typically drink multiple sugary colas a day and consume significantly more calories and fat than one should. The film is grounded in a health approach, showing the clear benefits of shifting from an unhealthy lifestyle to an extremely healthy one through plant-based diets. This provides a simple, clear-cut way to raise awareness and understanding about the benefits of vegetarianism to viewers. Many vegetarian groups have previously raised concern that inclusive messages applauding all efforts toward practicing vegetarianism—from organic, health-conscious vegetarians to “flexitarians”—can “dilute the vegetarian identity” (Maurer 18); in the effort to avoid dilution of an already fragile subcultural identity, the documentary advocates an exclusively vegan diet.

Watch the full version of “Forks Over Knives” on Amazon Instant:
“Forks Over Knives” Full Documentary

Watch the official trailer here:

The opening progression of scenes strengthens the film’s initial impact by aligning tone and music with the scenes on display. For example, images showcasing farm life and language advocating plant-based diets were supported by smooth scene changes and tranquil music; images of the meat and drug industry, on the other hand, were undercut by rough scene changes, tense music and cold facts clearly meant to induce shock and fear in viewers. Fulkerson uses his narrative authority to then align individuals who lead a vegan lifestyle with those who are against big government and corporations. As these kinds of lifestyle practices are susceptible to being homogenized by capitalist consumer markets (Portwood-Stacer 3), the film highlights select quotations by medical experts denouncing major retailers such as Wal-Mart: “Promise me you won’t eat anything from Wal-Mart” says one doctor to his patient. This once again reinforces vegetarianism as a subculture led by individuals who share a more progressive and liberal collective identity. Fulkerson and the other supporting subjects in the film perform this function by using rhetoric that neatly aligns with the codes of the group. The slightly performative representations in Forks Over Knives “constitute a staple element of docusoap in contrast with the self-restrained naturalism of demeanor, speech, and behavior in classic observationalism” (Corner 263). When most individuals adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, the reactions seen in this documentary are typically not experienced—it is rather a slow transformation into a new lifestyle (and at times identity) than one highlighted by constant medical exams confirming one’s incredible health gains.

A major aspect that permeates the entirety of the film is the use of rational, scientific evidence to strengthen the director’s argument for vegetarianism. This is done through what Bill Nichols calls the expository mode and the interactive mode. On the one hand, the film “addresses the viewer directly, with titles or voices that advance an argument about the historical world,” while at the same time shifting “textual authority…toward the social actors recruited: their comments and responses provide a central part of the film’s argument” (Nichols 35, 44). In this way, viewers interact with “real” (albeit, a constructed real) case studies proving the effectiveness of vegetarianism. Furthermore, the director includes “actors” who don’t fit the stereotype of what one may assume a typical vegetarian would look like—this aligns with the film’s structure of guiding narrative through scientific fact. For example, the documentary follows the transformation of a significantly overweight, pre-diabetic African-American woman who reverses her diagnosis by following a strict vegan diet. She says, “I’m not trying to break vegan stereotypes. This diet just works for me,” which subversively serves to break conventions of vegetarian subcultural stereotypes. Overall, the combination of human transformation and historical experimental evidence offers strong arguments for the movement from a pragmatic perspective.

Short-form viral videos, on the other hand, take an entirely different approach in their representation of vegetarianism. In early 2013, popular sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live performed a skit with Justin Timberlake called “Bring It On Down 2 Veganville.” The 5 ½ minute video shows Timberlake dressed up in a tofu costume stealing business from the local meat butcher, played by Bobby Moynihan. The majority of the skit uses popular songs as a tool to educate audiences about the benefits of vegetarianism—from good health to the great taste. However, several of the lyrics further complicate representations of vegetarianism by labeling it as the “latest health craze,” an issue vegetarian leaders have historically struggled to combat. Although this video is far from typical documentary format, it does speak to Corner’s theoretical concept of Documentary as Diversion, which references “forms that are very high in exchange value, strategically designed for their competitive strength in the television marketplace” (Corner 262). While one goal of Forks Over Knives was to be received well by audiences and to provide a level of entertainment, it did so through rational arguments and language. SNL’s skit targeted its audience primarily through emotional measures—in this case humorous entertainment.

It’s also important to note that a portion of the video was dedicated to acknowledging the ethical treatment of animals. Pro-vegetarian documentaries and videos sometimes avoid dwelling on this subject, as it may detract from the more scientific arguments regarding health. However, a change in tone for this 15-second conversation between Timberlake and Moynihan directly addressed this issue:

Timberlake: “If you knew how meat was raised you wouldn’t eat it.”
Moynihan: “Oh I know it’s disgusting, but it’s also delicious!”
Timberlake: “Yeah, tell that to Babe.”

The butcher proceeds to realize that the lovable character Babe died because of how the meat industry ruthlessly uses animals for human consumption. The insertion of this sobering topic into the video transforms the entertaining piece of content into what has been termed infotainment— “information-based media content or programming that also includes entertainment content in an effort to enhance popularity with audiences and consumers” (Demers 143). Grouping concepts such as these into a singular video also demonstrates Stuart Hall’s concept of representation systems, consisting “not of individual concepts, but of different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relations between them” (Hall 17). Under this line of thought, SNL’s video succinctly demonstrates the relational way mainstream society conceives of vegetarianism as a representation system. Ideas about a subculture or movement are not created through individual concepts such as animal activism or health, but rather as an interconnected web of representations that create meaning by their comparison to other objects and ideas. Timberlake and Moynihan’s characters leverage visual and verbal language to describe concepts such as such as clean eating, importance of health, dangers of fatty meat, tofu as a symbol for vegetarianism, overweight and foreign individuals as symbol for meat-eaters, the cuteness of animals, and morality—all tied together under one representation system for vegetarianism. The entire video illustrates a certain ideological effect, whereby constructed images, signs and codes serve as a way for humans to categorize and make sense of the complexity of society.

From these two pieces of video content, we are able to see one example of how form and framing affects viewers’ perception of vegetarianism as both a subculture and social movement. Despite the exact form media takes—from documentaries to novels to viral videos—every representation is both a reflection and a construction of the social issues we, as a society, use to influence our understanding of concepts such as vegetarianism.

Documentaries highlight rational support for a vegan diet.

Documentaries highlight rational support for a vegan diet.

Viral videos construct meaning through reappropriated pop culture references.

Books rely on narrow descriptions to show a clear and simple POV

Books rely on narrow descriptions to show a clear and simple POV

Proposal For A Vegetarian Pseudo-Documentary

On one end, we’ve seen media forms that leverage rational triggers, while on the other end we’ve looked at pieces of content relying on emotional triggers to incite a response to the topic of vegetarianism. The goal of my documentary will be to find the balance between the two, utilizing an interactive metacognitive approach that allows users to tap into their own personal experiences when watching the film, while also presenting them with information that demonstrates the potential gaps in their thinking toward the lifestyle movement. By employing an interactive mode in my film, the actors’ “comments and responses [will] provide a central part of the film’s argument…The mode introduces a sense of partialness, of situated presence and local knowledge that derives from the actual encounter of filmmaker and other” (Nichols 44). The film would reenact my personal experience with vegetarianism, charting significant moments that provide insight into how vegetarians are perceived and represented by others. Between the scenes of my middle school through college life and interviews where my myself, friends, family and medical professionals are the subjects, images and media reflecting relevant current events of the time will be interspersed to provide a more objective look into how society views vegetarians, and how it affects the relationship between vegetarians and “mainstream” society. My goal is to challenge viewers’ ways of thinking by posing very real arguments and scenarios rather than simply demonstrating theoretical concepts. As Nichols states in his text Representing Reality:

“The filmmaker’s felt presence as a center of attention for the social actors as well as the viewer leads to an emphasis on the act of gathering information or building knowledge, the process of social and historical interpretation, and the effect of the encounter between people and filmmakers when that experience may directly alter the lives of all involved” (Nichols 49).

The documentary will end by posing a rational argument to the audience (as most traditional vegetarian documentaries do), while employing several entertaining aspects that have proved successful for recent viral videos. While my overarching stance will be for a pro-vegetarian lifestyle, I will challenge the current norms for both the subculture and meat-eaters by providing simple tactics for people to either slowly wean themselves into vegetarianism, or ways to live a “weekday vegetarian” lifestyle. This simply means living as a vegetarian Monday-Friday and adding in fish, chicken or meat as the individual finds necessary on the weekends. Seeing as I am no longer a strict vegetarian, but enjoy the mental and physical health benefits of a mostly vegetarian diet, I will hopefully position more people to see the objectively positive reasons for joining the “movement.” The pragmatic aspect of this suggestion will speak to viewers’ rationale, while humor will be utilized to help viewers see a new, lighter perspective on vegetarianism (ex: inserting jokes and pop culture references, etc.).

There have yet to be any documentaries dually advocating the benefits of vegetarianism and a “Live as you see fit” lifestyle. By representing vegetarianism in a positive light without heavily focusing on the mainstream opposition (i.e. meat-eaters), the film will likely be appealing to a larger audience and provide tangible reasons and steps for more individuals to join the movement without having to feel like they are entering into a radically different lifestyle or simply hopping onto the latest trend.


Time Inc. and PETA have given the “OK” to founder Graham Hill’s Weekday Vegetarian concept

Bringing It All Together:

As this paper has demonstrated, the various definitions and perceptions of vegetarians both in-group and in mainstream society create added complications for definitively placing the group within a defined subculture or progressing it toward a more successful and proactive social movement. There are two main reasons vegetarians have found difficulty in being represented accurately. The first is that as a group, vegetarians generally share little in common with each other than what they do not eat—while certain stereotypes reside over the group, motivations, characteristic and even eating behaviors can greatly vary. For example, vegetarian advocates range from actress and model Pamela Anderson to boxer Mike Tyson to former president Bill Clinton. Secondly, “whereas some social movements call on participants to change for the benefit of a collective good, others—such as the vegetarian movement—encourage participants to change for their own individual benefit” (Maurer 19). The inherent tension between personal interests and greater social gain can act as a potential detractor from elevating the dietary lifestyle to a social movement of more national or global interest. That being said, if more media representations illustrated the multiple sides of vegetarianism through a balance of objectively truthful yet easy-to-understand content, we might start to see more progress in moving from a heavily carnivorous society to one that is focused on health, morality and sustainability through the way of a primarily plant-based diet.


Media Representations

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