I'm A Chubby Vegan

When I saw that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is proposing that American Airlines charge $10 for the privilege of sitting next to a vegan, I had to laugh aloud. I mean, have these people seen my shoulders?
Publish date:
April 10, 2012
haes, food, body image, vegan, airlines, veganim

I haven’t eaten cheese since August 2008.

Burrito is my boyfriend.

No jelly donuts, no Big Macs, no 3 am Saturday night “sandwiches” consisting solely of butter, bacon and lingering beer burps. I’ve fielded countless Thanksgivings minus the turkey, Christmases sans eggnog, and Valentine’s Days without a single pint full of Chunky Monkey to be eaten out of the container with the last clean spoon in the house.

Basically, I defy every idiotic “fat person food” stereotype in which 16-year-old boys love to revel. And yet I still manage to be inconsiderate enough to society to be one more overweight American on the BMI scale.

So when I saw that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is proposing that American Airlines charge $10 for the privilege of sitting next to a vegan on plane flights, I had to laugh aloud. I mean, have these people seen my shoulders?

I’ve been heavy for pretty much as long as I can remember. As a child, I was a soul-sucking blend of loudmouthed and smart-assed, and the various adults in my life were perfectly happy to let me hole up in my closet with a book that was too old for me and a nose-bag of Tostitos so long as they had a minute to actually conduct a conversation in peace.

But my huskiness didn’t just manifest itself in my graduation to the juniors’ section of JC Penney at the tender age of eight.

I’ve always been more bothered by the ever-present knowledge that I’m physically occupying too much space. I’m forever banging into the corners of desks and breaking lamps, like a drunken filly in a store that only sells picture frames. I’m always the person with her foot in the aisle or blocking the wheat-free pasta in the bulk foods aisle; if I had my way, it would be totally socially acceptable to walk around constantly gripping one’s elbows.

When I was six or so, my mean best friend gave me a homemade sticker that said “Little Miss Clumsy.” She said it was from her mom. I believed her.

I had a lot of feelings on young adult novels and high-waisted shorts. PS: This was Picture Day.

The only benefit I could imagine someone gaining from sitting next to me on a plane would be accidentally spotting the word “nipple” in my Word document.

But as much I’d love to brush this commercial off as a one-time example of uncreative shittiness on the PCRM’s part, I find this sort of rhetoric incredibly troubling. Not only is it incredibly sexist (and arguably classist, considering the two protagonists in this video are Hot-Shit Business Types and the potbellied villain is in jeans); the continually unchallenged assertion that vegans are guaranteed to be svelte is also one that I find both lazy and legitimately dangerous.

As Lesley has said waymorearticulately than I could ever manage, weight and body type are a hell of a lot more complicated than what you put in your mouth.

For almost four years now, I haven’t eaten what mainstream media luuurrves to point to as the truck of chubsters like myself. I always think of Nancy Upton’s fabulous American Apparel mock-ads in situations like these: no bathing in a tub of ranch dressing for a woman who’s sworn off dairy.

Sure, I lost about 15 pounds when I first went vegan, but when my body realized that the trip to Quinoatopia wasn’t going to be a week-long vacation, it went right back to helpfully storing up fat in my hips for the next decade of winters.

For someone who basically subsists on lentils and kale, I’ve still got quite the belly.

I’ve faced plenty of trouble from doctors who don’t believe that I slow-run an average of 16 miles a week, or who are too busy lecturing me about my food baby to give me adequate instruction on the care and maintenance of a lung infection. But I find it more disturbing that once doctors do find out that I’m vegan, they’re totally willing to about-face and give me a pass on nutritional needs.

I used to preemptively do the rattle-off with which I’m sure all vegetarians are familiar: “Yes-I-get-enough-protein-and-iron-and-I-am-not-wasting-away-like-a-character-on-Downton-Abbey.”

But I’ve noticed that though grandmas are still very concerned with my (minimal) calcium intake, more and more of my doctors seem to be content in the knowledge that I’m not eating bacon.

Because honestly, my eating habits are not actually all that awesome. I may not eat what most doctors love to point to as “diabetes on a plate,” but just because I’m eschewing chicken nuggets doesn’t mean I’m getting all the nutrients I need.

When I said I mostly just gnaw on lentils and kale, I wasn’t exaggerating: I’m usually too tired when I get home from work to put in more dinner-effort than the sheer act of pawing cruciferous vegetables directly from the strainer into my mouth. Sometimes, if I’m feeling fancy, I squirt some sriracha sauce right in there too. Teeth are nature’s blender!

If I’m waxing slightly more decadent, I’ll open a bag of nutritional yeast and, using salsa as the spackle, dip corn chips in to make a kind of horrifying proto-nacho. I’ll also occasionally bribe one of my housemates to bring me a Mission-style burrito, which is essentially a pound of rice encased in a tortilla coffin.

Nowhere on that list, you’ll notice, did I include a citrus fruit or, God forbid, a multivitamin. You want protein, belly? You’ll have to get it from the ground, like a fucking brontosaur!

Awwww, yeahhhh.

At this point, any self-respecting physician should probably be throwing up a bit in horror-rage. At the age of 45, my organs are probably going to throw in the towel, leaving me to crumple like a poorly constructed Spiderman piñata left out in a summer rain. But at least I won’t have diabetes! And that, for a lot of people, is a reason to be unequivocally admired.

Because this all goes back to the issue of taking up room: Women who have constrained their flesh through diet and exercise have exerted control over their bodies in a way that makes them more physically contained. Overweight people, who let our flesh hang out any old way, have not controlled ourselves. We’ve given into our basest desires without a single consideration for the people around us. We take up space that we should have meekly left for someone else.

For lots of people, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine among them, being overweight is a singularly selfish act.

This is why, I think, vegans get such approval. By staring wistfully at a pepperoni pizza instead of stuffing it into my gob, I’m controlling my desires just as effectively as a Catholic girl waiting for sex until marriage.

I hate to say it, but being a vegan woman is not the most radical thing I’ve ever done. It’s just another way I’ve learned how to make myself smaller, like every “good woman” should: to live more considerately, to not take up any more space than necessary. I’m reducing my carbon footprint! I’m saving a baby chicken from death by maceration! I’m fun to sit next to on planes!

I’m exerting control over my body in a way that makes me feel powerful, like I’ve somehow learned how to dictate the weather.

Of course, I didn’t become a vegan in the first place for these reasons. And good thing, too, since I’ve lost maybe two pounds overall in the last four years. But when shit like that American Airlines commercial rears its ugly head, I wonder if being an overweight vegan is just another way that I’m not appropriately conforming to the feminine boundaries that I’m supposed to be constructing between myself and the rest of the world.

I’ll always be too chubby, too chatty, too full of exuberant verve to really hit that whole “fitting neatly into my surroundings” nail right on the head.

But hey, if you want to pay me $10 to sit next to me on a plane, I’ll gladly share my bootlegged copies of the latest "Doctor Who" with you. I just can’t promise I won’t take up too much of the armrest.