Towards a vegan philosophy…..stop shopping.

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Sometimes, it happens that a particularly ornery acquaintance, when informed in some way or another that I’m vegan, might hurl out the old ‘but what about humans?’ argument. You know the one. It references the fact that there are a multitude of people suffering in the world and that our efforts at alleviating suffering should begin with our own kind first. Help the humans before the animals.

Generally, me and my kind tend to respond to this with reassurances that we do indeed care about our own species and in addition to working towards reducing the suffering of our non-human animal friends, we also try to be aware of and do something about injustices against humanity.

Most vegans that I know aren’t comfortable with the thought of other beings suffering, human and non-human alike. But I also think that there’s more we can do.

By now, I think I can recite the dictionary definition of vegan almost off by heart. Only I think this definition is a little too limited and I’m not surprised that whilst most meat eaters can grasp the notion that vegans don’t eat or use animals (actually, lots of them have trouble even with this), the underlying reasons why we don’t are mostly lost.

This is because the definition of vegan is very descriptive – it covers what we don’t eat or use. It doesn’t capture why though, and I think it’s this why that matters most. I would suggest that although the impetus for going vegan might differ amongst our clan – maybe you cared lots about the environment, or maybe you felt passionate about the pain inflicted by animal testing, or maybe you are committed to optimum health, the general underlying philosophy at the heart of veganism is about reducing suffering. Isn’t it?

Whether your main focus is to reduce suffering for animals, the environment or yourself, this is the why that serves as the foundation to our philosophy. And I would argue that it is a philosophy. It’s certainly not just a set of actions concerning what we eat. It’s the motivations behind why we make the choices we do that form the essential drive towards being vegan. At least it is for me. I don’t follow rules about what I eat or use simply because they are the rules. And neither do any vegans I know.

Mostly, vegans aren’t the best at signing on to rules just because they’re there. The vegans I know tend to critically evaluate any and all rules, to examine what they mean, who made them and how they might apply. This being the case, the story of why vegan is not about what we eat or don’t eat, what we use or don’t use, it’s about why we make the choices we make.

If you can accept that being vegan is not about what we eat or use, but why we do so and if you can accept that this moves the central tenets of veganism beyond descriptions and rules to inhabit the murky landscape of a philosophy, then here’s why I think we need to stop shopping. Or more specifically, reduce our involvement in consumer culture. If the reduction of suffering is the banner that most of us feel comfortable marching under, then it is undeniable that the folk who took digs at us by asking why we don’t care about human suffering, had a point.

What are we doing?  Are we being vigilant in informing ourselves where and how suffering exists and what we might be able to do about it? I don’t think we are. And I don’t blame us. Most of us are already slightly unhinged by the daily knowledge that others of our species kill and consume non-human animals. It’s fucked and we feel it. Many of us can’t eat at the table with our families anymore, because the sight of mindless consumption of other beings is just too disturbing.

So my suggestion of widening our lens to consider all suffering doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But we vegans know the cost of turning a blind eye to suffering, we remember it when we were vegetarian but knew that eating eggs wasn’t really okay. In order to get through that plate of scrambled eggs on our Sunday breakfast plate, we had to employ some tactics so that we could turn a blind eye. Because if we opened ourselves up to the truth, we wouldn’t be able to keep eating those eggs, instead we’d have to acknowledge that they were a result of suffering and we’d have to go vegan.

So we did. Even though we knew it would be sometimes difficult in that it would set us apart a little more from the acceptable mainstream message. But we did it anyway. And I think we need to do it again. And again. Over and over wherever we find suffering.

As confronting as it might be, I believe that the philosophy of veganism requires us to identify suffering wherever it lies and to make efforts to do something about it. For me, this has led to a process of opening my mind to consider the suffering that exists within each item of clothing that I purchase.

I’ve been down this road before and I’ve read the books, blogs and arguments about sweatshops and what ‘made in china’ really means. But like those Sunday eggs back when I was vegetarian, I think about it for a while and then put it in the too hard basket as my own consumer desires rear up and I delight in the thrill of a new dress or shoes or whatever. I try.

But I pretty much fail time and again. I read a few blogs and watch a doco and feel sick about what’s in my cupboard and whatever the most recent purchase I made without even looking where it came from was. I feel sadness and despair for the young women who leave their villages each day and move to a factory in the big Southern cities of China to work 20 hour days without breaks, proper wages or respect.

Sometimes, they are only 14 years old. Sometimes, they sleep at their workstations when there is a big order to ship out. Often, after deductions for their food and bed, there isn’t money to send home to their families. Which was the whole point of them leaving their villages for the big smoke in the first place. Sometimes, they live their whole lives like this, slaves to the production of my jeans, of your t-shirt. This knowledge hurts me. I can feel it in my chest. I think it makes my heart ache. So why do I continue to override this knowledge when I determine that I need a new something or other from the shop and more importantly, what is the cost of doing this to my being?

I do try. I’ve emailed many of the shops I buy from and asked about where their clothes are manufactured. I’ve contacted my daughter’s school uniform supplier. I’ve read the Outworkers Code of Practice and I know about which brands are sweatshop free. The responses I get provide little information.

Companies frequently tell me not to worry, it’s all okay because their manufacturer in China is really nice and treats their workers with love and lollies, so go ahead and buy our stuff, it’ll make you feel good. Only I know this is rubbish. I’ve read about how the factories easily convince the inspectors that it’s all fine. They coach the workers and given that the inspectors don’t really want to overthrow the whole capitalist system of production, they ‘re fairly easily appeased. I know it’s not even the factories fault, given that the brand name companies demand cheap labour and fast production and would simply take their business elsewhere if the price wasn’t cheap enough.

And I know that it’s ultimately the consumer, whose demand for cheaper and cheaper clothes drives the whole system further and further down into depravity. I know times are tough and money is scarce and some families struggle to buy clothes for their kids and cheap clothes might make their lives a little easier. It’s not a simple problem with a simple solution. I know that. But still, as a vegan, I know I cannot ignore it any longer.

I’m not suggesting that vegans need be Saints. We are no more or less perfect than any other creature. We have limits to how much we can do, to how much we can take. The difference though, is that we try to act on suffering when we see it. Don’t we?

Our actions may not make a huge difference – they may not solve problems outright or overthrow systems.  But they are a step in a direction that seems like a more compassionate place to go. The bottom line is that at the very least, we should be identifying where our clothing is manufactured and choosing not to buy it if we cannot guarantee that it was made without suffering.

This is only the first step though, and I can see that following the logic of reducing suffering, we might eventually want to do away with purchasing new items altogether. Some of us might even end up somewhere down the road deciding that consumer culture and the whole damn economic system that underpins it might need some re-dress, but for the moment, I’m starting with this. Being vegan now means that I don’t buy clothes that I suspect have suffering sown into them.

What I want is for those of us who understand ourselves as being vegan to broaden our lens on suffering so that it includes the suffering that comes with consumption. Many of you will already do this, I know. Some of you have gotten rid of your car, reduced your energy consumption, only buy local and drink fair trade coffee.

Many of you make hard choices everyday that expose you to the constant awareness of the extent of suffering and for this, I bow low to your courage. If you, like me, have a nagging feeling that some action you’re involved in perpetuates suffering, human or non-human, then I think it’s time for us to step boldly into that suffering, to open our minds and take action against it. Doing so will better embody the true philosophy of being vegan.

 

Cut off at the knees

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A few Sunday’s back, after a long and interesting walk, the type where you find yourself free enough of troubles to ponder a thing or two, I found myself thinking about shaving my hair off. Again. This wasn’t the first time in my life I’d opted to a dramatic hair decision, having done so twice before.. Three times if you count the dreadlocks. Hang on, four, if we consider the rebel patch. And I suppose that count only applies to my adult hair adventures.

The point is, I’m not known for making regular-woman kind of decisions about my hair. Most people that know something of me know this by now. Even strangers in my suburb who have absentmindedly noticed me over the years, if they’ve noticed me at all, would probably know not to rely too much on my appearance remaining entrenched.

So, why is it that people freak out when I do it? I think maybe there might be the surprise element, in that I don’t generally discuss and explore the decision with a perky group of girlfriends before hand and I don’t book appointments at hair salons and tell people when the big day is, actually I don’t know myself until it takes my fancy and I find myself in front of the mirror with the scissors and dustpan.

Maybe the surprise element throws people a little, and sure, why not express your surprise, but some of the reactions I’ve gotten over the years of my hair cutting antics are downright weird and I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed observing them and pondering what they might mean.

Actually, I’d say I’ve had a thoroughly empowering time thinking over the whole thing. It’s seems to be something about the fact that my hair was long and an interesting colour and had some curls in it. And although this is true, it was also fundamentally annoying. For one thing, it took an awful lot of maintenance. It took so much attention, not just to maintain it, but to consider it. Time sucking distractions that ultimately begin to change your image of who you are.

You see, a women’s hair in some odd way, has the power to afford her or deny her acceptance by other human beings. I realise that’s a big statement, but honestly, if you walk around with very long hair for any amount of time, you’ll experience a level of acceptance, based purely on your image as a reliable personification of brand feminine. It’s pervasive.

Before too long, your hair becomes a fashion accessory and although I know not too many women think this is necessarily a bad thing, I’m of the bent that I have better things, more satisfying things to be doing with my time than accessorising.

Thus, the time had come to be done with all the petty annoyances such as washing and styling, and on a truer level to face the world without the disguise that my hair had become. To the bathroom. With the clippers. Now.

The moment itself is always a bit of an anti-climax. It’s the decision that feels uninhibiting. Like pulling yourself back from a side path in your life that if left unchecked, could become awfully hard to get out of. Knowing in advance that the experience is going to be something of a challenge, that your movement through the world will be altered and therefore felt in a slightly different way.

Once you’ve made the decision though, and you’ve got the hair in your hand, scissors poised, it’s pretty much pure fun.  Many a childhood Barbie could attest to my love of cutting hair, introduced to me by my sister, another frequent lock cutter. This same sister was so devlishly drawn to chopping hair that she took great chuncks out of my other sister’s hair, an act which was certainly cruel, but by the look on her face, also satisfying. Her sheer delight at the incident willed me on to cut the hair off my most prized possession, my Bionic Woman doll, which due to the rather manly physique of the doll, ended up looking like a boy. This turned out to be fortuitous, as due to my mother’s unexpressed belief that providing her three daughters with male dolls was somehow morally inappropriate, I had a harem’s worth of Barbie dolls, but no prince.

Anyway, the point is, I had an early history of experience in the joy of changing an appearance, which often led to re-considering just who this plastic creature in front of you was that used to be the Bionic Woman. Her ‘personality’ was again up for grabs. No one else could tell me what she was supposed to look like or which mould she was supposed to fit into. Those decisions were mine to make over.

So, the hair came off without much fanfare. Using the clippers was another challenge, but I ended up doing a reasonable job. I had started the day with long, golden, curls almost to my waist, and ended with a smooth, crystal clear number three shave.

Given that I hadn’t planned to do it when I woke up in the morning, I did expect some level of shock from those around me and I suppose also from myself. My husband’s jaw dropped, not because of the haircut but because he didn’t think I’d ever do it again. It’s helpful that this look on women seems to be his favourite, at least if you can assume that the female characters he designs in his Xbox games all end up having golden coloured shaved heads. His reaction last time, when I shaved a head of long dreadlocks was pure enchantment. He drew pictures of me.

So we can rule out having to consider whether the person who found us attractive before might not anymore and that’s not something to understate. I would have perhaps needed a whole lot more courage to take the decision to shave my head if I knew that a consequence might be that my favourite human found me repulsive or hey, even less attractive as a result. Then again, maybe not. Because the thing is, I quite like it. I like the way it feels when I run water over it and I like that I can feel the breeze on my scalp. I feel somehow grander, maybe even a little shinier. But from past experiences, I also know it invites a shadow side, one of self-questioning and fear of rejection and exposure. The last two times I did this, I felt these things strongly. Even unpleasantly, for a time.

I waited for the reaction that had come both times before, from within me, but it never seriously took hold.  I still like it. Freed from most of the self-doubts, I’ve been able to observe the reactions from others without getting too emotionally side tracked in them.

What was really weird, and the story I really want to ponder, concerns the way people reacted and the struggle that some of them seemed to go through as a result. . Of both genders, although I think maybe for different reasons. And whilst I can by no means generalise, I did notice that a significant number of men who react seem to be mostly confused.

This can sometimes lead them to make assumptions about my sexuality. And although guys dig girl on girl porn, they still like those girls to look super feminine and frankly, I was just a little too far outside the model of ‘lesbian’ that most of these men could embrace. Other men screen me out. I’m no longer there. At least in terms of being a creature of the opposite gender worthy of some sort of extra attention.

This has had the surprising effect of freeing me from attracting their gaze. All women know that thing we do sometimes where we go a little blank in the eyes, tilt our gazes down just slightly and do our darnedest not to attract any male attention. This is a technique we will sometimes employ when we don’t want attention of a certain kind. If you don’t think you do it, watch next time you’re out walking alone and you come upon a man. An exception of course is if you really want to engage the man and then you probably wouldn’t be staring at the pavement.

The point here is that woman sometimes don’t have the choice over who ogles them and who doesn’t, and in my experience, having long hair attracted more of the kind of attention that I’d just rather not have. When I walk now, I just hold my shaved head up high, reasonably certain that I’ll be free of drawing the gaze of most men.

There is of course another reaction from a very small subset of men, mostly those you read sci-fi and like computer games and strong women, but these men are mostly confined to comic book shops and their lounge rooms, and even in the wild, they don’t tend to be ogglers anyway. I’ve become invisible to the people I would most like to be invisible from and this makes me pretty content.

Women have trouble with it for different reasons, I think. Not all of them, and hearteningly not any of the friends that know me well, but some do. My sister freaked. She was grieving for my hair. At first I found it amusing and I kind of thought she was joking, but no, she was upset. She kept repeating how pretty it had been. I don’t disagree with her, but housing your sense of beauty in your hair feels a little wrong for me.

I know how this can slowly happen though, your sense of your identity being constructed like a uniform around you. It was this very attachment to my hair that had been a big factor in the decision to get rid of it. Only my escaping this situation by a drastic haircut was a nightmare scenario to her. I think my sister thought I was hurting myself. She said she couldn’t think of why I would do it and I think that maybe she can’t. She was so startlingly invested in my hair that I realised something else must be going on here.

My sister’s reaction was not the only one to alert me to the way that we as women privilege the role that our hair plays in our identity. We understand on some level that a hairstyle which falls between the accepted boundaries of femininity gives us social currency. So to chop it all off seems like social suicide. Why would you do this to yourself, they wonder? Why would you self-harm?  Because this is clearly what they imagine I have done. The only way they can make any sense of it at all is to come to the conclusion that I must loathe myself in some way. It’s as though I’ve cut my skin and not just my hair.

I can understand what makes them think this way. By ten years old, a girl has already learnt how to package themselves as appealing or at least how to avoid the pitfalls of being unacceptable.  It’s tantalising being accepted. And it’s just plain easier. Having acceptable hair and for that matter dress style allows you to fly under the radar. People serving you in shops have a neutral attitude to you and this makes the whole exchange very pleasant. Other parents at your kid’s school accept you as a parent, as opposed to not quite being sure that you have the uniform right and maybe being a little suspicious about whether little Jane should really be allowed to come play with your kid at your house.

And I won’t lie and say that the acceptance by men wasn’t somehow beneficial to me. They would chat with me at those times when appropriate social chit chat was required, instead of looking the other way as I walked by (an example provided by the owners of the gym that I attend, who overnight, seemed to forget who I was).

Some people of both genders seem to think I’m sick. With cancer. They think that the only reason a woman would be faced with such a situation must be because of chemotherapy. These folk take long arcs around me, smiling sorrowful and poignantly should our eyes meet. Like they understand, but please would I put a headscarf on so they wouldn’t be confronted with my decay? It must really suck to lose your hair to cancer and have to deal with those reactions.

Other women delight in it. They whisper to me that they’ve always wanted to shave their hair off, but never felt brave enough. They tell me they are worried that the shape of their head is displeasing or maybe it’s their job, but it’s just too risky. A few remember when they too had made a similar risk with their hair and what they had learnt. Grannies still look a little disapprovingly, but some of them have blue hair, so that’s ok.

My 13 year old daughter thought it was cool. She started sending me email images of famous movie stars who had shaved their head and stuck up for me when others disapproved. She made my picture with my new hair cut the screen saver on her mobile and she joked that at least I didn’t have to worry about what the girls at school would say. I told her I do, they’re just older now.

This time, I haven’t been much bothered by all these shenanigans. Maybe it’s because as I get older I care less for other’s reactions. Maybe over the years I’ve picked up some courage to resist other’s expectations of me. I’m not sure. But I do know that by shaving my head again, I have escaped from something treacherous to my self and I think just in time.

By taking out my clippers again and ridding myself of my hair, I know again that the world is not what it seems. Like sci-fi folklore, it might just be true that we are in a matrix, controlled by our own insecurities, fostered on us by a society hell bent on persuading us to package ourselves within the tight margins of acceptability and familiarity. It’s one path to follow, but it’s not a very satisfying one and I know that the costs are high. I don’t know exactly what makes me resist this path, but I’m certain that the motivation is a good one, a right one. It’s not easy, but it’s character building and building character seems like a good enough thing to spend a lifetime doing.