Image courtesy of Wendy
About a week ago, I received the following email from a reader:
“…I felt compelled to message because of an image in circulation. It’s aimed at a British audience, as it consists of two British TV personalities and is targeted at women who are considering vegetarianism/veganism. It depicts a juxtaposition of an image of Gillian McKeith (vegetarian health guru) and another with Nigella Lawson. The former looks ravaged…the latter is shown looking radiant with youthful skin. The caption is long but says something to the effect of: both are 51, one is a vegetarian and looks like this, one eats copious amounts of butter and meat and looks like that. It sounds trivial but it is a powerful and disturbing image and sums up the reason why I’m still shy about my veganism despite the fact that it has saved me from a life of disordered eating.”
I quickly went to find the image in question (there are now several iterations of it), and understood precisely why it is so potent and disturbing. And then I spent a week deciding out whether or not I ought to write a post about it, as I’m loathe to give attention/hits/publicity to the image, or to participate in its circulation. Ultimately, I decided that remaining silent was probably less helpful than offering my readers a perspective on how to confront these kinds of messages without getting depressed or angry. So that’s why I’m posting today.
I will not actually paste the images into this post, because some of my readers might prefer not to look. Instead, I’ll direct you to the two I’ve found. In the first, here, the caption reads,
This woman is 51. She is TV health guru Gillian McKeith, advocating a holistic approach to nutrition and health, promoting exercise, a vegetarian diet high in organic fruits and vegetables. She recommends detox diets, colonic irrigation and supplements.
This woman is also 51. She is Nigella Lawson a TV cook, who eats meat, butter and desserts. I rest my case.
As my reader said, Lawson looks radiant.
The other image, visible here, reads
This woman is 51 years old. She’s Gillian McKeith, the health guru who talks about a holistic approach between health and food with lots of exercise and a diet rich in fruits and organic vegetables. She recommends a vegetarian diet and colon cleansing.
This woman is 51 years old. She’s Nigella Lawson, a chef who smokes, drinks, eats meat and butter and desserts considered to be “unhealthy.”
Before I begin, let me say that this post is not an endorsement of McKeith’s work. I think it’s chock full of dubious theories, which wouldn’t bother me so much if McKeith didn’t frequently posture as a doctor or scientist, posing in lab coats and with test tubes. In fact, she is a nutritionist just like I am, and whether her degree is holistic (as mine is), or not, it seems to me that the expertise she assumes is out of keeping with the level of scientific research she’s actually conducting or studying. (Ben Goldacre presents a rather scathing, if compelling criticism of her work in his book Bad Science.)
Nor, for the record, do I have anything against the charming Nigella Lawson, except of course that the food she creates is not the food I’d recommend to my readers from either a health or ethical standpoint. I’ve watched Nigella’s show and have been thoroughly entertained by her passion for food. So this post is not about pitting one woman’s approach against the other’s, because the image I’m referencing isn’t really about either McKeith or Lawson as individuals. Rather, it uses their appearances to make a point about “healthy” living versus “unhealthy” living, and tries to poke holes in the idea that a vigilant and plant-based diet is really connected to vibrant health or beauty.
The first thing I noticed about the image is that I’m not so sure that McKeith looks either haggard or gaunt. I think she looks as though she’s not wearing any makeup, and has been caught in a candid photo. Lawson, on the other hand, is wearing an evening gown, and is posing in makeup for a camera. In the second image, McKeith is dressed up too, and the only difference between the relatively “health” of these two women, insofar as it can be judged from a photo, is that McKeith might arguably look a little older than the dewy Lawson, who appears unusually young for her age.
So what’s really going on here? A camera-ready Lawson is juxtaposed with a candid, perhaps unflattering photo of McKeith. McKeith doesn’t look sick or unwell or frighteningly thin; rather, she looks less manicured and stunningly youthful than Lawson. What the picture is really doing is not making claims about how healthy these women are, but rather making statements about who is better and younger looking.
The construct of this image is to publically compare these women’s good looks, and ridicule one of them as the less attractive and older. It is misogynistic, and even it weren’t meant to make fun of vegans, it would offend me because its intention is to shame and insult one woman for not being as “good looking”—at least in the creator’s eyes—as another one. And the image dooms McKeith from the very start, because few women who are caught off guard in a candid snapshot can manage to look as manicured as women who have been dressed up, made up, and asked to smile for a camera.
But let’s get to the vegan thing. This image is the same old tired song vegan-bashing we’re all used to: vegans are sickly. Vegans are unwell. Vegans aren’t as “supple” or “robust” as their omni counterparts. There’s really nothing to say about this, except that it’s a stupid generalization that is becoming increasingly outdated. Vegan athletes like Brendan are proving that vegans have strength and endurance in droves, while any number of fabulous vegan personalities, leaders, and celebs are showing the world just how rich, vibrant, and health-generating the lifestyle is.
The idea that vegans are a sickly breed is simply incorrect: there is as much variance in health among vegans as there is among any lifestyle group, except that vegetarians and vegans are on average more slender and less likely to develop heart disease or high blood pressure. If I wanted to deal in insulting and unfair generalizations about eating habits, I might post a photo of Alicia Silverstone, Ellen DeGeneres, Rory Freedman, and juxtapose it with a photo of a person in a hospital bed, being treated for any number of diseases of affluence, and suggest that the latter’s appearance is caused specifically by consumption of meat and cheese.
This photo, however, doesn’t only take a jab at veganism as a health choice. It also conflates vegetarianism with theories about cleansing and detox diets, which isn’t fair: maybe McKeith recommends them, but a good many plant based eaters have no illusions about the idea of “detox.” And if this conflation of one person’s more extreme theories with the viewpoints of an entire population isn’t troublesome enough, I should point out that McKeith is not a dedicated advocate of vegetarianism; she is herself a pescatarian, and recommends fish to her readers.
What this image really does is channel the age old idea that fastidious attention to health and diet is a waste of time. People love to laugh off “healthy eating” as a fool’s errand, remind you that their great grandfather lived to 100 with bacon and cigarettes and scotch every day. What they don’t tell you is that a good many other relatives probably died young because of strokes or heart diseases, that the meat our great-grandparents ate was infinitely more moderate than what most Americans eat now, and that the unfortunate victims of our carnivorous habits are the billions of farm animals who die or live in captivity every year. So please, let’s not get swept up into thinking that our attachment to animal foods is somehow more “sane” than eating plant-based. Industries that breed sentient beings to be raised in captivity and killed by the billions, while also destroying our ecosystem and promoting diseases of affluence? That’s insane. And if you need more proof that the logic behind this image is whack, just look at the second one, in which cigarette smoking is defended.
There will always be people who insist that a diet without animal products must be a weak and disadvantaged one; it’s visible everywhere from the psuedoscience of the Weston Price Foundation to your opinionated Aunt Sally’s assertion that all vegans eat is “rabbit food.” Ignore it. While vegan diet may pose some challenges—the procurement of B-12, for example—we live in a day and age in which those challenges can be gotten around with a simple supplement. It’s easier than ever to plan and enjoy a rich, healthy, and nourishing diet that is 100% plant-based. And this diet has never been more ethically and ecologically urgent than it is right now.
Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or simply a conscious eater, use images like this as an opportunity to set an example. Do your best to openly decry and privately disregard these visuals, which set out to ridicule people who prioritize healthy lifestyle choices, and to make women feel ugly, devalued, and vulnerable about their age. If you hear the image mentioned in conversation, do your best to point out how false it is.
More importantly, never let these kinds of stereotypes and insults make you feel ashamed of the way you eat. I say this to the reader who emailed me about the image, but I also say it to all of my readers who are trying to make healthy, compassionate, and/or eco-conscious food choices. Small minded people always have and always will mock lifestyle choices and viewpoints that challenge their own. You have chosen a lifestyle that can be as healthy as it is compassionate. Embrace that choice with confidence, pride, and a sense of communion with everyone here in the CR community who is making those choices with you.