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To be or not to be

October 9, 2009

by Julienne

Since becoming a vegetarian at age 13 in 1998, it seems I have been charged with reminding the world of one simple fact: fish are animals.  That statement might seem obvious, but with vegetarian classifications becoming trendy in recent decades, the lines of demarcation have been blurred.

Vegitarianism

Lacto-ovo-vegitarians consume egg and dairy products, and plain Vegitarians and Vegans do not. While these are acceptable, no true definitions of Vegitarianism should include fish, members of the Animal Kingdom.

As soon as someone finds out I am a vegetarian, there is an instant battery of questions listing possible exceptions.  I am asked if I eat fish, chicken and eggs.  I might even be quizzed on the contents of my Thanksgiving plate.  Recently, at a plenary luncheon I attended for work, the server kindly obliged me and replaced the chicken meal with a small pasta dish.  The guest to my right leaned over and whispered, rather pleased with herself, “So you’re a real vegetarian then?”

What does it mean to be a real vegetarian?  The Vegetarian Society, formed in the UK in 1847, claims to be the oldest official group of herbivores in the world, and gives itself the authority to “set standards for what is truly vegetarian.”  According to their website, they accept only three types: Lacto-ovo-vegetarian, Lacto-vegetarian, and Vegan.

The Lacto-ovo-vegetarian (i.e. me) is one who eats no “meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, or crustacea, or slaughter byproducts.”  However, they do eat dairy products and eggs.  The Lacto-vegetarian is similar, with the main exception that they eat no eggs.  Lastly, the Vegan eats, nor uses, no animal byproducts whatsoever.

Over the years, I have often argued with “vegetarians” who tell me they eat fish and chicken.  It was not until my gen-ed nutrition class in college that I was introduced to the many “semi-vegetarian” definitions in existence today.  This was the first time I realized that these indecisive eaters had actually settled on one thing – a name!  Or have they?

The Semi-Vegetarian is one who mainly excludes red meat from their diet, but will usually eat poultry and fish.  Branching out from there are: Flexitarians, a term originating in 1992, for those who eat any type of meat, but do so only occasionally; the Pescetarians who, defined in 1993, are those who eat seafood, but not other animals; and even the Pollotarians, those who eat poultry but not fish or mammals, have a hat in the ring.  Confused yet?

This definition issue is such a common problem that it has even been immortalized in film.  Remember the party scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Toula introduces Ian to her family? When her aunt learns that he is a vegetarian, she invites the new boyfriend over for dinner, assuring him that she will “cook lamb.”

I recently read an online blog of a woman who is so fearful that someone will feed meat to her young vegetarian son when she is not present that it practically keeps her up at night.  As she continued to type her diatribe of the societal benefits of a meatless diet, she admitted that she occasionally eats fish.  She even offered her reason for cancelling her PETA membership, trying to convince the reader that they are too fundamental for her, a person who wears leather boots.

This woman cannot see the forest for the trees!  She has not yet decided on which side of the issue she will stand.  She is focusing on a miniscule part of the greater problem.  So quick to judge her carnivorous babysitters, she has not evaluated the validity of her own dietary practices.

My aim is not to defend or explain any religious, ethical, or environmental reasons for abstention from meat.  Nor do I wish to rebuke the benefits of semi-vegetarian diets, or those who wear the occasional suede.  I only say that there is a simple solution for a problem that has been convoluted by human hands.

Life is often lived in a shade of gray, but it seems obvious that this is a matter of black and white.  In our modern world, I see a pandemic of neutralism.  While Ferris Bueller would tell us that no “ism” is ever good, this particular one has a double-edged sword: it is beneficial to ensure that we do not exclude or offend, but it is still important to call ourselves as we are.  Those semi-vegetarians, and all the mutations therein, are attempting to enjoy the benefits of a lifestyle without complete commitment.  Alone, this is a fine choice, but we must be honest with ourselves.  In other words: if you eat fish, you are not a vegetarian.

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2 Comments
  1. October 10, 2009 9:51 pm

    Thanks for the great post!

    I can see that it bothers you what other people call themselves, that they are not being honest with themselves. I agree that fish-eaters are not vegetarians, but I have a hard time getting worked up about labels. I’m vegan, and if I met someone holding a honey beer who said they’re vegan, I don’t think I’d care.

    Sure, they’re reaping the “social benefits” of being vegan while not meeting the general definition of it, but let’s look at the consequences of this.

    Does it make me look bad? Will people assume all vegans are hypocrites? People already have terrible stereotypes about vegans, such as that we’re snotty, supercilious, and secretly starving, so despising vegans for eating honey would be an improvement.

    Secondly, I stand for myself, and anyone who knows me knows what kind of a vegan I am. What someone else is doing does not reflect on me. Kind of like how two men or two women marrying doesn’t detract from my marriage.

    Thirdly, we really can’t control other people, so getting upset about it will only end in heartburn.

    I actually think it is pretty neat that people want to be vegetarian or vegan. And if they have cut down on animal products, I want to give them a hug. I have to laugh at myself that when I first began this journey, 18 years ago, I gave up red meat and replaced it with turkey burgers. I thought that was pretty great of me. Not that I called myself a vegetarian or ever planned to be.

    But maybe that is why I like to cut those people some slack, and give them time. They have put more thought into what they eat than most people. We’re all on the path of aligning our forks with our values, and not a single one of us has reached perfection.

    The person drinking the honey brown could just as well sneer at my suede hiking boots. Yes, I am vegan and I wear suede, suede boots I bought 20 years ago, before I even considered vegetarianism. I hope I don’t have to wait until they finally fall apart or I throw away perfectly useful shoes to call myself vegan.

    I can understand your frustration with people’s inconsistency. But the inconsistency is there whether they label it or not. Who cares what they call themselves? I don’t think I differ with you in your fundamental reasoning, I just differ in how I choose to move on from there.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Julienne.

  2. Julienne permalink
    October 12, 2009 9:26 am

    Thanks for the great thoughts. You’ve said some really interesting things & I agree with a lot of it.

    I understand when you say that you’re glad people are at least making better choices with what they say. I support those who want to make better choices, whether that is less meat or less soda pop. But, call a spade a spade, as they say. My main concern is this idea of neutrality so rampant today.

    I’m not concerned with the suede/leather issue – as I said above. My reason for bringing that up is that it seemed to me the blogger in querstion had “bigger fish to fry” (no pun intended). 🙂

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