I’d like to have a wee chat about labels. Not food labels or record labels or fashion labels: labels we use to identify ourselves as being of a certain persuasion. Can you guess which one I’m concerned about?

VEGAN.

Yikes. Before I switched to the diet, I was really intimidated by the word ‘vegan.’ For a long time, I used to mistake it for the word ‘pagan’ and that’s a fact. I thought vegans had to sacrifice the best in life — bacon, leather bags, omnivore friends — but I’m happy to report that that’s not the case. Yes, I’ve given up bacon; yes, I’ve started retooling my handbag collection; yes, it’s taken some time to explain to friends why I now prefer Pasta Primavera to my old favorite Pasta Bolognese. But, it’s all been really worth it.

The trouble is: even now that I’m vegan I don’t feel completely comfortable with the word ‘vegan.’ I feel like it doesn’t tell the whole story.

When I meet someone new, I grapple with how to phrase my background and my interest. Do I identify myself as vegan? Do I open with vegetarian and segue into vegan if the person isn’t horrified by the thought of vegetarianism? Do I say I consume a plant-based diet? Do I even describe it as a diet or instead as a lifestyle? Do I say nothing at all?

I don’t want to alienate omnivores. After all, I was one for the first 21 years of my life. I understand the challenge it is to even think about veganism let alone give it a try. But I also have an obligation to be honest with myself and my friends and colleagues.

Levi-Strauss saves the day as usual (Photo http://pdxretro.com)

A gentleman by the name of Claude Lévi-Strauss had this idea of signifier vs. signified. Initially it might sound abstruse but once you give it some thought it’s easy to grasp. Basically, he says that physical objects or processes are more fluid than the words we use to describe them can articulate.  The variety of labels we attach to these objects or processes can never precisely explain how dynamic these entities actually are. Make sense? If not, let it simmer like a nice red lentil dal or kidney bean stew.

Basically, the point is: it doesn’t matter. A label is a label. No label can ever fully explain what it seeks to explain. There are lots of ways to describe the path I’ve chosen and none of the variations take away from the inherent value of that path. This hopefully should take the pressure off. Don’t lose sleep over finding the perfect phrase for the path because the perfect phrase doesn’t exist. It cannot exist.

Whether you want to call it veganism, dairy-free/egg-free vegetarianism, a plant-based diet etc, it’s awesome: enough said.

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