When I was nine, I strode into my parents’ bedroom and declared that I had decided to stop eating meat. My mom, a vegetarian for 25 years, looked up from her nonfiction book, gave me a bemused smile, and said, “Okay, honey.” She went back to her book. “Whatever you want.” Years later she told me that she hadn’t taken my declaration seriously at the time, expecting it to be a phase that would last less than two weeks. Part of me was offended that she doubted my will power and dedication, but a larger part of me knew that I wouldn’t believe a fourth-grader’s proclamation of such a huge lifestyle change either.
I’ve continued to be a vegetarian for dozens of ethical, environmental, and health reasons, but I can’t remember what specifically caused me to become one when I did. I’ve always been an animal-lover, growing up with at least five pets in my house at any given time, and I’ve always been squeamish about blood to the point of throwing up or fainting at the sight, so I was never a big fan of meat to begin with. And though my mom never directly encouraged me to abstain from meat, her vegetarianism made me aware that an alternative existed. Essentially, since I knew what it was from a young age, vegetarianism was easier for me to adopt. My initial decision to be vegetarian was likely rooted in a combination of these factors.
The following Monday, I was eating lunch in the school cafeteria when my best friend asked why I didn’t have my usual Slim-Jim in my lunch box. I replied loudly and proudly that I now was a vegetarian, so I wouldn’t be eating beef jerky anymore. A couple of class clowns named Greg and Max overheard and were clearly baffled by the thought of anyone intentionally cutting meat out of their diet. Greg was an obnoxious, overweight kid whose face I imagined plastered on the punching bag at my weekly karate lessons. Max was a skinny, short troublemaker who constantly took advantage of our sweet teacher, which made me hate him.
Their eyes brightened as they simultaneously realized how easily they could taunt me. The teasing began predictably, by waving chicken nuggets in my face, but I refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing me recoil in horror, so I stared at them stone-faced. Recognizing that I wasn’t going to give them what they wanted, the duo focused their efforts on trying to make me jealous by shoving fistfuls of nuggets into their mouths and exclaiming how tasty they were. I turned away in disgust, and by now my other classmates had noticed what was going on. They were curious about what being a vegetarian meant.
In the nine years since, the ways non-vegetarians react when they discover my vegetarianism have remained incredibly consistent (save for a few like Greg and Max). They invariably offer slightly altered versions of the same handful of questions, comments, and arguments of those fourth-graders. My responses have remained relatively identical.
• “Oh, are you, like, one of those PETA hippies?”
I support the rights of animals and respect the environment, if that’s what you’re asking.
• “Is it for a diet? But you’re already skinny!”
No, it’s not. I have a healthy body weight that vegetarianism helps me maintain. (Interestingly, no one has ever asked if I was a vegetarian for religious reasons.)
• “Do you eat fish?”
No. Fish = animals. Therefore, I don’t eat fish.
• “Oh my god, I could NEVER do that! It seems so hard!”
I had the willpower at age nine. If a nine-year-old can do it, you can too.
• “Would you eat meat if you were stranded on a desert island and had nothing else?”
In this hypothetical situation, I assume I’d have to kill the animal myself, so no, I would not, since I’m extremely squeamish. And even if I didn’t have to kill it, after nine years, my stomach has grown acutely intolerant of meat, so I’d probably vomit if I ate it anyway.
• “What do you eat?”
Food. I eat food.
• “Where do you get your protein?”
Foods that aren’t meat.
• And lastly, my favorite: “But … bacon!”
It’d be impossible to count the number of times someone has offered me simply the word “bacon” as an argument against vegetarianism. Usually the point the person is attempting to make is that meat just tastes too good to give up. People also use this to justify to me, often sheepishly, why they cannot be vegetarians themselves.
One of the most compelling arguments not to eat meat is the same as why you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes: health-wise, there is little or nothing to gain and a slew of things to lose. Arguably, the only benefits of eating meat are taste and easy access to certain nutrients, while the only benefits of smoking cigarettes are anxiety relief and weight loss (which isn’t always a good thing). The drawbacks of eating meat and smoking are much more numerous and far more important in comparison.
With smoking, there are almost no organs that aren’t affected negatively, and you significantly increase your chances of getting lung cancer, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. By eating meat, you increase your chances of obesity, certain cancers, and Type 2 diabetes. Both meat and cigarettes decrease overall life expectancy and increase the risk of stroke as well as coronary heart disease – the number one cause of death in the United States for both women and men.
The things you put into your body help determine how well it will function. The reason the choice to be vegetarian is so clear and easy for me is that even an exceedingly simple cost-benefit analysis shows that not eating meat, just like not smoking, is the logical, healthful thing to do. Keeping this in mind, even bacon can’t tempt me.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.