By Shelley Sullivan
Content Warning: Weight-loss, Diet Culture
Veganism has always had a branding problem.
I remember the disdain in the voice of my best friend’s older sister as she pointed out that the diet book I was reading was meant to trick the reader into adopting a plant-based diet.
“Do you want me to ruin it for you?” she asked, seeing that I was a third of my way through. “You won’t want to read it anymore.”
I didn’t care. We were in middle school and I just wanted to Be Skinny.
“The authors want you to go vee-gan.” Her face crumpled in disgust. “Not even like, vegetarian.”
Disappointed, I finished reading the book with a tainted perspective. I adopted a fun new personality trait that included internally rolling my eyes at tofu, scoffing at PETA demonstrations, and accusing my vegetarian friends of being protein deficient.
This was the first of my few experiences with veganism before I “became vegan” in college [“Becoming vegan” is not ideal verbiage as no one actually “becomes” vegan; rather, a conscious decision is made to live in a way which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to animals.] Unfortunately, I only accepted the values of veganism once they were presented to me through the aesthetic of the boho-chic Instagram influencer (remember Essena O’Neill anybody?). These tan, toned, effortlessly cool-girls repackaged veganism and sold it behind a you-can-look-like-me-if-you-eat-smoothies-out-of-coconuts facade. As an insecure teen with body image issues, I was an overnight convert and my perception of vegans became a vision of flawless, acne-less, cholesterol-less, butthole-less twenty-somethings picking fruit in the Thai jungle.
It has been fascinating to watch the vegan narrative evolve with the rise of social media. In my early vegan days, I closely followed the Vegan YouTube scene and witnessed several seasons of veganism. There was a very cult-y phase where vegans followed charismatic leaders like Freelee the Banana Girl and Durianrider to a summer fruit festival in Thailand. I know it already sounds like Midsommar but I’m not making this up, I swear. For years, everything Freelee and Durianrider did was gospel, and the face of veganism was two virtue-signaling, raw-food endurance cyclists. Eventually Freelee and Durianrider started eating cooked foods, and their spell started to break. They had built their entire brand on eating raw, and now they were backtracking. The pilgrimages to Thailand ended, but the season that followed encouraged the mass spread of plant-based information.
Plant-based influencers broke away from the unsustainable raw-food cyclist cult and flourished. Documentaries that promoted plant-based living for animal rights, the environment, and / or health became available on mainstream streaming services, and a plethora of athletes and celebrities touted the benefits of a vegan diet, setting the stage for a receptive audience.
Meanwhile, many of the influencers who attended the aforementioned annual fruit festivals had utilized the exposure to gain sizable followings. Primarily based in the US and Australia, cliques formed and churned out an abundance of vegan content. Some creators focused on selling eBooks and retreats; others focused on tuning their activism techniques, finding their voice, and in some cases, radicalizing.
Some vegan influencers began differentiating themselves by the type of plant-based diet that they advocated for, down to the macronutrients. A girl in a crop top on YouTube tells me to download an app so that I don’t eat more than 10% of calories from fat. A video by another fellow vegan suggests that maybe the reason I am overweight is because I’m eating cooked food before 4 PM. I stumble on anti-vax rhetoric and grow tired of the endless eBook plugs. It is evident that the people behind these platforms are no longer about the animals, environment, human rights, health, or veganism anymore, and maybe they never were. Regardless, if there was any cohesive vegan community at that point, it was surely in turmoil. First came a trickle of I’m No Longer Vegan Anymore videos, then all at once a flood of them straight to the YouTube Trending page.
I most likely would never have been interested in veganism if it hadn’t been marketed to me under the guise of self-improvement. I was woo-ed by the white saviors, their word salad Instagram captions and New Age spirituality. These influencers-who-must-not-be-named have millions of collective followers and too often they take unfair advantage of those parasocial relationships so that they can live a life of perpetual vacation.
Now we are watching the branding problem iron itself out in real time as we put in the work. Though non-vegans still tend to have a negative perception of veganism, and influencers continue to exploit veganism for their own personal gain, Google search trends and an increase in plant-based food offerings in the Western world indicate that veganism is spilling more and more into mainstream cultural awareness. Granted, meat consumption is also on the rise. However, this amplifies the need for veganism to edge away from its sloppy marketing strategy and even further away from its proximity to conspirituality. Let’s remain aware of our power and ability to deplatform those who hijack veganism for personal gain, and let’s come up with a new branding strategy while we’re at it.
I’m vegan by the way.
You can follow Shelley on Instagram @earthyshelley!