Recently PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) posted a billboard in Jacksonville, Florida which read, “Save the Whales, Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian.” PETA has come under fire for the use of homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynist messaging in their campaigns to protect animals. They have one-upped themselves this time with their blatant stigmatization of overweight and obese people.
PETA, the largest animal rights organization globally, “focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in laboratories, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry.” In this case they attempted to reduce animal suffering through the promotion of vegetarianism/veganism (AKA veg*nism) for health reasons, an understandable strategy.
As a self-identified “healthy vegan,” I am well aware of the health benefits of nutritious, plant-based food and advocate for healthy veg*nism on the basis of well-being and weight management. Veg*nism benefits the health of animals, people, and the earth. PETA claims to be the leading organization focusing on the first, but is furthering one cause worth hindering another? How does preventing or ending cruelty to animals translate into adding to cruelty to humans through stigmatization of overweight and obese people? I don’t expect PETA to actively work to prevent or reverse weight stigma, but I find it appalling that they have become a part of the problem.
I expect a group such as veg*ns, like those at PETA, who experience so much stigma to understand the challenges of other marginalized groups and not play a part in the intersectionality of oppression, while hurting the cause they are attempting to advance. Oppressing people, including the obese, is never justifiable. The consequences of weight stigma are severe. Stigmatization is an ineffective weight-loss strategy, threatens physical and emotional health, and contributes to overeating/unhealthy eating.
After much criticism, PETA begrudgingly replaced the billboard with one reading, “Gone: Just like all the pounds lost by people who go vegetarian.” Instead of acknowledging the damage the billboard caused, PETA President and Co-Founder Ingrid Newkirk attempted to defend their decision to post the billboard. Her “defense” dug their grave deeper: “Only three percent of the population has a medical condition that genuinely prevents them from losing weight. The rest of the obese people hiding behind them are obese because they shovel in food and haven't a clue (or don't want to have a clue) about a healthy diet.”
If PETA is actually concerned about obesity (which I doubt), I recommend that they spend their time on effective, non-stigmatizing macro- or micro-level obesity prevention that advocates for a veg*n diet. Acknowledge that obesity is not solely a matter of personal responsibility and change the food landscape by getting schools, grocery stores, work places, and health care settings to include more healthy vegan options. Continue outreach and education, but change the method and the message. Stop bullying people into veg*nism. Put away the vinegar and attract many more people to veg*nism with honey (or a vegan sweetener like agave nectar).