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When Labels Can be Helpful

Posted Jan 03 2010 2:44pm

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A few months ago, I interviewed Sarma Melngailis, the gorgeous and glowing owner of New York City’s Pure Food and Wine. When I asked my readers what their favorite part of the interview was, an almost unanimous answer emerged. Over 95% of my readers aid that their favorite part of Sarma’s interview was her statement that she dislikes to use labels like “vegan” or “raw foodist;” though she sticks to a high raw and vegan diet nearly all the time, Sarma noted that she might occasionally try a piece of fish in a famous and celebrated Japanese restaurant, or eat canned (cooked) chickpeas with macadamia nut oil (YUM!) when she’s got a taste for cooked foods.

I wasn’t surprised at my readers’ enthusiastic response to Sarma’s eschewing of labels and of dogma. If one thing has become overwhelmingly clear to me over the course of writing this blog, it’s that almost all of my readers feel that labels are not only limiting and misleading, but downright harmful, prompting feelings of guilt and inadequacy or triggering disordered eating.

For the most part, I agree. Labels are, if nothing else, hopelessly limited. Whether political, racial, cultural, or dietary, they simply fail to capture the variety and complexity of human identity in an adequately nuanced fashion. Let’s take that most obvious of examples: race. To call me “white” is both true (I am more Caucasian than I am East Asian, or Oceanian, or African), and also sort of misleading, since my knowledge of my own ancestry is fuzzy (I know that most of my fathers’ family has been in the United States for a very long time, but who his ancestors coupled with and married is beyond me; certainly it’s possible that there were individuals of non-white racial provenance in the mix). This is not only true of me, but of most of us; most of us don’t have extensive and exact genealogical data about our distant ancestors.

I’m also half-Greek. While Greeks are technically classified as part of the Caucasoid race, they don’t tend to look as “white” as our popular image of “whiteness” would suggest. So when people meet me, they often ask me right away “where I’m from” or “what I am” (this happened more when I was younger, and my hair was curlier). In other words, they suspect right away that I’m not entirely WASPy; they usually assume that I might be part Hispanic, Italian, or Greek; I’ve been asked, too, if I were half-black. Once again, the “white” label (which is conflated with the “Caucasian” label) is accurate, but slightly inadequate, at least insofar as popular perceptions of “whiteness” go.

But I digress. The point of this post is not to analyze the unbelievably complex topic of race, and the words we select to talk about it. It’s to point out that labels don’t usually capture accurately the things they’re meant to describe. And so it goes with dietary labels. I say I’m a high-raw vegan, and this is true: I’m a vegan who eats most all raw food. I also say I’m a raw foodist, and this is a little trickier: I say it because it pretty accurately captures my lifestyle, and because I believe that most people, if they were to spend a day or a week in my company, would probably consider me as such. But of course, it’s also sort of untrue, since I make no great secret of the fact that cooked vegan foods are a part of my diet, too.

So it’s no wonder that people cringe around labels. I don’t believe that there’s a single label – food related or not – that can speak to the complexity of the person behind it. And since labels tend to force us to simplify who we are, they also tend to make us uncomfortable, or to make us feel as though we need to adhere to a set of criteria that may or may not be entirely appropriate for our mental and physical well being.

But today, I want to talk about another side of labels: the upside. Believe it or not, labels can have their usefulness. At the very least, they can provide the people who employ them with a sense of clarity or confidence about the choices and positions they’ve chosen to support. And in this regard, they’re not entirely without usefulness.

Take my friend Mary. A year or so ago, Mary and her Mom transitioned into the vegan lifestyle for health reasons. It was quite a dramatic shift, as she and her mother had previously eaten standard American diets. Over the course of her transition, Mary found that using the word vegan, rather than making her feel anxious or guilty, actually helped her to embrace and embody her new set of choices. When an acquaintance said to Mary that she didn’t believe in labels, Mary acknowledged that while labels can be very problematic, she had found that using the vegan label had helped her and her mom to define and explain their new lifestyle to family and friends. It wasn’t always easy for them to explain the many reasons why they were not in a position to eat animal products anymore, but it was easy enough for them to say “we’re vegans,” and be done with it; declaring their veganism helped Mary and her Mom to avoid long explanations of the events that had preceded their new lifestyle.

I can’t say I disagree. When I’m out at a business lunch, and my lunch date asks me why I’m “just getting a salad,” or some such, it’s often easiest to say, “I’m a vegan.” To say, “well, I’m a vegan who eats mostly raw, with an emphasis on proper food combining and optimal digestive health, rather than strictly raw foods, and I eat this way because of my history with irritable bowel syndrome, and because I believe in it, and because I’ve come to feel that it’s the most ethical choice for humans, animals, and the planet alike,” is kind of a mouthful. My lunch date probably doesn’t care why I’m a vegan anyway, or whether or not I’m also raw; he or she just thinks it’s curious that I don’t center my meal around an animal protein. Saying that I’m vegan, plain and simple, answers the question. If I’m dining with someone who’s a little more curious—a date, say, or a new friend—I’ll also usually explain that I’m a raw foodist, in addition to a vegan. I always preface this by saying that most raw foodists believe that the term means someone who eats mostly raw, and not all raw, and that I still eat some cooked foods. It’s more of a mouthful, but it’s still a helpful way to explain my lifestyle. And I believe that it’s accurate.

Of course, these terms don’t begin to convey the full scope of why I don’t eat animal products and why I eat mostly raw foods; they can’t begin to capture the long genesis of how I stumbled on this lifestyle and why; what psychological and physical conditions brought me to veganism, or how veganism and raw foods have changed my life for the better. But they do summarize things simply, and they’re useful to me.

They’re also words I utter with pride! I know as well as anyone that labels aren’t usually adequate, but I also know that they describe choices I’ve made, stuck to, and relished. I’m proud to be a vegan—it’s something I’m very passionate about. If I weren’t, this site and my counseling business wouldn’t exist! It makes me proud to say that I’m a vegan, just as it makes me proud to say that I eat mostly raw.

For a long time, I was a vegan who didn’t yet say she was a vegan. This was for a few reasons. The first was that I wasn’t yet sure veganism was something that I would want to do forever, and I wouldn’t say it unless I meant it. Moreover, I was touchy about what the word implied: when I heard it uttered by other people, I envisioned dreadlocks and Birkenstocks. This was my fault, of course, not the fault of the word; over time, I came to realize that a) dreads and Birks can be cool, and b) so what if that’s what “vegan” signifies to most people? It signifies a whole lot more to me, and I’m the one saying it.

Here’s another example: last night, I dined with a new friend at Pure Food and Wine. As he ordered, I expressed thanks at his trying out a vegan joint with me. “Of course,” he said. “I’m an omnivore!” Often, we associate the word omnivore with eating meat, because we place it in opposition to words like “vegetarian” or “pescatarian.” But in this case, my friend meant to say that he’s more than open to veggies, veggies, and more veggies, because he’s open minded about all things culinary. And it’s a word he uses with pride!

In other words, labels aren’t always categorically pernicious. They’re often turned into dirty words because we load them up with stereotypes. But in essence, they’re simply terms we use to describe a set of facts—what you do and do not eat, what you do and do not believe, etc. For a long time, I also was shy to call myself a feminist, conflating the word (very wrongly, I believe) with a certain radical image. These days, I’m proud to say that I’m a feminist. Last time I checked, the meaning of the word was a person who believes in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, or who supports organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. And that’s definitely me. If someone wants to conflate the word with images or stereotypes, so be it: it’s his or her problem, not mine.

There are other labels that I don’t like to use, because I’m much less comfortable with them. I have a hard time declaring myself a Democrat or a liberal, for instance, because although I usually hew to Democratic party lines when I vote, and align myself ideologically with liberal values, I’m sometimes conflicted about my own political positions, and I also don’t feel educated enough in politics to wear labels with comfort. Ditto for saying that I’m Episcopalian: I am, in the sense that I attend an Episcopalian church a few times a year, and basically worship as an Anglican. But my religious views are rather hazily formed and gentle, and while it’s probably fair to say that I’m a Christian, it’s not fair to say that I’m doctrinaire in the slightest about my Anglicanism.

While I love to work out, I’d never call myself an athlete. Others might argue that, because I’m physically active, I am an athlete. But to me, being an athlete implies more challenges, motivation, and competition than I bring to my lil’ old workout routine. So even if others would say that I am one, it’s not a word I’d use: I don’t think I am, and that’s what matters!

I’ve learned, over time, that there are certain things I’m comfortable to call myself, and others that I’m not. And guess what? Those things might change! In thirty years I might be Buddhist, or a vegan who’s not mostly raw, or even a Republican. (I don’t expect the latter two will happen, but life is long, and unpredictable, and who knows.) If such a moment should come to pass, I’ll of course be using different words to describe who I am. And that’s OK. It’s wrong to think that labels need to be permanent: they don’t! They can be fluid—just as fluid as the human experience they describe.

Don’t get me wrong, readers: as I said at the start of this post, I see all of the reasons why labels are deficient or tricky. But in spite of the fact that I’m a person of strong opinions, I do like to see both sides of the coin, and I think it’s only fair to examine how labels can be helpful, just as much as they can be harmful. They can frustrate or confuse or divide us, yes, but they can also help us to clarify choices, and they can help us to express pride in those choices. So much of their value depends not on the terms themselves, but on how carefully and conscientiously we employ them.

With that, I’ll leave this post with a few labels I feel comfortable and proud to wear.

•    New Yorker
•    American
•    Vegan
•    Editor
•    High Raw Foodist
•    Christian
•    Feminist
•    Nutritionist
•    Urbanite
•    Aspiring yogi
•    Student (yes guys, being an editor means being a perpetual student! To say nothing of the fact that we’re all students of life)

Obviously, I could go on. We could all go on!

In the end, words are never enough to capture the variety and complexity of life. If I’ve learned anything from reading and editing, it’s that. But they have value, too; they’re the tools we use to describe who we are. And if we use them well—all the while acknowledging their inherent limitations—they can help us talk about who we are and what we do.

What about you guys? Are there any labels you feel comfy using? Tell me! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Switching topics quickly, I wanted to share some fun news: I’m in VegNews!

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If you check out pages fifty-six and fifty-seven, you’ll see my feature on raw “steak and potatoes”—that is, marinated Portobello mushroom caps with raw cauliflower mashed potatoes!

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I’ll be reposting the recipe soon, but I really urge you all to support the very awesome VegNews magazine by checking the article out yourself!

Alright. I’m off to frantically prepare for work tomorrow. Having a week off has been lovely and indulgent in every way, but I’m paying the price in back-to-work catch up! Happy Sunday.

xo

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