The tenuous foothold of vegetarianism in culture can largely be attributed to the powerful social stigma attached to it. People often refer to the vegetarian diet as “rabbit food” or simply perceive the diet as consisting of bland meals populated with tasteless hunks of tofu. Unfortunately, vegetarians also catch stigma-by-proxy when they get called “damn hippies.” The question is, will vegetarianism ever lose this stigma and find mainstream acceptance the way other health-conscious trends seem to do every week?
The good news is that this does appear inevitable. The trend toward greater environmental consciousness helps in this cause. Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, painted a horrifying picture of the ecological and biological costs of industrial meat farming, ranging from pollution to the deteriorating health of the animals involved. As people become less accepting of the toll human industrial actions take on the environment, including industrial meat farming, the more acceptable vegetarianism will become.
The diffusion of information about industrial farming’s treatment of animals into the cultural consciousness also fortifies the acceptance of vegetarianism as an acceptable life choice. Much of the popularity of meat stems from a lack of knowledge about the conditions that industrial farm animals experience. This general, though not malicious, ignorance allows people to bypass the ethical concerns that drive so many people to adopt the vegetarian lifestyle. It also makes them more susceptible to associated health risks of eating meat from industrial farming.
When offered the information, it changes the dynamic not only of people’s own food considerations, but their thinking about vegetarians. What might have once looked like a silly decision to cut against the essential human tendency to carnivory starts looking like a very rational response to an unsustainable, unethical approach to meat production. Vegetarians start looking like they’ve been ahead of the curve all along, which they always were.
There is also a growing trend among grocery stores to stock a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as more organically-grown vegetables. While these organic products don’t even come close to achieving price parity with non-organic vegetables, simple access marks a dramatic change and larger acceptance of vegetarianism.
Of course environmental concern, information and access only go so far. Meat is woven through our cultural experience and expectations. One of the most quintessential American experiences is the backyard barbeque with friends and family. People hang out and eat burgers while they catch up. High-end streaks are shown as a delicacy on television and characters eat them with extraordinary relish. In essence, people are trained to associate meat with luxury and affluence.
Fortunately, the media has begun showing vegetarianism in a better light, and some cultural icons have come out in favor of vegetarianism. President Bill Clinton, once an avid meat eater, has adopted a vegetarian diet and extols its virtues. Oprah, arguably still one of the most powerful voices in the culture, has also done her part to highlight and improve the public perception of vegetarianism. As more high profile figures show their support, it brings vegetarianism into the mainstream view. Vegetarianism is not doomed to languish as a permanent subculture. As cultural attitudes about the environment shift, information about industrial meat farming reaches more people, and high visibility figures adopt the lifestyle, vegetarianism will achieve mainstream acceptance.