My father has been a vegetarian since before I was born. Though he is very soft-spoken about his reasons, it was hard not to notice that my parents ate different dinners every night. At the age of 8, I decided I agreed with my father. I felt that animals have a basic right to life. I had no excuse for killing or hurting another creature when my life did not depend on it.
But while I was forming these ideas and calling myself a vegetarian, my actions didn’t exactly follow suit. In truth, I began the process of becoming a vegetarian at the age of 8, but I did not give up all meat overnight.
I ate turkey on Thanksgiving and an occasional smoked turkey breast sandwich. I ate my mom’s homemade chicken soup on Jewish holidays and gefilte fish on Passover. Now and then I ate a strip of bacon. Whenever I was in New York City, I couldn’t help but have a hot dog from a stand. And I loved KFC original recipe chicken. (This is most embarrassing now, given the fast food chain’s particularly bad record on chicken cruelty.)
But then one day I ordered a turkey club sandwich for lunch — and threw it out. I stared at the sandwich for minutes, trying to take a bite, but I couldn’t stop thinking that the meat used to be a living animal. Finally, I just gave up. As soon as I threw the sandwich away, I felt guilty. That turkey had died for nothing. It had died in order to be thrown in a garbage can. I knew I couldn’t forgive myself if I did that again. I had to live in accordance with my values, I had to practice what I preached, and I absolutely would not allow my actions to promote the torture and murder of animals just so I could suddenly grow a conscience and throw the meat away rather than eating it. At the age of 12, I finally became a true vegetarian.
That was that — for the next six years. But then in the fall of 2007 I saw the animal rights documentary “Earthlings.” I realized for the first time the cruelty inherent in the dairy and egg industries. All of a sudden, I was a hypocrite again. My dietary choices were promoting the de-beaking of egg-laying hens; the rape of dairy cows to induce milk production; the subsequent murder of male calves born to dairy cows to make veal; and the premature deaths of dairy cows (due to the strenuous life of constant milking), which are then ground up into hamburger meat.
I knew then that I should be vegan. But how could I give up cheese? Aside from chocolate, this had always been my favorite food. And would I be able to get enough protein? While I liked tofu, I seldom ate it, and I hated soy milk. For the next two years I alternated between feeling guilty about my egg and dairy consumption and conveniently forgetting the consequences of my actions. But, this October, a vegan asked me why I wasn’t vegan. I couldn’t hide anymore from him or myself. I knew I could no longer deal with the guilt. The next morning I had fruit and soy milk for breakfast. I had trouble swallowing the soy milk, I detested the taste so much, but I felt guilt-free and infinitely happier.
I have now been vegan for two months. Within four days of that first breakfast, I was gulping down the soy milk and felt disgusted at the thought of cow’s milk, which I once loved. My eyes learned to skip over the eggs at breakfast and the cheese at lunch or dinner. I now feel both psychologically and physically healthier. And I no longer feel like I am depriving myself of good foods. My tastes have changed.
I offer my story not to convert those who fundamentally disagree with my premise, nor to condescend to those who agree with me but have yet to renounce meat or dairy. Rather, my story is testament to how hard becoming vegetarian or vegan can be and how long it can take — 12 years in my case. To those who support animal welfare, I encourage you to take whatever steps toward veganism you can, if you find it too hard to go “cold turkey.” Others may be considering going vegetarian or vegan because of the increasing evidence that the meat industry contributes significantly to climate change or because diets high in meat are unhealthy. Whatever your motive, every step helps. You don’t have to give up all animal products at once to make a difference. And ultimately, if the other option is giving up, it’s worth taking baby steps to achieve a goal you believe in.
Miriam Geronimus is a sophomore from Ann Arbor, Mich. She can be reached at email@example.com.