By KATHIE JIANG
I’m about to describe a strange chapter of my life: when I was 12 years old with Internet access and a strong sense of righteousness, I chose to abruptly adopt a vegetarian diet. I was raised on an omnivorous diet of Chinese cooking from my first-generation immigrant parents and American restaurant food my whole life up until my introduction to the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals–commonly known as PETA–through a Facebook advertisement or an earnest Google search on the subject of animal rights. This is when I fell headfirst into a rabbit hole of the highly controversial animal rights activist organization, complete with sensationalizing articles, controversy-stirring media campaigns, and one-click-to-sign petitions, without the preparation or education necessary to advocate and organize around the polemical issue of animal rights. This is by no means discouraging anyone from advocating for animal rights, leading a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle, or even supporting PETA. This is just my story of becoming a PETA supporter and vegetarian for the wrong reasons seven years ago.
Founded in 1980 by animal rights activist Ingrid Newkirk, PETA claims to be the largest animal rights organization in the world with an alleged six million followers. The organization is notorious for its high-profile media stunts, often involving images of scantily-clad female celebrities and controversial slogans. These campaigns focus on several main areas of animal abuse in the meat industry, clothing, scientific experiments, entertainment, and the pet trade. The idea that a seemingly accredited, global organization was actively advocating, fighting, investigating this widespread injustice towards animals around the world was eye-opening and completely convinced my 12-year-old self, who voraciously read articles with clickbait titles like “Dolce & Gabbana Exposed: Investigation Reveals Rabbits Are Tortured for Specialty Fur” or “Kentucky Fried Chicken Sells Death by the Bucket—Here’s What You Can Do,” each article linking to a PETA petition. Graphic photos of factory farms, skinned animals at fur farms, and animals abused in circuses horrified me, charging me with a burning desire to do something. If you were friends with me on Google Buzz (please tell me I wasn’t the only one to have a Google Buzz account in 2011), then you know I was sharing petitions requesting designer brands to ban fur products or infographics about widespread animal abuse in factory farms every day.
It was PETA’s countless flyers about “How to Start a Vegetarian Diet” that convinced me to go against everything my parents taught me about food. I sat down at dinner one day and told my parents, “I’m not going to eat meat from now on!!” My mom was livid. She was apprehensive that a vegetarian diet would not be sufficient for my growth as an adolescent. Yet, I somehow convinced her to purchase and cook more tofu, mushrooms, and eggs—which she was familiar with—and also substances completely foreign to her from the vegetarian/vegan section of Safeway: “What’s tempeh?” “Tofurkey?” “Are you just going to eat hummus for lunch?” When my grandmother and aunt visited, they tried in vain to instill some sense into me: “If this is something your friends at school put you onto, listen to reason… your health is most important… in the labor unit, the mothers that have the most trouble are vegetarians…” And there was room for concern: I was going to sleep slightly hungry, and I noticed my wrists and calves getting bonier throughout the weeks.
I had jumped onto the vegetarian bandwagon with some but by no means comprehensive knowledge of eating and cooking nutritious vegetarian meals. Although my family and I were conducting thorough research into recipes and plant-based nutrition to accommodate my new diet, we simply lacked enough awareness around vegetarian food that could supply enough nutrients and protein for a growing adolescent at that time.
The psychological and moral effects of PETA were also pronounced in my pre-teen self: I printed PETA’s posters with catchy slogans such as, “If you wouldn’t eat your dog, why would you eat a pig?” pasted onto a pink piglet in a sunlit grassy field, or “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” strategically printed over a naked A-list celebrity in my binder to middle school. This was before I had encountered feminism, and PETA’s justifications for these ads—to problematize the distinction between animals and humans by substituting women for animals, which I now find comprehensively misogynistic, objectifying, and dehumanizing—led me to take on a “by any means necessary” attitude towards animal rights. I had never read a philosophy book, but I checked out Animal Rights by Peter Singer from the library and was stunned by his arguments about comparing human rights to animal rights. I believed these arguments from an acclaimed philosopher would help me defend my dietary and moral choices.
This went on for a year and a half, following me from middle school to my freshman year of high school. I was a swimmer starting in 5th grade, and I continued to swim even when I was a Bad Vegetarian™. But as tryouts for the high school swim team approached in 9th grade, my mother offered me an ultimatum: either eat meat to swim on the varsity team, or don’t try out for the team at all. Knowing that my parents wanted the best for me and that I was most likely just getting by on my protein sources—tofu, mushrooms, eggs, hummus, tofurkey—rather than effectively building the muscles I needed for serious competitive swimming, I caved in. PETA, after all, was not providing the adequate nutritional advice, only introducing me to radical ideas about animal welfare, which I adopted, thinking it was as easy as a fashion trend. As I reintroduced pork, beef, fish, chicken, and other meats into my diet each meal, I was rebuilding my muscle mass to be able to hit the pool several hours each day and compete once a week on my high school varsity team, swimming more intensively than I had ever done before.
As I got busier with high school (or maybe it was my budding addiction to Tumblr), I gradually stopped visiting the PETA website and my interests moved on from animal rights. Today I can look back on this wacky episode that punctuated my entry to adolescence and laugh. I know seven years later I am far more educated on eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, as well as the many ethical flaws and contradictions in the organization of PETA itself. Why had I not questioned PETA’s sexually objectifying ads of scantily-clad women? PETA translates animal rights activism into a digestible, participatory format with its online presence, but this very format can be a double-edged sword: it gathers many followers across the internet, but it may not prepare them with the adequate knowledge to tackle this widespread, highly controversial issue. This is explicitly obvious to me now, but my 12-year-old self failed to see that PETA, with its shallow treatment of the arguments for animal welfare and how to start a vegetarian/vegan diet, is only a starting point for animal rights. It is a platform whose media should be examined thoroughly and critically. Whenever I open this Pandora’s Box of memories from my pre-teen and teenage years, I wonder how much it impacted the development of my morality or perhaps my attitudes toward social justice and political issues. It has certainly cultivated in me a skepticism when it comes to large nonprofits that enjoy basking in mainstream media’s limelight.
Incidentally, as a young adult and college student at Cornell, where access to plant-based proteins and accurate knowledge about vegetarian/vegan diets and animal welfare is abundant, I’ve been consuming less meat than any point of my post-PETA years for health and environmental reasons. Although I haven’t fully phased out meat or animal products from my diet, as I haven’t had the time or resources to build a completely plant-based diet (even though I keep that possibility open for my future), I live my days with the small satisfaction that I can still incorporate ideas about sustainable consumption and ethics into my life choices. I know that in order to fully adhere to those moral values, I still have a long way to go. For some, this may seem like I’m taking a middle road that’s insufficient to address the problem of the unsustainability and immorality of the meat industry. Yet, I know that the path to a comprehensive dietary change, for me at least, requires adequate time, resources, and understanding. That, perhaps, is the strongest lesson I’ve learned from that episode in my young adolescence, looking back at it seven years later.