A couple of months ago, I was among several dietitians who voiced concern to PCRM about their Your Abs on Cheese campaign. Based on the thoughtful feedback I received, I felt confident that this body shaming approach to vegan advocacy wouldn’t continue. So when I saw the group’s latest media effort targeting obesity, I was stunned to say the least.

The “tongue-in-cheek” commercial suggests that airline passengers should be allowed to pay $10 to sit next to a “trim and fit” vegan.  For those who don’t opt for this perk, there is the risk of “getting squeezed by a more ample neighbor.”

I have a great deal of admiration for PCRM’s advocacy on behalf of animals. I also have reason to be personally grateful to them. They gave me my first job in vegan nutrition back in 1992, which was a big turning point in my career. During the years I worked for them, I was also exposed to a new-to-me animal rights culture that had a profound and life-changing impact on me.  And for the past 10 years or so, they’ve generously allowed me to be on their advisory board. But this weekend, after thinking a lot about these two obesity campaigns, I resigned from the board. It was certainly no skin off their nose, but for me, it was a hard decision.

Body shaming is nothing new to the vegan community, of course. But, there are two things about this particular commercial that make it different and especially sad to me. First, this ad goes well beyond health and even appearance considerations by suggesting that overweight people are an unpleasant annoyance and that others should be willing to pay money to avoid them. It elevates body shaming to an entirely new level.

Second, this doesn’t come from PETA, it comes from a group of doctors and dietitians. I think that was the thing that truly knocked the wind out of me when I saw it. Because in my 30 years as a dietitian, it would never have occurred to me—absolutely not ever—that it was okay to make someone feel ashamed of their body. Health professionals don’t do that. It’s unprofessional, unkind, and completely ineffective. People who struggle with their weight are often already ashamed and sad about their bodies. Nobody needs those feelings reinforced.

The point of these PCRM media pieces is to establish some type of positive association between “vegan” and “thin/attractive.” But it’s awfully hard to imagine that happening with a message that provokes feelings of guilt and embarrassment.

In her response to the PCRM commercial,  VeggieMightee blogger Kasey Minnis noted that overweight people feel real angst about air travel. She says that one of the most commonly-asked questions in the popular Fatshionista community is “how will the airline treat me?” (Imagine feeling afraid that you’ll be humiliated every time you get on an airplane.)

These “skinny vegan” messages are simplistic and exaggerated, too; we all know very well that a vegan diet is not an automatic weight loss diet. This sets veganism up for failure since many people will indeed find out that going vegan doesn’t live up to a promise of weight loss.

But these messages don’t just alienate those people we want to reach with a vegan message, they also alienate overweight vegans. In a 2008 newsletter, physician John McDougall suggested that “fat vegans” aren’t good animal advocates because people are likely to be “so distracted by their appearance” that they won’t hear their message. The overall effect of this kind of callous judgment is to shame and silence vegans who end up believing they are poor role models. (In fact, people are actually more likely to be open to a message when it comes from someone who is like them—which suggests that vegan advocacy is well served by people of all sizes.)

A number of twitter and facebook comments suggested that the PCRM commercial was “funny” and people should “lighten up.” But laughing at and shaming people about their body isn’t lighthearted humor. It’s bullying. And when we advocate for animals, we’re supposed to stand against the bullies, not adopt their culture of unkindness, disrespect, and mean-spiritedness.

Unny Nambudiripad, who is the Executive Director of Compassionate Action for Animals—one of my favorite animal rights and vegan education groups—said this on his facebook page last week in response to the PCRM ad: “Let’s be sure to demonstrate a compassionate approach to helping animals by being respectful, understanding that veganism isn’t a cure-all for any health or weight issues, and by using good science to back up our claims. We can do this by leading the way.”

Let’s all of us who stand for kindness, compassion, and an ethic of justice lead the way. We need a community where everyone feels accepted and valued. And we need a world where people learn to recognize vegans by their super-sized hearts and unshakeable commitment to justice and integrity—not by what size jeans they wear.


Edited 4/3/12 to add: The following is a comment sent to me by PCRM’s president Dr. Neal Barnard, printed here with his permission.

From Dr. Barnard:

The question seems to be this: Everyone likes PCRM’s research studies, books, lobbying, litigation, Food for Life classes, online Kickstart program in North America, Europe, India, and China, etc., etc. So why would we want to post controversial advertisements? And are the ads fair?

The short answer is that Americans are still eating a million animals per hour, the population is in terrible shape, animal industries are taxing the environment, and these problems are rapidly spreading to other countries. Because not everyone reads medical journals, we present simple messages in other forms. Our past advertisements have hammered McDonalds, the dairy industry, hot dog manufacturers, etc., and we explore various ways to try to reach people.

The billboards that linked cheese to obesity were well received by the media, but did generate some upset responses from people who felt that, beyond linking cheese to obesity, we were making some sort of comment about obese people.

About the images: One was a large abdomen and the other was a large thigh. They depicted obesity exactly as it is and nothing more. However, some people called them “disgusting,” “ugly,” or even “pornographic,” reading all manner of values into these everyday images. The airplane ad used humor to present an everyday problem in an obviously ridiculous light, making the point that vegans are, on average, considerably slimmer than other people, an important medical fact.

So how should we view obesity? The answer, of course, is to view it as a disease risk factor, like high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol. When it occurs in children, it should be a particular cause for alarm.

A healthy plant-based diet is nearly always effective at preventing obesity, and helping people understand that is a major goal.

Losing weight is harder than preventing weight gain. So in dealing with obesity, a low-fat vegan diet should be the first step, and some people need to go further, dealing with an elevated appetite set point or addictive behavior, which can take many forms. But we are not doing anyone any favors by ignoring the foods that cause problem.

In the midst of all this, PCRM commissioned a survey on colon cancer. The context is that colon and rectal cancers are strongly linked to processed meats (eg, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, etc.), and health organizations have tried various ways of getting the word out, to no avail. Our survey showed that 39 percent of Americans did not know where their colon is, and 70 percent had no idea of what foods would increase the risk of colon cancer. So we erected billboards around the country with a cartoon image of a man holding a hot dog, with the text, “Hot dogs cause butt cancer” and the subtext, “Processed meats increase colorectal cancer risk.” The hope is that this blunt language will force parents and their hot-dog-eating adolescent children into a useful conversation that might ultimately stem the tide of a disease that attacks 140,000 Americans annually and is untreatable in about half the cases.

We assess each one of these campaigns for its effectiveness as we go along, welcome comments about them, and use that assessment to plot the smartest course ahead. It is vital not to lose sight of the problems we are trying to tackle and to be as creative as we can in trying to address them.