What’s in a name?

29 years of being A Vegetarian and I have never felt especially aligned with the title. Not that I mind that word or anything (I’m just me, I don’t care what it’s called). But I’ve learned a lot about the assumptions and judgements that come with a label.

Ooh baby, I was born this way

I came out as a vegetarian when I was 17, but in reality I suppose I had always been that way inclined.

When I was pre-school age, I would tag along with my mum to do the weekly food shop. We would always go to the supermarket to do the main shop and then we’d go to the butcher’s afterwards to get the meat.

I can still remember the smell of the butcher’s shop, the sawdust on the floor and the sight of the carcasses hanging on giant hooks. The whole thing was deeply unsettling for me. It didn’t bother my mum, and it didn’t seem to bother anyone else going in and out the shop, but I just couldn’t bear it. At some point we came to an agreement whereby I would wait outside the butcher’s every week while my mum went in.

For me it was just more pleasant being on the outside of it.

I wasn’t offended by the shop, I wasn’t angry, I didn’t want to stop other people going in.

I was simply happier being outside, so I chose not to go in.

Why do we need a name for it?

There are a whole range of people who are vegetarian, with a whole range of different beliefs and ideals. And that’s natural, it’s like everything else in life.

For me, I’ve never felt particularly passionate about being veggie – I’m not on a mission, it’s just something I choose to do on my own terms. I’ve gone through phases of eating fish or not, dairy or not, fully plant-based and then not. I tend to just go with what I feel my body needs at the time. And I always said that if I ever craved meat I would just have it. For me it’s not like I’ve taken some kind of lifelong vow.

But I’ve found that doesn’t really wash with everyone. Some people want rules and boundaries. I have a label and they expect me to act in accordance with it.

I’ve politely accepted three decades of questioning and challenges about my choices – why I eat one thing and not the other, why I made the decision to go veggie, what do I miss eating, how can I live without a bacon sandwich, where do I get my protein… All this usually while sitting down to a meal where I’d much rather just enjoy the company and my food.

There have been unkind words directed at me too, but it doesn’t matter. I understand that some people are offended by what they think my label means.

I found a new word…

I found out this is National Vegetarian Week (who knew such a thing existed?) so I Googled it and happened to find a new term “flexitarian”, defined as: “a person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish”.

I kind of love that, but kind of hate it too.

I’m probably more of a flexitarian myself, so if that term had been around since the 90s my life would no doubt have been a bit easier. For that reason it’s a win.

But it’s also super disappointing because it’s just another label. It’s a label to define people who don’t fit into other labels.

There are so many areas in life where people are labelled. And then they’re expected to behave based on what we believe that label to mean. I feel like things are changing though and I love the small steps that are being taken, like accepting that people can have the freedom to choose what pronoun they prefer to be addressed by. It’s a force for good, and it’s about time things began to move on.

So I might try out the flexitarian thing for a while and see how that sits with people.

But at the end of the day, I think we should drop the labels. We have enough of them in the world.

After all, whether you call me a vegetarian, a pescatarian, a flexitarian (or a “special meal” as the airlines like to call me), I’m really just that 4-year-old girl waiting out on the street because she finds it more pleasant that way.