This time last year I was struggling to decide if I was willing to make a dramatic change to my diet for health reasons. After 23 years as a vegetarian, I was considering eating meat. I’d been getting signals from my body and from health professionals that this was a change I should make, but it took desperation and a gentle suggestion from a friend before I was willing to even think about changing my ways.
As soon as I started thinking about eating meat, I was filled with fear. What would other people say? I know many vegetarians. My sister has been vegetarian even longer than I have, and I know she stopped eating animals for ethical reasons. I was terrified of telling her, or anyone for that matter.
I lost sleep worrying about the reactions other people would have when they heard my news. I expected the vegetarians to brand me a traitor, and the meat-lovers to laugh and say, “I told you so.” (Everyone who has ever tried a vegetarian diet has gotten the “you need more protein” lecture at least once.)
But I greatly underestimated my family and my friends.
My sister was completely supportive. Without so much as a hint of judgment in her tone, she said, “You have to take care of yourself.” When I complained that I didn’t want to eat animals, she asked me if I hated my dog for eating meat. I don’t of course. Dogs are carnivores. They need to eat meat to be healthy. “So don’t hate yourself,” she said, much clearer than I was on who was really judging me for making this change.
When I told my friend who has been vegetarian her entire adult life that I was eating meat and feeling great, I burst into tears. She consoled me by sharing her own goal: to be thoughtful about consumption and to do everything she can to reduce waste. Her understanding helped me reframe my own thoughts about my actions and to start looking at the things I could do while eating meat that were still in line with my principles.
Even those I felt sure would be dancing on the grave of my vegetarian past were kind and loving in hearing my news. If they gloated, they never did it where I could hear them.
It turned out there was only one person whose judgment of my behavior was going to be truly severe. That person was me.
As I wrote in my journal just days after I started eating meat again:
As much as I fear the opinions of others, I should be worried more about my judgment of myself. I am the one with the iron fist that cracks bones and draws blood. I hurt myself more than anyone else does.
And I was right. Even now, when I tell the story of my conversion from vegetarian to meat-eater to a friend I haven’t seen in ages, he or she listens with compassion and interest. I’m the one seething with emotion about how I have betrayed my own beliefs.
I’m no longer afraid to tell others about the change I’ve made because there is plenty of evidence that this diet is much better for me than any version of vegetarian diet I ever tried. But I still feel guilty and even defensive when I see a photo of a lamb or calf with a caption that says we shouldn’t eat our friends.
I now know that it’s not the photo or the slogan but the voice inside me that is making me uncomfortable. I’ll have to keep working on accepting that this change isn’t just a necessity for me. It’s a valid way to live.