I sat in a dim room inside an ex-slaughterhouse, the poignant setting for an animal rights conference. Surrounded by around 80 fellow vegan activists, thinkers, artists, writers, and above all else, advocates for animals. One way or another, by plane, train, foot or vehicle, over miles and through hours we had all found ourselves here, in a small city in Luxembourg. Staring up at the projection lit screen, mouth open in disbelief. This time not at heart wrenching, horrendous hidden camera shots inside a slaughterhouse or at a particularly startling fact about animal slavery, but at the closed-minded, archaic hypothesis that was being laid out by the middle-aged, straight, white woman currently occupying the stage. Aghast, I looked around at my fellow audience members, looking for confirmation that what I was hearing was real; a few caught eyes with me and I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling anger.
The slide itself was introduced tentatively by the speaker, “I know some of you are not going to agree with this next slide,” I anticipated a slide about softening our ‘vegan rules’, perhaps a debate about ‘E-number’ vegans. The powerpoint clicked forward. Shown on screen were photos of three people looking back at me. Three humans. One smiling, one composed, one with a strange look of faux anger. One with dreadlocks, one with coloured hair and piercings, one with a whole bunch of tattoos (incidentally, this was the angry one, on reflection I imagine selected to validate the speaker’s upcoming opinion). As I viewed the screen, I thought to myself ‘surely this talk is not going where I think it’s going…’
Unfortunately it was.
We were told by the speaker that as activists and advocates for animals we should consider the way be present our bodies to the public. That the personal choices illustrated on the slide (illustrated by humans who had not given consent for their images to be lifted from Google), the tattoos, the piercings, the ‘mohawks’, can put people off the movement and will make you less able to make connections and have conversations with the public and moreover will make you a less effective voice for animals. She urged that these ‘radical’ body choices, adopted by many in the movement, make veganism less accessible to the mainstream; and further, she expressed that vegans who have a ‘non-normie’ style cannot look ‘professional’ enough to present our factual pleas for animals and be taken seriously. My heart began to pound, my hands shaking. I felt personally attacked. I felt that my friends were attacked. I felt that our movement was being attacked.
I, as someone who has chosen a near full body of tattoos. I’ve had years of dabbling with hair colours and piercings (some brilliant pinks and some terrible bleach-y orange disasters!). I can say with total and honest truth that all of my body modification choices have made me more comfortable and content in my human vessel, and furthermore more confident, outgoing and happy to talk to the public in my animal advocacy. On this thought, I wonder without my experience in the UK DIY punk and hardcore music scene, whether I’d even be here, at the AR conference. Hand-in-hand with that came the tattoos, the political discussion and ultimately the move to veganism. Yet I’m being told, by the person on the pedestal of the stage that this body, in fact, makes me a less effective advocate for animals. I’ve marched, I’ve liberated, I’ve set up campaigns, support groups, social media sites and vlogs, I’ve blocked roads, I’ve shouted, I’ve whispered, I’ve discussed, I’ve committed, but this was all weakened by my choice to decorate my skin?
Incidentally, as noted by another audience member in the ensuing heated Q&A session, my tattoos often act as a gateway for conversation with strangers. People are intrigued, complimentary, open, curious and kind (I have had only one negative instance in recent years when one very elderly lady was humourously disgusted and decided to cross the road away from my ‘devilish skin’!). I find I have many conversations about veganism and the plight of animals which originally open with questions about my tattoos.
It was not just me in the crowd who felt surprised and attacked. What a way to alienate half, if not more, of the crowd, some because of their own choices on how to adorn their beautiful bodies, others with empathy for those people, their friends and colleagues.
Let me make this clear, this article is being written not as a personal attack on this one person (hence why there is no name and shame, no photos, no links to videos to watch for yourself). I am compelled to write as a means of raising awareness that there is a ghastly, detrimental and alienating view within our movement.
Having been vegan for four, coming on five years, I have never before come across this peculiar point of view and therefore feel it necessary to write and document what I witnessed yesterday. I hope that if someone pre-reads this article before they come directly in contact or conversation with this opinion they will feel prepared.
There is a backwards, outdated, disappointing and thankfully dissipating view of tattoos as taboo in general western (I speak from a UK experience) society. It is closed-minded, harmful and misjudged; a construction of society that is not welcome in a movement striving to be open-minded, liberal, welcoming and progressive. Furthermore, dividing and condemning a large proportion of our movement is incredibly unwise and damaging, potentially silencing, shakes resilience and alienates strong animal advocates. I hope that anyone who was at this talk today has dusted off this ignorant opinion and urge the speaker (should you happen to find this opinion piece) to remove this slide from future presentations; but really I hope you understand our outrage and why your slide was not helpful or empowering and reconsider your view. This vicious and alienating opinion and attack on my, and our bodies, is not welcome in the vegan movement.