A recent report by the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium, on the appropriateness of vegetarian and vegan diets for children, adolescents and other demographic groups has made headlines internationally. In the report, the experts recommend that children, teens, pregnant women and nursing mothers do not follow a vegan diet.
This news was soon picked up by several media (e.g. see Le Soir, CNN, Knack) and as it spread, the headlines became more sensational, with some eventually claiming that Belgium had now banned feeding children a vegan diet and that vegan parents would be jailed for doing so. Although no legislation to that effect has been issued, the opinion paper of the Royal Academy could be used in court as an ‘expert opinion’ in child neglect or abuse cases as a means to seperate child from parents. So raising children on a plant based diet could fall under the scope of non-assistance to a person in danger.
And then this happened.
I saw several such posts circulating in vegan circles on Facebook, and being eagerly commented on and shared widely.
The person on the photos is the Belgian Minister of Health, Maggie De Block (former Minister of Health actually, as we just had elections on Sunday in Belgium).
First of all, although there’s certainly lots to be said about her policy (cuts in health care, making medicine more expensive, etc), I have found no sources that attribute this quote to the Minister of Health Maggie De Block. The supposed “quote” seems simply to be related to the position paper of the Royal Academy, which is in fact just an opinion, and no offical governmental position from the Minister of Health or in any other way linked to her. Stretching the ‘fake news’ about this issue one step further.
If you want to call someone out, at least target the right person or organisation.
Secondly, these posts reek with bodyshaming. Would these memes and posts even have been made had the Belgian Minister of Health had a Kardasian body size? I think not. The intent is to discredit the aforementioned opinion about feeding children a vegan diet through the body size of the Minister.
Bodyshaming takes the focus away from the issue (are vegan diets for children healthy or not?) and focuses on attacking the targetted person. And by implication all fat bodies. That becomes overtly apparent from the many fatshaming comments that rapidly follow on such posts.
It also implies that fat bodies (and by extension unhealthy bodies, as many people implictly relate these two, although there is no simple 1 to 1 link) cannot have anything sensible to say about health issues. They supposedly have no credibility. But credibility regarding health issues (or any issues) has nothing to do with one’s own body size or shape, one’s own health status, but by one’s education, (lived) experience and file knowledge on health issues. I am a disabled vegan, dealing with several chronic diseases, and with a body weight that has yoyo-ed up and down the last three decades in a span of just as many kilos. I also have some knowledge and education about nutrition and medical issues, which should put more weight in the scale (pun) for my credibility about health issues than the appearance of my body.
Fatshaming or bodyshaming is not only a deplorable ad hominem attack, it also marginalises fat vegans within our community. And yes, fat vegans do exist. Although vegans do on average have a lower BMI than non-vegans, a vegan diet is no full proof guarantee for weight loss. Vegans comes in all sizes: not all vegans are thin and not all non-vegans are fat. Bodyshaming can even be damaging to mental health. It can contribute to the development of eating disorders, gives people a negative self-image, and adds to dropped self-esteem.
A concluding note about the opinion of the Belgian Academy of Medicine: The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) refuted the report of the Belgian committe in this statement (See also the statements by the American Dietetic Association, British Dietetic Association, and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). PCRM quotes the latter AND report, that states that “vegan diets are “appropriate, and they satisfy the nutrient needs and promote normal growth at all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
It is quite ironic that PCRM comes into the picture here, as PCRM has a history of bodyshaming too. In 2012 they received a lot of criticism for their ‘Abs on cheese campaign‘.
In a 2008 newsletter, physician John McDougall1 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.
Bodyshaming is deeply problematic and unfortunately present at several segments of our movement.
Veganism is about animal rights. Focus on the animal rights issue, not on shaming people for their appearance.
See also: About bodyshaming in the vegan and animal rights movement, Geertrui Cazaux – presentation at Vegfest UK 2018.