Chelsea Lincoln (46) has been doing social justice work mostly focusing on animal rights and fat acceptance for over 20 years. She runs Fat Vegan Voice, which hopes to create body size inclusion in the vegan community by honoring body diversity and supporting fellow fat vegans. In this interview, she talks about her activism, what inspired her to become vegan, dealing with exclusion and shaming in the vegan movement and how recently being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease has impacted her life.
Hello Chelsea, tell us who you are? What’s your background? Where do you live?
I would describe myself as a compassionate advocate for social justice. I live in the Portland, Oregon area. I have worked in customer success most of my adult life, which I believe comes from the empathy I have for others. I did try and go into graduate school for marine conservation in my mid-thirties, but it was not meant to be. I had a lot of fun and learned a lot in the process though! I spend my free time going on nature adventures, photographing wildlife, and playing with my companion animals; cats, rats, and guinea pigs.
How long have you been vegan? What inspired you to become vegan?
I have been vegan for over 25 years now. I mostly credit my childhood guinea pig, Kristy, as inspiring me to become vegan. I faced a traumatic childhood along with bullying in school, but I could always rely on Kristy to provide me with care and support. Sometimes she would kiss my tears away, which would make me feel better. From this relationship, I recognized the emotions she had through the kindness she showed me. I was able to take this experience and know that all animals have a level of personhood that is often dismissed by humans. I didn’t fully understand at that time the horrors that many animals face from the hands of humans, but I knew things needed to change. In college I got involved in an animal rights group and was vegetarian at the time. There was a discussion about putting together a cookbook and we were discussing if it should be vegetarian or vegan. One of the more active participants basically said that it had to be vegan because a vegetarian diet causes just as much harm as eating meat. I had been naive and thought cows and chickens were not harmed to get eggs and milk. This very simple statement made me wake up and educate myself further and that day I decided to go vegan.
You were recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (Inflammatory Bowel Disease). Can you tell some more about your chronic illness and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges?
I first started showing symptoms of fistulizing Crohn’s disease about a year and a half ago. Looking back on it is traumatizing, since it felt like I would never get better. At first, my only symptom was an abscess turned fistula that came about from side effects of starting my first anxiety medication. I had to get surgery and the recovery was extremely painful, even on pain management medication. I felt like I was not properly recovering and called my surgeon’s office often and kept being dismissed and told I was healing as I should. About two weeks later I went in for a post-op exam and he discovered not only was I not healing correctly, but I had yet another fistula. Within a week I was having another surgery and when I woke up the surgeon informed me that he believes I have Crohn’s disease, which is why I was continuing to struggle and heal.
I had to go through further diagnostics of first an MRI, then a colonoscopy for it to be officially diagnosed. And that was after having to wait weeks to meet with a gastroenterologist. I will also add that often patients need to wait months to see a GI specialist so even though I was suffering immensely, my diagnosis and start of treatment started much faster than most people. The only negative from getting to see a GI specialist so quickly, is that I didn’t have a choice in who I saw and I would later find out that I needed someone more specialized in complex cases that focused on listening rather than speaking.
Everything felt a bit confusing since I still did not have the ‘typical’ symptoms for Crohn’s disease. However, I was getting a lot of sores in my mouth, and nose, which I started to realize could be connected to my Crohn’s disease. I had the nose sores previously and my doctor assumed it was just a really odd placement for a cold sore. We did a culture of the sore and it came back negative though. And so did all my mouth sores. I could hardly eat and was only consuming oatmeal, blended soups, and sometimes pasta with a smooth sauce. Even rice was too painful since it had some texture.
I then started to get swelling and pain on a foot, a knee, an ankle, and my big toe- on various sides of my body. The pain was awful and I couldn’t find any relief. I tried icing it through the day but it never seemed to help. I ended up in the ER multiple times with doctor’s trying to figure out what was going on. I then discovered that Crohn’s disease can sometimes include joint pain and swelling. My toe was a different story. It was swollen and red and I wanted to chop it off since it was so excruciating. Since Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease that can cause inflammation in a lot of different parts of your body, I eventually discovered my toe issue was from skin inflammation, also related to my Crohn’s.
The pain from the joint pain got so bad I finally broke down and bought a cane to help me get around. Even then, I could not function until I was prescribed steroids. Trying to stand up caused instant tears and I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. Even with the steroids, my mornings were torture trying to make oatmeal so I could take my medication and let it start working. Of everything that I experienced, that was probably the worst and made me feel even more isolated and frustrated with my condition.
Once I was finally started on a biologic medication to treat my Crohn’s, some of my symptoms started to improve. It was time to start titrating off the steroid medication and had to keep slowing down since it was causing me so many problems. I WAS SO MAD! I HAD NO IDEA WHY! I WAS JUST SO MAD! Thanks, steroids! The medication literally saved me but I hope I never have to take them ever again. It took me months to finally be free of the medication.
During this time I also experienced hair loss. It was mostly at the back of my head so most people could not tell, given everyone just saw me via video chats for the most part, but it was very difficult on me. I spent way too much time with a mirror on the back of my head so I could access the damage. I started to use a shampoo with biotin that helped, and later found out that it was most likely a response from my body going through such a traumatic time and conserving my energy to heal rather than maintain hair health.
What are common misconceptions that people have about Crohn’s disease (if they know about it at all that is)?
Most people think Crohn’s disease is just having stomach pains and bathroom issues. That was my assumption at least! I had no idea how complex the disease could be and all the possible effects it could have on the body. As someone who didn’t really have the symptoms typically associated with Crohn’s, the diagnosis was surprising and difficult to get my head around. I did try and find humor in the fact when I said Crohn’s is a pain in the ass, I am being quite literal.
Although I am still struggling with some symptoms, I feel so fortunate my medications are mostly working at this time. Also, sometimes you need more than just a gastroenterologist to treat you. I have had to also see a colorectal surgeon, rheumatologist, wound specialist, dermatologist, urogynecologist, along with my primary care provider and numerous ER and urgent care doctors and nurses. Sometimes when I have a symptom or issue come up, I am not sure who I should contact first. I should also add a therapist to this list! This chronic condition caused me a lot of depression and my mental health was suffering. The medical condition and treatment was also very traumatizing and I am still processing that, especially since I am not done with surgeries.
Most people think Crohn’s disease is just having stomach pains and bathroom issues. That was my assumption at least! I had no idea how complex the disease could be and all the possible effects it could have on the body.Chelsea Lincoln
You write that you have been doing fat acceptance activism for over 20 years. What motivated you, how did this start?
For as long as I remember, I have been fat, along with being bullied for being fat. I have also always been incredibly active! I loved sports growing up and was always running around the neighborhood. In college, I started to bike everywhere around town and did other forms of exercise. I remember an aerobics class where we were fitness testing and doing sit ups. We basically did sit ups until we no longer could and it was timed. We were partnered up and monitored so there was no ‘cheating’. I was the last one still going and eventually told to stop. Yet, I would get home and look in the mirror and hate everything I saw about my body. People would also yell insults about my size as I was biking and they were driving by. It felt like my experience in life was constantly different due to my size and people’s perceptions of me.
One day I realized that I needed to either find a way to accept myself the size I am, or I would continue hating myself forever. That was not an option! I started to embrace fat acceptance before I even knew that other people did activism around it, and started a zine called, “Take It- It’s My Body”. I started to speak up and learn more. Eventually I also discussed this at conferences and started to meet other people working on fat activism. Although I faced a lot of backlash, it was also very empowering! My earlier years of a fat activist, I participated in a cheerleading troupe we called FATASS (Fat Action Trouble All-star Spirit Squad), along with writing and choreographing a lot of the cheers. I co-created Queen Size Revolution with my friend and amazing fat activist Shilo, which was mostly giving talks about fat acceptance. I also continued with many editions of my zine.
And then you started the blog ‘Fat Vegan Voice’ in 2019. What are some of the topics that you want to address with your platform?
The vegan community is filled with fatphobia! It is so disheartening and something I have called out and discussed for a long time, back before social media. As a fat woman I often felt dismissed and often did not get the credit I deserved at workplaces, in activism, and elsewhere. I also wrote for T.O.F.U. Magazine about the subject a few times. So when I started to see an increase of fat hate online, I decided I need to lend my voice, and help others speak up as well. I have never been afraid to speak up, even when it is difficult, and I was tired of being ignored. Around this time I also started to speak on podcasts such as The Bearded Vegans and participated in panel discussions at vegfests. It may seem odd to focus on fighting fatphobia in the vegan community and against other activists, but it does a lot of harm to the community, and the animals. If the vegan community is unable to embrace and welcome people of all sizes, then what the fuck are we doing? Do you really care about animals?
If the vegan community is unable to embrace and welcome people of all sizes, then what the fuck are we doing? Do you really care about animals?Chelsea Lincoln
In one of your blog posts on Fat Vegan Voice, you write that ‘Fat acceptance is a social justice issue.’ Can you elaborate please?
I wholeheartedly believe that all oppressions are connected. I am not saying they are all the same, but they are a systemic problem that needs to be eradicated. How marginalized people face oppression can vary a lot and recognizing how we can make improvements for each one is needed. If we are unable to stop racism, then we can never eliminate speciesism. If we are unable to stop homophobia, then we can never eliminate ableism. The mind frame each group faces oppression is collectively unjust. So when we discuss social justice fighting for marginalized people to have equity, this includes ridding ourselves of the systemic fat bias in our society.
About bodyshaming and fatshaming in the vegan community. Can you give some more examples? Why is it necessary to address this? How can this be tackled?
The idea that one type of body is better than another is so dangerous! Who decides which body is ‘better’? Just like there is diversity in people’s height, or hair color, there is diversity in people’s bodies. So often veganism is sold as a diet and claims fat bodies are undesirable and unhealthy. You are unable to determine a person’s health just by looking at them, and it also does not matter. Every body is worthy of respect and care. Health is not a guarantee, no matter what you eat or how you move. If every single person ate the same and moved the same, we would still have a wide variety of bodies in the world. What ignorance to think otherwise!
I wholeheartedly believe that all oppressions are connected. I am not saying they are all the same, but they are a systemic problem that needs to be eradicated. … If we are unable to stop racism, then we can never eliminate speciesism. If we are unable to stop homophobia, then we can never eliminate ableism.Chelsea Lincoln
Personally, I have experienced fat-shaming in many different ways in the vegan community. I have been the target at protests from the public, but then dismissed by fellow activists about my experience making me feel unsafe and unwelcome. I have been told I am not a good activist or example because of my size. There are many very blatant examples, and then there are ones that still affect me greatly but not as obvious. This includes not being listened to, ideas being dismissed, not getting the respect of others to be a part of the community, or people quick to label me as a trouble maker, just for speaking up for myself and others. It is ironic because as activists, we want to be troublemakers in order to make change! But when you start questioning the status quo in the activist community, suddenly you are being gaslighted and told “this is about the animals”, or told that you are gossiping or just trying to get attention. Calling someone out for sexist behavior is not gossip! When I was most active in my 20s, although I was having a positive impact, I was also fighting to be accepted and heard. I joke that I need to write a book called “Unfuckable” since there are spaces it seems women are only valued for their attractiveness, and as a fat person I was not considered attractive.
I recently reached out to an activist that was a part of the boy’s club in our twenties. Although he acknowledged problematic behavior during that time, he could not recognize how it still positively influences him today and didn’t offer anything in a way of apologizing. While I was dealing with that, I was losing a promotion at work to a male from outside the company I worked for. Everyone knew I was the best candidate for the job and had spent years proving myself and getting praised. However, this male candidate had previously worked with the new director in charge of hiring. I didn’t even get a proper interview. It was more than disappointing, all my hard work was completely ignored and dismissed. Ironically, this male candidate only had management experience since he was given the opportunity previously by the new director at the other workplace.
Another topic I saw mentioned on your Instagram is bodyshaming of other animals. Can you give some examples? Why is this problematic?
I was in a virtual happy hour at work and one of my coworkers mentioned that her dog was fat shamed the other day. I believe she brought it up to say how messed up it was! However, the conversation suddenly turned into everyone sharing fat animal stories. The stories used the same stereotypes we see all the time with humans. I found it really upsetting! One person even said how she knew someone who left their fit dog in someone’s care for a few months and came back and their dog was fat. The idea that fit=thin is incredibly problematic and I see it all the time.
The reality is our society’s ideas surrounding body size and health crosses over to our non-human animal friends. Just like human medical doctors practice fat bias, this is also seen in the veterinary field as well. Our companion animals can have size diversity, just like we do. I’ve experienced various vets bringing up my cat Oliver’s size and find it incredibly frustrating. They do not actually ask me any information concerning Oliver’s food intake or movement, and just make assumptions. Oliver is fed a certain amount of food everyday with his brother based on veterinary recommendations. He is also incredibly active even as an inside-only cat and his favorite activity is running after balls. The last time a vet expressed their concern for Oliver’s size, I shot it down immediately and simply explained he is already fed the recommended amount and is super active so I am not worried about it. If we want to discuss health, we should be focusing on health markers, not assumptions, just as we should if a human would like to make improvements to their health. I know there are companion animals that end up being fed too little, or exercised beyond their ability, in the name of health and the facade of size concerns. Companion animals must rely on their humans for essentials and comfort and it is humans’ responsibility to provide for the animals in their care.
I have also seen farm sanctuaries use the ‘O’ word to describe a new intake in their care and participate in the ‘fight against obesity’. The participation in pathologizing size contributes to the problem and makes some activists, such as myself, not feel comfortable following and supporting their efforts. You can be concerned about an animal’s health in a way that does not contribute to the fat-hating world. Instead of referring to this war/fight that has been weaponized against fat people, they can focus on their recovery efforts. Celebrate victories in their accomplishments, such as the animal walking further, rather than a number on a scale.
How do you address the claim of some non-vegans who dismiss veganism altogether as being ableist, because according to them living 100% without the use of animals/animal products is an unattainable goal for some disabled or chronically ill persons?
There are some people that will struggle for access to vegan food. A lot of medication is also not cruelty free, and as much as I know we could create medication and test without animals if we as a society decided to do so, that is not the world we currently live in. The point is to do the least harm possible while still surviving yourself.
For example, I also believe everyone has an obligation to get vaccinated against covid to protect those who are more susceptible and have more risk, regardless of the vaccine being vegan or not. My medication makes me immunocompromised and everyone making a decision to not take proper safety precautions, or not get vaccinated, is contributing to the significant harm to people, especially people with disabilities.
Some vegans and also organisations like to portray plant-based eating as a magical cure all for all diseases. What do you think about that?
Selling veganism as a cure-all is incredibly dangerous! I am a part of some vegans with Crohn’s groups online and I have thought about leaving them numerous times. The people in my other Crohn’s groups tend to be more helpful and accepting. I have noticed many very vocal people that comment and think a vegan diet will cure anything, and this is especially true for whole foods plant based identified individuals. I know there are people needlessly suffering and blaming themselves for a condition they have no control over. Although there are certain things people can eat to perhaps help them feel better, this does not look the same for everyone and certainly won’t cure everyone. If I did not get proper medication, I don’t know how long I could have continued in the condition I was in. I will also add that getting people to go vegan for a quick fix just means that once it does not work for them, they will move on to their next hope of a quick fix, even if that means consuming even more animal products.
Can you give some suggestions as to how the vegan and animal rights movement can become more inclusive and accessible?
We need to not only accept people with marginalized identities, but prioritize their voices. Locally, we have two different vegan facebook groups. One is much larger but was silencing marginalized voices, including tone policing, since they were not being ‘positive’ (toxic positivity anyone?). They ended up banning a lot of people of color in the process! A group of people joined forces to create a new group and the guidelines for the group were specifically designed to protect marginalized voices. We may have less people in our online community, but we do our best to create an inclusive and safe space. This is what we need in real life!
The vegan community also needs to embrace other social justice movements without a motive of trying to get them to join the vegan movement. Fighting for social justice will only help all animals in the long run. You are an example of how veganism is a part of social justice just by being present and being a part of the overall mission. We need to genuinely care about the issues and not pit one social justice movement against another.
Why are these issues important to address in the vegan/AR community. Some dismiss all this talk about ableism, bodyshaming and other -isms as mere human centered issues and distracting from the goals animal rights activists should be (solely) focusing on. What do you say to them?
You mean besides the fact that it is the right thing to do?
The world is not going to become vegan by pretending these other issues do not exist. There is no such thing as vegan capitalism. In order for capitalism to exist, human and non-human people will be used and discarded, and there will be power dynamics where the rich have the power. Embracing marginalized communities is necessary to creating a vegan world. Without it, we will continue to be divided.
There is no such thing as vegan capitalism. In order for capitalism to exist, human and non-human people will be used and discarded, and there will be power dynamics where the rich have the power. Embracing marginalized communities is necessary to creating a vegan world. Without it, we will continue to be divided.Chelsea Lincoln
Is there anything else that you would like to share here?
There are three main lessons I have learned from my Crohn’s disease. One is that reaching out to your community when you need help is a positive thing to do. When I was at my worst, I couldn’t really cook and had very little energy. I recognized that I needed help and even though it was really difficult, I started to accept offers of help. Close friends offered to bring me things and drive me to and from the hospital for surgeries. One friend even brought me multiple blended soups that she prepared herself! One acquaintance from my vegan community told me it would be an honor to bring me something. This kindness and help from my community was a wonderful reminder of how amazing my community can be, and provided me some happiness and hope when I was mostly feeling empty.
My second lesson is that I need to rediscover myself and mourn the old me. I spent over a year getting diagnosed, treated, and started to heal from the onset of my symptoms. I am still on that path, since I will need another surgery soon in hopes to finally heal my original fistula. However, the person I was before Crohn’s is no longer there since there are certain things I can no longer do, or those that I can still do, I face additional challenges. There is also a fear that things can get worse again. Last month I experienced ongoing nausea and I have ruled out most causes, except it could be something new with my Crohn’s. Time will tell, but at least with medication my symptoms have improved. I need to find a way to look past the trauma and depression and find a way to thrive with my new self and find more happiness once again. I hate how much Crohn’s has taken from me, but I am trying to take it back and it is a process that I am currently navigating. Obviously the pandemic is not helping, but hopefully I will find some light in the year ahead.
And last, but not least, is learning to be a good advocate! It is awful how much of my time I spent calling medical establishments trying to get the care I deserved. I feel like I am a better advocate than most people already, but dealing with the debilitating fatigue made it more difficult. I also eventually got a new GI doctor, who is more smart, kind, and knows how to listen. I felt more comfortable in her care and she also added a new medication that made a major difference in my recovery! Medical staff are overworked, but there are ways to be kind and understanding, while making sure you get the care and attention that you need.
I would also like to acknowledge that I have a lot of privilege since I have good health insurance through my work, work from home so making all the phone calls that are needed is easier for me to do, and my activism has given me good experience with speaking up!
Chelsea Lincoln – Interview Crip Humanimal (by Geertrui Cazaux)
Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQIA+ vegans, BIPOC vegans, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –