The Vegan YouTube community almost ruined my life
Guilty pleasures tend to range from embarrassing to unspeakable. There are guilty pleasure we “confess” to a group of acquaintances at a party, and then there are incredibly niche diversion we can’t quite explain or understand. Be that as it may, whether you binge watch “Cops” or play with American Girl Dolls on Thursday afternoons is none of my business.
But, if looking up old baby photos of famous men is my “Cops” marathon, then my following vegan YouTube was one long ass trip to the American Girl Place (was that analogy drawn out for too long? You decide).
I’ve been known to watch a YouTube video or two, but vegan YouTube is like regular YouTube’s type-A temperamental cousin with a 4.0 GPA that collects pins and remembers everyone’s birthday.
Allow me to preface this by saying that I don’t presently ascribe to a vegan diet. I was vegan for the whole of one month (and won’t let anyone forget it). Prior to that, going vegan wasn’t something I’d seriously considered to be. I didn’t think I had it in me to fully commit to it — little did I know all it’d take was this video to change my mind:
“What I Eat In A Day” videos are like the manifesto of the Vegan YouTube community. In the video, distinguished vegan YouTuber Bonnie Rebecca recounts the details of all of the (beautiful, exciting) food she consumes each day as a vegan. This video, like most other vegan videos on the platform, contributes to the overall narrative of how veganism helps lead to a healthier mind and body.
This video appealed to me for the same reason it appealed to 321,629 other people: the food was unreasonably pretty (I came for the mason jars, I stayed for the acai bowls). Preparing each meal almost seemed like a game, and each smoothie or salad the ultimate prize.
But beyond that, I think the vegan lifestyle appealed to me because it seemed so gosh darn sexy. I’d just been in the market for a change of some sort in general, and veganism seemed like a good place to start, based on cool and fun videos like this one. Beautiful food, beautiful people, tons of energy, and something cool to talk about all the time.
So, if you’re asking whether the chicken or the egg (neither of which are vegan, by the way) came first in my preoccupation with vegan YouTube and my journey into the diet, the answer is: I don’t know exactly. But YouTube is where it all started, and where it ended for good.
I could have titled this piece, “YouTube made me go vegan.” But I didn’t, and here’s why.
As I began my vegan journey wherein I essentially lived vicariously though my peers while eating sweet potatoes a lot, I began to feel really good about what I was doing. It was great. I felt like a kid in a candy store except the candy was broccoli, or something. I’d wake up and watch a “What I Eat in a Day” video for inspiration. Then, regardless of what the video showed, I’d likely just eat more sweet potatoes. More and more though, I began trying the foods I saw in these videos.
Herein lies the first issue. That is, I was hesitant to actually make many adjustments to my own diet and make veganism work for me and was instead more inclined to just sort of Simon Says follow along with whatever the person I happened to be watching did and ate. While I recognize this is naive, I’ve never been good at taking agency over my dietary choices (I imagine others struggle with this as well, which is why vegan YouTube is so successful).
Thus, I trusted everyone I watched to know what they were talking about (in my defense, they seemed to have some credibility — Bonnie Rebecca, for example, as over 365,000 subscribers who seemed to value what she said). Not only did this lead to health problems and digestive issues, it led to a lot of confusion.
Such is the case with health advice in general: one doctor will insist that Atkins is the way to go and another will swear by Paleo. Vegan fads are similarly contradictory in nature: Freelee the Banana Girl insists I eat forty bananas a day, while High Carb Hannah avoids fruit at all costs and swears by her root vegetables.
Meanwhile, Bonnie Rebecca is going nut-free, while Claire Michelle puts her almond nut butter on everything. And between videos entitled “Is Soy Bad?” and “Why I stopped Eating Salt” I really found myself lost in the plant based sauce.
And again, it’d be right to assume that for every question vegan YouTube posed, it’d offer a suitable answer.
In fact, it’s a question to answer ratio of about six to one, on a good day. You look up what you think is a simple inquiry like, “are dates bad for digestion?” or “good vegan salad dressing” and end up with 75 videos all saying the same thing while somehow simultaneously discounting everything said in the other 74 videos. As such I’d find myself more confused, and gassy, than before.
via Fablunch on YouTube
Vegan YouTube is also surprisingly lacking in intersectionality. Not to say that there aren’t any black vegans or vegans of color on YouTube, but they don’t have nearly as much exposure and aren’t well represented at all. It felt like the voice being heard the loudest was sort of one-note. This just made my quest to fit into The Vegan YouTube Community™ significantly harder. It truly felt like I wanted to join the club but just couldn’t.
Which, of course made me want to be a part of it more.
Other than a lack of racial diversity in the main community, there also seemed to be a fairly small range of socioeconomic difference. Watching “What I Eat in A Day” videos slowly became way less fun and a lot more depressing when I realized that I couldn’t go to Whole Foods and satisfy the 35 product grocery list the video called for.
A lot of the popular vegans also lived in warm or tropical climates like Bali, Hawaii and California, granting them access to healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables. I understand that the videos are meant to be aspirational, and they’re great in that way. But my trying to keep up with them while they tried to keep up appearances with each other really fucked up my dietary progress.
And these disagreements didn’t end at dietary discretions. There was a surprising amount of toxic energy between a lot of the main “big” vegan YouTubers. I’m talking oxymorons: I’m talking vegan beef.
During my short time on vegan YouTube, I bore witness to more scandal than I care to recount here. I had never seen so much arguing in such a concentrated area of the internet (then again, I’ve never been on Reddit, so take that statement with a grain of salt). One vegan might call out another for buying followers, or being fake at a meet-up. It became increasingly hard to withhold my investment in these 20 year old vegans’ personal lives.
This YouTuber even has a channel with over 35,000 subscribers that is exclusively dedicated to spilling vegan YouTube tea. I was once an avid follower of his channel, staying tuned for videos like this:
He even has a miniseries titled “The Dumbest Vegans on YouTube” savagely dragging his fellow vegans for minutes on end:
Keeping up with this drama proved more time consuming than I’m willing to admit. Soon, I found myself more invested in Freelee the Banana Girl’s tumultuous Thailand trip, or Stella Rae’s beef with BFF Sonya, or “The Truth About That Vegan Couple’s Patreon Scam” than I was in my own vegan trajectory (or the fact that my digestive system was literally giving up on me, lol). Logging onto YouTube became a lot more like “Keeping up with the Kale” and I lost sight of why I even went vegan in the first place.
Perhaps worst of all is the way in which vegan YouTube more or less echoes a cult mentality. I wouldn’t say this to be overdramatic— well, yes I would, but I’m serious. I came to realize that each YouTuber’s respective following was so devoted to that person that no one could question what they did without being vehemently scrutinized.
Not only did individual followings fight amongst themselves, but they also fought other people’s followings. Were they not all trying to achieve the same thing, fun veganism for all? The whole thing confused me.
More and more, I realized that vegan YouTube was becoming a platform for lost dietary souls like myself to seek solace in what seemed like a place where leaders had useful, healthful information that would improve our lives in every way.
However, what it really became, at least for me, was a toxic gossip forum where people would talk shit and eat bananas sometimes. I would spend all my time trying to adhere to this idealized version of veganism rather than just try to make it work for my lifestyle.
Trying to live by these standards was both exhausting and ineffective, and turned me off of veganism entirely. Of course, I’m not using that as a cop out for not being vegan. Veganism has nothing to do with YouTube, and it’s only now that I realize the two are not mutually exclusive. None of the woes that plagued me about vegan YouTube have to do with vegans or veganism as a whole: they more so pertain to the way veganism operates in the context of social media.
Perhaps I should give veganism another go, sans cult membership (I also imagine eating something other than sweet potato will help— I’ll report back).