If I Stop Eating Meat, Who Will I Become? – An Essay

For 32 years, author Tina Tenkmann had successfully told herself how much of a die-hard meat eater she was — until she had to face an uncomfortable truth.

An essay on overcoming herd behavior and the hardships of having to change your own narrative in order to do the right thing.

Essay: Herd Behavior – If I stop eating meat, who will I become? – Tina Tenkmann for Antagonist
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June 22, 2021

Words: Tina Tenkmann
Illustrations: Eric Mirbach
Portrait: Brix & Maas

(Trigger Warning: Graphic descriptions of meat and meat-consumption)

‘Major meltdown’. If I only had two words to describe the process of stepping away from using animal products for pleasure, I would choose those. I say ‘pleasure’ because that was my last resort.

The only justification for eating animals and their secretions that stuck in the back of my head, holding on for dear life. Because yes, I felt that it was my life that was on the line — at least the life I had led up to this point, or maybe just the story I told myself about it.

(The irony isn’t lost on me, by the way, as I’m now fully aware that in reality, it’s other’s lives that were actually endangered.)

“For 32 years, I had successfully told myself how much of a die-hard meat eater I was.”

I was 32 years old and for all that time, I had successfully told myself how much of a die-hard meat eater I was.

Essay: Herd Behavior – If I stop eating meat, who will I become? – Tina Tenkmann for Antagonist

 

For me, it was pure pleasure hitting the BBQ joint right around the corner from my office. I would even make it a point to pick this place for first dates. They had that stack of ribs you would eat with your bare hands, mac & cheese and pulled pork right out of the smoker. I was sure, I was here for the pleasure, for the indulgence, so I never thought twice about what I was actually eating. The whole thing was more about what I thought it meant, what this–my behavior in this environment, the food, this place–symbolized. Eating meat and even more so from the bone, radiated some kind of rawness and egocentric hedonism I felt magically drawn to.

Eating Meat was a Statement

Maybe even more, it was a statement. Looking back, I am well aware that this was just the latest installment of a story I was creating for myself. All my life, I had been trying so hard to break a stereotype that followed me everywhere: I was the “skinny blonde girl”. And yes, I’m very aware of the enormous privileges that come with the tone of my skin, but still; Fitting into that narrative comes with its own handy set of prejudices. “Probably has some kind of eating disorder” was one I was particularly fond of and had me make sure at all times that I didn’t come across as if I was too much into healthy nutrition.

On a first date, I would not discuss the benefits of quinoa, I’d go for the spare ribs instead, just to let my counterpart know what’s up. The fact that animals were exploited and killed for the point I was trying to make, that I brushed aside easily.

“As a child, I would have never wanted an animal hurt, let alone for my pleasure.”

Which is astonishing to me now. As a child, I would have never wanted an animal to be hurt, let alone for my pleasure or what I thought ‘pleasure’ meant. Quite the opposite. I was an insane animal lover!

On biking trips, I made my family stop at every paddock we passed by, just to watch the horses from afar, hoping with all my heart they would come closer to the fence for me to look at them, maybe even pet one. Every other weekend, I forced my mother to take me to the animal shelter so that I could walk one of the dogs I felt so heartbroken for, being locked up in their cages with no home and no family. There was this one night when I removed 14 ticks from a hedgehog in pitch darkness. And after my hamster had died, I would start crying immediately if someone or something reminded me of him, even years later.

Essay: Herd Behavior – If I stop eating meat, who will I become? – Tina Tenkmann for Antagonist

But then, Things Changed

So how come, as as an adult, my animal love kind of faded away? And how come I barely even noticed?

I can see now that it was numbed. I didn’t feel the same connection to animals anymore that I had when I was little. What’s worse, I sometimes would even feel some kind of resentment towards animals, maybe thought they were annoying or just strange, different. It wasn’t a pleasure for me to be around them how it used to be. I never wondered why — and I never really thought about if that was enough to declare eating them ‘a pleasure’.

But then, six months ago, things changed.

Even though I already had cut down on my meat consumption for a while and had replaced cow’s milk with oat milk, I still was not even close to being a vegetarian, not to even speak of veganism. I knew I was dodging the facts that would present themselves right in front of me once I’d start looking. I didn’t watch any of the documentaries addressing animal exploitation or how livestock farming correlates with climate change and I wouldn’t ask much about his reasons when a good friend of mine turned vegan.

“And then, one day, I chose the opposite.”

I practically chose to be completely clueless about how meat-eating was affecting us, our environment and primarily animals.

I was numb to all of it, I kept away. Just like my feelings for animals had been shut down, my interest in seeing things differently in that regard was nothing I was able to tap into.

And then one day, I just chose the opposite. Watching Gary Yourofsky’s “Most Important Speech You Will Ever Hear”, suddenly made it very clear to me that I had to go vegan on the spot. No questions asked, no matter what. I instinctively knew right from wrong.

I was Feeling so Disconnected

But that new insight didn’t make me feel good about myself. I felt unbearably disconnected from the self I had created for me, the story I had made up to house the little girl from the paddock, but also to hide it away; to make her immune to what the world was asking from her. From the things a ‘skinny blonde girl’ should and shouldn’t do. I made it comfortable for her. I knew my place, I thought I knew right from wrong.

And now, in a matter of just one YouTube video, it all came crumbling down. Just one and a half hours ago, I had been the fun-loving girl, breaking stereotypes, I was the one who would go for the spare ribs because who cares, right? And now the question was: Who would I be now?

I didn’t know, and neither did my family and friends. For months and months on end now, I’ve been going against the current, rising up against the eating traditions of my family and getting tangled up in interesting yet nerve-testing conversations about my new way of eating. My mother got concerned about my health and a few friends of mine were worried I might be less fun now.

To be perfectly honest, so was I.

I saw myself becoming the harmony-clasher at the table, and to be fair; that didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me, either.

Who would I Become Now?

Who would I become now? That’s a huge question to ask yourself, and it made me feel so out of place. This level of new-found discomfort reached its peak when I attended the Animal Rights March in Berlin.

Here I was, walking with what felt like an enormous, anonymous mass of people, chanting – not exactly what I would call ‘my thing’, no matter the reason for it. Never has been. So at first, I could explain the anxiety I felt bubbling up inside of me, but the more I felt lost in the midst of the crowd, the stronger it got, up to a point where it wasn’t just unease. I was trying to calm myself, telling myself that I was here for a good cause, but that actually made me feel worse. I couldn’t grasp what that feeling was, but I felt horrible.

And suddenly it hit me, and hard: I felt like a fraud.

Essay: Herd Behavior – If I stop eating meat, who will I become? – Tina Tenkmann for Antagonist

I Felt like a Hypocrite

On the streets protesting for the rights of the animals I had eaten for over 30 years? All purified all of a sudden, and placid amidst others, rightfully angry, with all the emotional connection and right to be here, even though I had lost that a long time ago?

I felt like a hypocrite. That was new. And it was terrifying. I had to distance myself from the crowd immediately, I had to get away from the movement I didn’t feel like I had really earned to be a part of.

Not because anyone made me feel like I wasn’t welcome, but rather because of how it made me feel about myself and about the choices I had made in the past. Deciding to not look closely. To not listen to my inner child. To shut away the feelings.

“Oh, all those feelings, tucked away in a backroom of my soul — they all came rushing back.”

Oh, all those feelings! I felt them all come rushing back. I still feel them now. It’s exhausting at times and I’m a bit freaked out by how much of this was neatly tucked away somewhere in a backroom of my soul. I feel it all. I felt it at the march, I feel it when I go out for dinner, I feel it when I think about my childhood.

Changing your behavior sometimes can be a painful process. It often comes with fear of abandonment and a sense of not-belonging. And it takes time. I’m still trying to be more confident about the decision I made and most of the time, I just hope that it won’t lead to tense discussions.

Facing an Uncomfortable Truth is Exhausting

But I get it. I’m still struggling with understanding how I could choose to stay uninformed and close my eyes to an enormous injustice for years and years, even though I had access to all the information.

So how could I expect others to see it, then? Facing an uncomfortable truth is exhausting. Funnily enough, letting go of animal products is incredibly easy. I do have that going for me.

So hi, I’m new here and that’s where I’m at. Taking things one step at a time, adopting new habits and sometimes being a bit nervous when the table talk starts closing in on what is (or rather isn’t) on my plate. No, I don’t have all the answers.

But at the end of the day, I’m just here eating a peaceful piece of cake. It’s without the eggs, but I swear it’s wonderful.

It’s pretty annoying how this makes me sound like I’m some kind of skinny blonde girl. But that’s fine. And maybe that’s who I will become: Someone who doesn’t care too much what people think.

These days, it actually feels like that could be achievable.

This text was originally written in early 2019. Tina has been happily vegan ever since and all teething troubles mentioned above are long behind her.

Today, Tina is the Creative Lead and CEO of pure-play vegan branding, content and venture studio Very Good Looking and has been heading the brand design of Antagonist.

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