Why Are We Against Wearing Fur, But OK with Eating Meat?

I'm not always the fastest horse in the Derby, but even I couldn't miss the irony of pitying one species of animal while licking my chops like a cartoon wolf with the desire to eat another.

That's how my life was playing out the week before Thanksgiving. I was looking forward with great culinary lust to a great big turkey with bronze skin that would glisten like the Ban de Soliel girl and smell like the comfort and safety of childhood holidays. At the same time I was trying to piece together a story on how messed up it is that the fashion industry still uses fur. There seems to be a lot of fur this year, as noted on Web sites like Style.com and the Wall Street Journal blog and I only noticed it all because I'm a fan of Tim Gunn, the breakout star of Project Runway and one of the only adults on television.

Gunn is solidly anti-fur. He made this video for PETA (seen here on the unfortunately named Peta Files page) showing footage of animals being skinned, butchered, anally electrocuted and having their heads nailed to trees -- many while still alive and conscious. If you can watch it without feeling like your soul is going to barf, the FBI should have a look at you.

So is there really a lot of fur this year? Or was I only noticing it because I'd seen this heinous video?

"Sadly fur is always a big part of fashion. It's never gone away and every fall/winter season there's a lot of it," says Maryellen Gordon, fashion industry expert and a former editor at Glamor and WWD. "There was a small moment in the '90s when PETA made teeny inroads with a few designers who switched to fake fur. But that true designer customer still loves her fur and fake just won't cut it for that person."

So the video did affect my notice of the fur, and frankly, it baffled me. It seems so dated, like seeing a dial phone on someone's desk. Fur is a faded idea of glamor, like top hats and long cigarette holders, that may have been grand in the yellowed past, but now should just stay there, in the past.

Then there was Janet.

Janet Jackson, who has long been a style icon of mine, recently became the latest star in the "What Becomes a Legend Most?" campaign for Blackglama furs. It's an especially interesting paradox since Janet doesn't eat meat. (Michael was also a vegetarian.)

It would be easy for me to judge Jackson for wearing fur, but frankly it's easy to be self-righteous about things to which you have no access. Of course, I can indignantly say I'd never wear fur, but I have no access to fur. It's like boycotting a trip to the moon. Janet and I both have access to eating meat and she chooses not to, which means that Blackglama or not, she kind of wins this round.

But how do we come to have these paradoxes at all? Why is fur OK but not meat, or meat OK but not fur? Why do some people refuse to eat red meat, but will eat chicken, or refuse chicken but eat fish? Why is eating one animal disgusting while eating another is a holiday?  

While mulling these questions I happened onto the book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, by Melanie Joy. Joy calls our paradoxical view of animals as either pets, clothes or meat "carnism" -- a belief system that relies on its own invisibility -- keep us from noticing what we're eating and how it's made -- so we perpetuate its dominance in the marketplace without giving it much thought.

"If slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be a vegetarian," Joy quotes Paul McCartney as saying. The idea that we seldom see the process by which animals are turned into entrees is an example of invisibility. Language is another. We refer to cows as "beef," and pigs as "bacon," a small but significant way of distancing ourselves from them. Fish and fowl are less like us and so, Joy says, we're comfortable just saying what they are.

In a phone interview Joy told me that she interviewed people for her doctoral dissertation who had raised and killed their own animals (as opposed to industrial meat production or CAFOs -- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). One man who was originally from Zimbabwe, where he had a farm, said, "I make sure I keep all the animals I know I'm going to eat on the other side of the yard. I don't give them names and I don't interact with them too much because if I did I know I couldn't kill them."

Joy sees his reasoning as carnistic defense: "In order to carry out harm against somebody else human or non-human we can't allow ourselves to identify with them, to see something of you in them and something of them in you, even if the only thing we identify with is the desire to be free from harm or suffering. It's very important for us to block our awareness...which blocks our empathy."  

Presentation is another way we distance ourselves from the reality of how meat gets to us. It often loses any tell-tale bones, shells and certainly heads (though I have seen fish served with heads attached) on its way to the table. In talking with Joy I mention McNuggets; she mentions turkey-and-rice baby food that's "like pudding." We seldom see the 10 billion animals that Joy says go into our diets annually (not including fish), the often unsanitary conditions they're processed in, the "death-saturated" environment slaughterhouse workers cope with and the toll on our ecology. Cattle-produced methane, she writes, "has a global warming effect equivalent to that of 33 million automobiles," plus all the land used for grazing and the grain and fish used for feeding.

Combine all this distancing with our cultural attachment to meat and it's no wonder we can easily slip into denial about the reality of meat production. Often we want to. Frankly I want to.

Joy once had the same paradox at work.

"There are plenty of people, I was one of them... I would never have worn a fur coat but I would eat meat regularly... and my leather coat, I loved," she says. It's easier to be distanced from clothing than from food. "Fur is something you put on your body. Meat is something you put in your body," she says. Oral incorporation is more intimate, there's no mass culture built around fur like there is around food.

Joy dabbled in vegetarianism in her teens, read the literature, knew what was what but "preferred not to know," so she could eat meat like her peers. That changed when eating a tainted hamburger put her in the hospital on IV antibiotics.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life and one of the worst experiences of my life," she says, because while the illness was horrible it enabled her to make a paradigm shift.

"Once I stopped eating meat then I wasn't so defensive," she says. "I was able to take in more information about what happens to animals who become our food, because I didn't have anything to defend at that point."

She began teaching workshops on vegetarianism around Boston and found that though her students were gung-ho at the workshops, some even crying at the imagery, they would go right back to eating meat. Her desire to understand this paradox led her back to school to study psychology and eventually to write her book,  which is an excellent read.

Melanie Joy is starting the Carnism Awareness & Action Network, which will be a resource for carnists, like me, who aren't so defensive they won't look for information, as well as vegans and vegetarians. Joy says carnists are not the enemy but are "participants in a system that victimizes everyone. And the more direct victims of carnism, the human victims are those who have the least financial power, people who work in meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses. Human Rights Watch, for the first time ever, criticized a single industry, the meat industry for working conditions so egregious they violate human rights."

It's also the people on the lower end of the economic scale who eat the cheapest, least healthy kinds of meat, so there's a classism at work in carnism as well.

"Most people do carry around a certain kind of cognitive moral dissonance around eating animals," Joy says, "the internal moral discomfort that we feel when our values and our practices are out of alignment."

Full disclosure: I didn't totally deny myself some turkey over the holiday. But I ate significantly less of it than I ever have. Having marinated in the irony of my paradoxical views on fur and meat and in Melanie Joy's wonderful book, I may be doomed to being far more conscious from here on out.

They say you are what you eat. There may come a day when I no longer want to be a chicken.


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