Stella Rae looks back at her old YouTube videos and cringes. These are the videos that built her career: At 19, she has hundreds of thousands of subscribers to her main channel, which she has dedicated to promoting veganism for several years. But her approach has changed dramatically. Today, she says, she wants to show people “that you can be vegan and just live your normal life.” But her earliest work was much less sympathetic.
Rae is one of dozens of young “influencers” who have amassed followings by chronicling their lives as vegans. Across platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, they share vegan recipes, beauty products that weren’t tested on animals, and even recommendations for vegan leather handbags. Like many people in this online community, Rae entered into veganism with evangelical flair: After struggling with an eating disorder in her early teens, she came to see veganism as morally righteous, and took to aggressively “spreading the vegan message,” in her words, by posting confrontational videos like “Dumb Things Meat Eaters Say,” in which she tells non-vegans, “Eggs are literal chicken periods. Why would you want to eat that? That is so disgusting!”
Her tone changed once she started getting harassed online by many of the people she thought would most agree with her views. “A lot of people would expect comments from people who aren’t vegan, like, ‘Oh, you need to be eating meat,’” Rae says. “But the majority of the negative comments or comments critiquing my diet, they actually come from vegans.”
Their hostility made her question her approach. Now, she says, her original videos make her want to “delete my channel and just hide under a rock.”
Rae’s experience is not unusual among vegan social-media stars. These content creators are regularly held to a standard of perfection when it comes to their diets. Being a “perfect vegan” does not just mean only eating nonanimal foods. It can mean a vast variety of things to different people: There are gluten-free vegans, refined-sugar-free vegans, raw vegans, “Raw Til 4” vegans (who only eat cooked food after 4 p.m.), high-carb and low-fat vegans, and the small but vocal group of junk-food vegans, who try out vegan versions of popular treats. There are so many opinions about the right way to be vegan that anyone who posts meals online almost inevitably receives some amount of backlash.
Many vegans have made spreading awareness of the “evils” of eating animals central to their identities. But in the process, food bullying has become a major issue within the online vegan community itself. This kind of diet critique can be dangerous, especially for vegans with a history of disordered eating like Rae.
In 2014, Rae found veganism through the videos of a woman who takes a uniquely combative approach to vegan-diet criticism: Leanne Ratcliffe, a.k.a. Freelee the Banana Girl. Ratcliffe, 37, was one of the first big vegan YouTubers; she has been making videos about veganism since 2009. In these videos, Ratcliffe has equated eating meat with murder, torture, and rape. When she comes across well-known vegans or celebrities who don’t measure up to her standards, she calls them out online, and encourages her followers—nicknamed “fruit bats”—to do so in livestreams.
In one of her videos, “IS Kaia Gerber TOO SKINNY now at 16?,” Ratcliffe scrolls through Instagram photos comparing the teen model’s body before and after what Ratcliffe identifies as unhealthy weight loss. “If you have a platform like this,” she tells viewers, “please, please do something good with it, rather than being like an emotionless coat hanger, just walking down the runway.” (Ratcliffe did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Most prominent vegans on social media don’t use adversarial tactics like this. And their fans and followers certainly aren’t universally antagonistic: Many vegans active on social media point to veganism’s core tenet of “do no harm to others” as a guiding principle for peaceful online behavior. But each vegan YouTuber I spoke to recognized a common trend of negativity in the comments to their videos—sometimes with lasting consequences.
For one woman, fans’ and followers’ expectations, and the response once she failed to live up to them, took a physical toll. The former vegan YouTuber Alex Jamieson, who co-created the documentary Super Size Me, insists that unhealthy restriction is still rampant within veganism. After being a strident vegan for nearly a decade, she says she developed insomnia, an irregular menstrual cycle, and chronic anemia, all of which she traces to stress and orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
To deal with these issues, Jamieson decided to loosen her self-imposed restrictions and eat animal products again. She waited more than a year to reveal the change. And she says that the backlash that occurred once she finally told her audience came almost exclusively from other vegans. Many vegans she considered to be her friends refused to speak to her again once she began to eat meat. One woman emailed her and wished her dead. Jamieson says she lost half the audience of her popular newsletter in that first week.
While not every vegan YouTuber has a history of disordered eating, many do. “My Eating-Disorder Story” is an almost-expected video upload on the most popular vegan channels, and there’s pressure in both vegan and eating-disorder recovery communities online to “prove” oneself by following current trends. Andrea LaMarre, a researcher at the University of Guelph, examined this pressure while studying the Instagram accounts of people openly recovering from eating disorders. In her analysis of food photos, she discovered that users photograph certain types of foods most often when they’re trying to portray what they consider to be the healthiest for recovery. These included oatmeal, chia-seed pudding, salads, peanut butter, and Clif Bars—all vegan foods.
LaMarre found that any narrow focus on the supposedly “right” foods to eat when recovering fosters a kind of echo chamber, discouraging people from feeling like they can freely share any foods they are eating that differ from the norm.
Especially for young people with a history of disordered eating, LaMarre also was concerned that receiving nutrition advice from peers without formal training can be risky. “There is something kind of lovely about the idea of helping each other out and figuring out what works for each individual person,” she says. “But I would always hesitate for that to be the only source of information people are getting because they are not necessarily people who are trained in giving diet advice.”
For the social-media stars of both the eating-disorder-recovery and veganism groups, their audiences determine what gets the most views, and in turn, the most revenue. Jenné Claiborne, the vegan “influencer” behind the channel Sweet Potato Soul, says she feels pressure to follow vegan food trends. Recent ones have been $30 weekly meal plans and five-ingredient dishes, and so that is what she’s been posting to her channel. If she didn’t have to worry about viewers, she would try gourmet vegan food, she says. “But because I’ve figured out what’s trending the most, we stick with that.”
In this race for viewers, vegan influencers often seem to have two options: Either find a way to ignore the food criticism that other vegans throw at you, or constantly try to eat what they demand—and possibly risk your health in the process.
In a recent video, Rae contends that it is entirely possible to be both passionate about veganism and kind online. She suggests that where a lot of vegans go wrong, and where she initially went wrong, is in forgetting that it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. “It’s not like when I’m saying ‘I don’t want to be an asshole,’ that I’m saying, ‘I don’t want to speak up for what’s right,’” she says. “You definitely catch more flies with honey. And in this case, you know, you definitely catch more meat eaters with vegan chicken nuggets than a mean tweet.”