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.