The Biotic Woman: Talking to Ruby Roth
You don't have to be a full time animal rights activist to spread the good word about healthy food, climate change, and women's and children's rights. Ruby Roth, author and illustrator of the recently released That's Why We Don't Eat Animals: A Book About Vegans, Vegetarians, and All Living Things, recently spoke to me about her woman-friendly artwork and why children are smarter than people often think.
What was the inspiration for That's Why We Don't Eat Animals? What made you decide to write about veg*nism and animals for such a young audience?
In 2003, I went vegan as a health experiment and it was like taking off a heavy jacket and starting to run. The more I learned about food, animals, climate change, and our food and health industries, the more the choice was validated. Fast forward, I was teaching art at an elementary school and the kids were all curious about my veganism. Little by little, and very matter-of-factly, I shared my reasons and they responded with incredible insight. Many kids wanted to go vegan, but there was no support system in their schools or homes. I looked, but couldn't find a book on the subject that wasn't based on a talking animal or vegetable-which I felt they were too smart for. So I decided to create a supportive book myself.
Was it difficult to find a publisher for a political children's book?
Yes, and I'm working on replacing the forest of trees that were my rejection letters. Everyone thought it was too subversive a subject for children–even though there are nations of vegan and vegetarian families. I realized there is a pervasive notion about children–that smallness equals frailty, which I find insulting to the astuteness I witnessed with my students. Lucky for me, North Atlantic Books and Random House saw the relevance and timeliness of the subject and had the backbone to move forward.
Your adult line of art focuses primarily on the feminine form. Do you consider your work to be feminist?
In its making, my art is certainly pro-women in that I celebrate a wide range of bodies, from 80-something-year-old figure models to thick-legged pin-up queens. Drawing female figures, especially from life, has been greatly empowering because it has given me an appreciation for all kinds of bodies and has helped me reconcile with and love my own scars and imprints leftover from thirteen years in a back-brace for scoliosis. I hope that sense of love for the body comes through in my work, whether it's manifested in a sketch of a stripper or a wrinkled old woman.
However, in its taking, I don't aim for my art to be read by the viewer any one way. I hope for people to love my art because they connect with it somehow, whether it's because they understand the girl walking the tightrope, or because they think the burlesque queen is super sexy, or because they feel empowered by a portrait of unconventional beauty. A gymnast once bought a print because she loved how it celebrated big calves and cut shoulders, things she never felt good about having. A guy friend of mine hung the same image in his house because he loved the subject's big butt and near-nakedness. Go figure.
For you, what is the relationship between feminism and animal rights?
They go hand-in-hand, both being vehicles of cultural critique and ultimately self-determination. If you call yourself a feminist but you eat animals, there is a good chance you have not yet examined the sexual politics of eating meat, let alone how we allow our well-being, our health, and our physical body to be determined by the interests of certain food and chemical industry leaders. Also, you may not yet truly know how animals suffer impossible atrocities without rights, just as slaves and Holocaust victims did. As liberal as I was, I would have arrived at veganism sooner, by the way, if the American Studies program at UC Santa Cruz (a mecca for vegans and Women's Studies) had included food as a subject we turned our race-class-gender-sexuality-lenses onto, right alongside history, culture, labor, music, politics, etc. It is incredibly hypocritical to be an activist for freedom or civil rights or equity or equality if you eat animals today. To me, a meat-eating feminist and a meat-eating environmentalist are more alike than they are unlike.
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