When I’m out, it’s beer, not wine. An Impossible Burger™ for me, please. I want that vegetable curry to make me cry. At home, I tuck away in the kitchen corner, forking a family-sized bowl of salad in the afternoon shadows. At my parents’, my mom and I share a bottle of rosé with pasta Alla Checca.
I would not shy away from rosé during a night out, nor would I reject the elusive exciting salad. However, despite researching the relationship between gender and food for years, I still notice gendered aspects of my vegan diet that bubble to the surface like prosecco (I can’t have rosé all the time).
The present danger is ubiquitous and more threatening than mild social anxiety: men’s health. Poor diet majorly contributes to heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes, all part of the top ten causes of death for American men.1Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2017. “Leading Causes of Death – Males – All Races and Origins – United States, 2017.” Along with exercise, eating less meat and more vegetables would help reverse the onslaught of diet-related disease.2Tilman, David, and Michael Clark. 2014. “Global Diets Link Environmental Sustainability and Human Health.” Nature 515(7528):518–22.
Any preventative healthcare prescription worth its salt (but not too much!) would include the above dietary recommendations. Unfortunately, significantly fewer men than women engage in this kind of care.3Courtenay, Will H. 2000. “Behavioral Factors Associated with Disease, Injury, and Death among Men: Evidence and Implications for Prevention.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 9(1):81–142. One of the most significant barriers to men improving their health is keeping up tough appearances, and needing routine healthcare does not aid in that cause. Masculinity prizes strength, be it verbal, emotional, or physical. Meat-eating and meat culture perpetuate a debilitating focus on strength that exacts irreversible damage upon its male and female victims.
Meat culture and the grill
The concept of meat culture is undoubtedly odd to some. Despite the media’s concern regarding red meat in recent years, most believe that the copious amount of meat they consume is confirmed by their physiology. Because this amount is seemingly nutritionally imperative to all humans, it’s not blatantly gendered in the way that tampons or Viagra commercials are.
Thinking of meat culture probably conjures up images of shooting deer in a wooded glen. Hunting remains a way of life in some parts of the US. But most men only come into contact with animal flesh postmortem. Therefore, the most accessible outlet for tapping into its symbolism is the grill. Men tend to ‘command’ the grill more than women, a verb often reserved for controlling a tall ship or tank. Because a man’s masculinity is always up for question, taking charge of a dead animal—its flesh being purchased at Walmart notwithstanding—helps to assuage himself and those around him of his tenuous gender identity. On a subconscious level, it hearkens back to hunter-gather tribes and a more essentialist masculinity, masculine expressions and roles supposedly inscribed in X and Y chromosomes as opposed to being social constructions. In other words, it’s the essence of a caveman. This tale as old as time ends with a woman preparing the man’s catch to eat by the fire. But modern men end up not hunting and thus not holding up their side of the fantasy while they continue relegating women to the kitchen.
Meat, porn, and hegemony
Speaking of which, it’s no surprise that meat culture, like most other facets of society, objectifies women. But because we’re dealing with food, it takes on a distinct, savory, but unpleasant flavor.
The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams, arguably the most seminal work on this topic, establishes the concept of the “absent referent,” explaining how we erase animals as living beings from our collective memory. For instance, a meat packing company transforms a cow from existing in the real world to being packaged and marketed as beef. They erase their original form by substituting their often gruesome death with a billboard of a content cow, chewing its cud on a blue-skied, grassy knoll. And its ultimate name, “beef,” strips the life from the organism that once was. All levels of society use this philosophy behind the absent referent to justify killing animals no different from the beloved dogs that sit at their feet.
The same absent referent concept also explains much of the objectification that women face in contemporary society. Pornography objectifies both men and women for their body parts. Yet, directors and scriptwriters often give agency to men, leaving the women to be used and consumed by other actors and the primarily male audience. And if this seems too abstract a connection, there is a bounty of marketing materials that equate women to meat for men’s consumption. One Carl’s Jr. ad states that “Everyone loves big breasts” on their new chicken sandwich and that “It’s Gonna Get Messy.” An LG ad pictures a cooked tanned chicken (save for some bikini tan lines), arms outstretched over their missing head, legs apart, and seemingly ready for more than one type of consumption. The tagline: “Chicken never looked so good in a microwave.”
Meat has a heavy hand in hegemonic masculinity as well, a flavor of masculinity that bolsters the patriarchy within the institutional powers that be. Who could forget Trump when he provided a meat-laden fast-food feast for two winning college football teams in 2019? Ted Cruz advertised the National Pork Board at the Iowa State Fair, an organization that steals from farmers, passes off the funds to Super-Pac-esque groups, and ultimately benefits politicians such as himself. These events elevated meat’s power to a federal level and affirmed Trump’s and Cruz’s masculinity in the process.
Wholesome mother, chunky father
Disregarding feminism and animal welfare for a moment, I would wager there is little desire for men to edit their behavior. Keeping the concept of the absent referent alive and well through food—a thrice-a-day activity—and tying that concept to popular depictions of womanhood renders a potent concoction that defines, confirms, and strengthens masculinity. However, like masculinity in general, continually attempting to retain power and control over situations is detrimental to men’s well being because it forces men to live in fear and anxiety.
The present fear is emasculation. Vegetables are coded feminine. Just as eating meat enhances masculinity, so do plants intensify femininity. The stock photo collection-cum-meme “women laughing alone with salad” is precisely what it sounds like and more worrying than it appears. Marketers regularly exploit the relationship it forges between eating less meat-centric diets, female gender roles, and happiness.
I’ve watched dozens of Campbell Soup ads from the ’60s through the present. The overwhelming majority of the ads for their regular soup lineup have an equal proportion of male and female actors. The typical plot is a mom attempting to feed her family a cheap, easy, and wholesome meal (Campbell’s loves this last adjective).
Though most of their soups contain meat, it’s not the focus. Instead, the emphasis is on a mother maintaining family relations through cooking.
Campbell’s has also always had some version of a light soup that targets a female demographic.
Their Chunky brand of soups is a different story (a successor to their “Manhandler” campaign).
These soups feature less liquid and more solid, especially meat. In all the Chunky ads I’ve seen from the ’70s onward, I’ve only seen a woman eat Chunky soup once.
The plots tend to center around satisfying a man’s hunger enough to get him back to work.
The ads also highlight “titanic chunks” of whatever meat’s on the menu.
Campbell’s seems to have a deal with the hypermasculine National Football League too. Overall, there is a positive correlation between the amount of meat present in a Campbell Soup and the intended gender of that soup’s consumer.
Herbivore men in love
The contrast between both men’s and women’s relationship to food informs the background for my research on women’s views of plant-based men in romantic heterosexual relationships. But the inspiration originated from a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry decides to eat healthier. In one scene, he’s on a date at a steakhouse.
The salad he orders contrasts with his date’s hearty dish, chock full of literal meat and potatoes. Elaine, Jerry’s friend, later berates him for ordering something so feminine and for emasculating himself as a result. On their second date, Holly cooks Jerry mutton. He only pretends to eat it, stuffing half-chewed pieces into his jacket pocket while reminiscing about “chewing the fat” with his local butcher.
Jerry was afraid of Holly labeling him “one of those” vegetarians. The stigma of being a male vegan or vegetarian (collectively referred to as veg* from this point on) is palpable in this moment and is what I sought out to study.
The women in my sample tended not to ascribe any gender to veg* diets. Survey participants answered multiple gender measurements, and I asked interviewees point-blank if veg* diets are gendered in any way. Both mediums reflected the same sentiment of denying any association between the two. Given that most of them were veg* themselves, this is probably not surprising.
But what is surprising is the discrepancy between what they said and what they implied in their interview data. I found an astonishing amount of gendered language in these women’s transcripts.
Participants lauded values like empathy for animals and environmentalism in their men despite them being traditionally feminine-coded. Again, not terribly shocking given their own veg* values. But what was intriguing is how women commented on their men enacting these values. These women viewed sticking to a vegan diet despite hardship as a masculine strength.
A person of any gender living a restrictive veg* lifestyle must have a level of robustness when navigating certain social situations. But the women I interviewed appeared to masculinize this strength for their men. They also expected them always to maintain this steadfastness despite the situation.
One woman said that her partner was “very strong” for deciding to go vegetarian. Another “desire[s] stability” as well as a “strong mind,” a psyche ensuring that “obstacles won’t affect you” and a “motivation and positivity towards life.” One woman even fantasized about her ideal man being a “righteous warrior.”
We have always burdened men with being the rock in all aspects: financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Diet is no exception. Men going veg* is ultimately more progressive for masculinity than not. But the women in these relationships are still reinforcing an unnecessary masculine strength. This behavior is even more surprising when considering the political leanings of veg* individuals. One in ten liberal Americans identified as veg* in one Gallup poll and all the women in my research did as well. It seems the left has yet to imbue progressive views of gender into veg* folks. In omnivorous diets, meat and its associated symbolism help project a man’s power. But in meatless diets, a masculinity reinforcement must take its place. Men can never let their guard down.
Wishing it was that easy
Many (admittedly myself included) love to typecast the lazy, ignorant, American slob. But there are many sound reasons for staying the gastronomical course. While near impossible for some inner-city families to come across a stalk of broccoli, McDonald’s is often a stone’s throw from their window. Some families alienate their children from the dinner table for not authentically participating in a particular cuisine. Others may not have the time or resources to cook affordable plant-based meals.
Instead of ending this piece with a generic “Go vegan!” I advocate sensitizing to meat’s symbolism. Notice who consumes what. Observe how the media portrays carnivores and herbivores, anthropomorphizes meat, and objectifies people (chiefly women) into meat.
And finally, recognize the significance of food and the validity of anxiety around it. Meat has had such a cultural and dietary importance in modern society. Many don’t count food on a plate as a meal unless it has meat. Most don’t think twice about slinging a chicken breast onto their tray. But some men may worry about their carbon footprint, the happiness of livestock, or their cholesterol levels. This article is especially for you.
It’s okay to take your time and feel anxious or unsure about editing your diet. It’s normal to be afraid of vegetables.
Aidan Jones is a programmer by day, writer and creator by night. For more sociological content on topics like masculinities, gender, food, and music, visit aidanjon.es