New Superman Wanted: Vegans and Vegetarians

What is it like in modern society for a male to be conscious of his diet by reducing meat intake? The stereotypes and associations of men and meat are evolving to allow men to incorporate sustainable values into their identities. While meat-eating remains fundamental to Western dietary habits, a growing demand for action on climate change will inevitably require changes in our eating habits. As knowledge of climate change and systemic animal abuse in the meat industry increase, ignorance of the immense sacrifice required to provide a meal of meat can no longer be feigned.

For a moment, picture a vegan sitting in a restaurant booth with a plate full of greens. The waiter is filling a glass of water. At the same table, friends are chatting idly while they eat. Most likely, you pictured a girl. Like most people in Western society, you associate meat and its masculine values with men, and meat-reduced diets with femininity. However, modern men are integrating new ideas into their identities. Our history and culture has perpetuated the idea that a man’s diet is masculine and that diet is an integral expression of identity and masculinity; however, this expression of identity is evolving to incorporate values of environmental and animal welfare, and personal health. The immense challenge of feeding a growing population equitably and sustainably demands drastic reform, including the socio-cultural factors that coerce men to have meat-eating identities.

The three primary arguments for reforming dietary habits are environmental sustainability, compassion for animals, and personal health. These values motivate the cultural shift in Western dietary habits that are leading men and women to reduce meat intake. Despite a wealth of research proving many positive outcomes of reducing global meat intake, the validity of meat-reduced diets remains controversial. Researchers note that in addition to programs of population control, educating the population of the validity of these arguments is critical to solving the issues of an expanding need for food and meat.

Environmentally, the reasons are clear for meat reduction. Climate change’s greatest contributing factor is animal production. Researchers at the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, L Baroni et al compared the environmental effects of various diets and concluded that “a greater consumption of animal products translates to a greater impact on the environment,” (2006, p. 282) and that beef production is the largest factor. Creating a single portion of meat requires an enormous amount of cleared land, water, grain, and energy, which produces greenhouse gases and pollution. Veganism, the most restrictive diet, proved to be the least environmentally harmful due to several factors including the greatest reduction of emissions, deforestation, and resource use.  The researchers implored people to take action. Education of meat’s harmful effects and meat-reduction is necessary to address future environmental crises.

Meat-reduced diets are commonly believed to be nutrient deficient, while meat is considered a valuable and nutritious food; however, the idea that a vegan cannot live healthily is false. Equally so, the idea that meat — especially a system of mass meat production — is the healthiest available option is also a myth.  Such a massive system of production has adverse health effects due to increased pollution and deforestation. Researchers Diana Bogueva and Dora Marinova explain that “ meat’s association with cancers and unnecessary use of antibiotics is causing public health concerns” (2018, p. 150). Researcher Winston J Craig at the Amercan Journal of Clinical Nutrition explains that “vegans are thinner, have lower serum cholesterol and blood pressure, and enjoy a lower risk of cardiovascular disease” (2009, p. 1630S). However, due to the lack of a small variety of nutrients, supplements are beneficial when on a vegan diet. Either extreme,  plenty of meat or none at all presents a false choice. Small reductions make meaningful impacts. Being more conscious of one’s meat intake is essential to a better, healthier standard of living.

In addition to the environmental and health concerns of mass meat-production and consumption, those who practice meat-reduction are motivated by animal welfare. Animal welfare is systematically ignored and abused in the current model of mass-meat production. While it should be obvious that a system prioritizing profit over animal well-being would be privy to violent atrocities, the implications of this fact are purposefully ignored. Eating meat requires the eater forget that the animal died and the gruesome factors leading to its death. Though not as motivating as environmental or health arguments, the moral argument of meat-reduction exists due to the plethora of well-documented horrors that occur in animal factory farms. The desire to reduce animal abuse should appeal to our collective humanity and is unfairly associated with emasculation.

These three arguments are especially concerning considering the gravity of their implications. Four decades since the ‘Green Revolution’, where agricultural technology produced disease resistant crops and promised to address global hunger, global hunger remains prevalent — especially in developing countries. Population control efforts are largely ineffective in nations where large natural and man-made disasters occur. Renowned environmental sustainability researcher Jonathan Foley states that the question of the 21st century is “How will we feed 9 billion people without destroying the planet?” As wealth increases, meat consumption and its related problems increase. A growing animal-production system demands more water, land, and resource use. Mark Budolfson explains by assessing population growth and meat consumption statistics that “we will likely need 60%-120% more overall food production in 40 to 50 years compared to our production now” (2017, p. 419), a feat that will negatively impact  humans. With this developing knowledge, it is apparent that the relationships between meat, masculinity, and identity are problematic in more ways than one. For this reason, the traditional role of the male as meat eater and provider are evolving. Despite the urgency prompted by researchers, the evolution of dietary habits is a slow process due to the change-resistant nature of food culture.

Writer and advocate Carol Adams explains in her essay, “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, that “there is a mythology that meat is a masculine food and meat eating, a male activity, permeates all classes” (1987, p. 258). She analyzes historical and cultural practices, identifying the attributes that are associated between gender and meat. Food practices, such as how we eat, distribute, and identify with food, differ by gender and are ingrained as normalized social standards. Meat-eating represents humanity’s dominance over the natural world, restoration of physical strength, and success, all of which are traditionally masculine traits. Adams’ analysis defines a troubling pattern: “People with power have always eaten meat. Dietary habits proclaim class distinctions, but they proclaim patriarchal distinctions as well” (p. 258). For example, in regions where poverty creates conscious distribution of meat, men receive it and women do not; in fact, women often undergo self-deprivation to ensure their husbands eat meat. Adams identifies a long history of cultural practices, literature, and language that collectively fabricate gender roles in food and eating.

Regardless of the medium of discourse, meat is purposefully associated with men. Fairytales, where food often plays a symbolic role, show stories of fat kings gnawing the flesh off chicken legs before throwing the bones to the floor while feasting, whereas queens are shown daintily consuming more feminine foods like bread and honey. In Renaissance art, women are painted with fruit while men eat meat. Biblical descriptions of feasts express exclusionary attitudes towards women; passages describe food prepared by and reserved for holy men. Our language creates gender distinctions in food, where a large portion is a ‘man’s share’ or a hardy meal is a ‘man’s meal’. These historical ideals exist in modern identities, though they have subtly evolved.

Adams analyzes global human behaviours that demonstrate a division in food culture between the genders. Women are commonly forbidden to eat specific foods, which increases the food’s prestige. Women are stereotyped as food preparers, the cooks, while men are food professionals, the chefs. Developed nations like Canada also possess bizarre food practices; meat is explicitly marketed to men while foods like yogurt and produce are marketed to women. It doesn’t take more than your immediate understanding of the expression, ‘in the kitchen making me a sandwich’ and the crude humour it is associated with to understand the relationship between power, food, and gender. Even the values that motivate meat reduction — sustainability, compassion, and personal health — are all traditionally feminine traits. For millennia, cultural practices normalized the segregation of food by gender, creating unequal relationships with food where women and feminine foods are oppressed. This pattern promotes men’s meat-eating identities, while restricting an adoption of sustainable values due to a fear of perceived emasculation. However, new research shows that while masculine traditions are slow to change, sustainable values are slowly being adopted, or at least accepted, as an aspect of a new masculine norm.

Researchers Diana Bogueva and Dora Marinova at Curtin University Australia discuss the role of masculinity as an ingrained social construct and examine its current evolution in a study of Australian men on the symbolism and perception of meat. They define “meat, and especially red meat, (as) an archetypal masculine food embedded in the Western construction of masculinity” (2018, p. 149). It is one of the many traits of masculinity that positions men at the top of the animal hierarchy via dominance over nature, and the social hierarchy via inequitable distribution. Of those surveyed, most men believe that meat is manly, represents dominance over animals, and is luxurious. The majority did not perceive any adverse effects to their health. Researchers explain that the statistics represent popular misconceptions about the nutritional benefits of meat, and the ignorance of its consequences. However, nearly one quarter demonstrated a ‘modern hybrid masculinity’, one that researchers explain contains more traditionally feminine traits such as prioritizing health and family, and gender equality. The men were also divided on whether meat was harmless, or harmful and in need of reduction. While not a majority, these numbers represent an evolution of masculinity where men can adopt healthier and more positive identities without suffering emasculation.  Bogueva’s and Morinova’s research explains that the most coercive factors that lead men to reduce meat intake are marketing campaigns, peer pressure, and public regulation. While traditional masculine values include providing and eating meat, slowly a greater understanding of the consequences of mass meat production is leading to the evolution of the long-standing masculine standard. The researchers conclude that due to the socially conforming nature of masculinity, the slow evolution will lead to a rapid tipping point. Just as men currently might be emasculated for choosing to reduce meat, as more men embrace meat reduction, “meat-eating men will receive increasing pressure to defend their traditional masculinity” (p. 148).

The problems of traditional food production and the social standards that normalize gendered food behavior are intimidatingly complex. Though decades of research on the negative aspects of eating meat have all specified the necessity of meat-reduction, the masculine ideas that coerce men to eat and incorporate meat into their identities are rigid and supported by misinformation. However, exposure to knowledge and increased concern for environmental and animal welfare is slowly changing social standards for men.  As more research shows that a meat-reduced diet is not only possible, but beneficial, men can feel comfortable in reforming their diets for health reasons. As social pressure increases the need for men to embrace sustainability and compassion into their identities, men can comfortably practice meat-reduction. Normalizing sustainable dietary habits is necessary for both genders, but as time passes, it will become increasingly easier for men to accept that a “true” man’s role is to care for himself, the environment, and animals.

 

References

Adams, C. (1987). The Sexual Politics of Meat. In A. Barnhill, M. Budolfson, & T. Doggett, (Eds.), Food, Ethics, and Society (pp. 258-263, 2017). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Baroni, L., Cenci, L., Tettamanti, M., & Berati, M. (2006). Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(2), 279-286. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602522

Bogueva, D., & Marinova, D. (2018). What is More Important: Perception of Masculinity or Personal Health and the Environment? In Handbook of Research on Social Marketing and Its Influence on Animal Origin Food Product Consumption (pp. 149-150). Curtin University, Australia. doi: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4757-0.

Budolfson, Mark. (2017). How Much Food Will We Need in The Future? In A. Barnhill, M. Budolfson, T. Doggett, (Eds.), Food, Ethics, and Society (pp. 419-422, 2017). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5). doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736n