James Odene from ProVeg is on a mission to solve one of the big questions facing us – why aren’t more men vegan?
Veganism is mainstream. Wow, that feels great to type, I think I might just write it again – Veganism is mainstream. There is now a possibility if you told your gran that you were vegan, she’d have half a chance of knowing what you were talking about.
Now that veganism is mainstream – I can’t help but acknowledge a bit of a one-sided party going on and the question is ‘where are all of the men?’ With only 37% of vegans identifying as male and of the 165,000 Veganuary sign-ups this year, only a meagre 14% identified as male, it’s clear the vegan movement is yet to capture the male market. Bizarrely the movement is dominated by men as the ‘figureheads’, but not in the following.
It sets out a few interesting questions: What is it about the men that have chosen a vegan diet and those that haven’t? What is it about the movement’s messaging that is not connecting with men? How do we now make veganism mainstream for men?
So, men, heads up
How far up the food chain are you? Considering yourself at the top of the chain, much like thinking Earth is at the centre of the Solar System, is a prevalent western ideology that places man (yes, man, MAN! ROAR! *beats chest*) as the most important and mightiest of all. In truth, we share the planet with all life and Earth is not at the centre.
There is a cyclical, tautological kind of argument for eating meat – we are the top of the food chain so we eat animals, and we eat animals so that we are the top of the food chain. But we don’t have to see it this way, there is no necessary reason for us to see ourselves at the centre of the world, nor at the top of the food chain, or as the CEO, or the General, or the ‘bread-winner’, or the rich banker, or the Prime Minister, or head of the barbecue, or the top dog, or the big cheese (vegan obviously), or the… or the…
Eating meat has been culturally established to represent power, prestige, achievement, virility, domination and ‘I am a WARRIOR!’ even if it does come neatly wrapped up in a little plastic airtight tray with an easy-open pull tab. It is a piece of the ‘manly’ puzzle that men cling to in order to perform their most perfect and well-rehearsed ‘man’ persona.
The male crisis
A vegan diet could pose as a threat to the male sense of identity as a virile, dominant and powerful creature. As it stands, the male identity is in crisis. Thrown into the mix of the contemporary male identity crisis alongside man-bags, man-scara and stay-at-home-dads, is the drive towards veganism and, unfortunately, it’s a little late to the party and so is at the back of the queue alongside man-skirts and hugging a friend without thumping them on the back.
It is a pervasive construct that eating meat is a man’s world. When you think about the media construct of eating meat, it is for men – not only something they should be doing as a male status symbol, but something that restores the world order of ‘man at the top’. The restorative function of meat eating is to work against the male identity crisis, it is a remedy that men keep turning to, not because it is necessary or healthful, but because it is what ‘culture’ tells them they should do.
As we drive forward with encouraging men to share their emotions and go to the doctors when necessary, it can feel like the meat-heavy ‘man diet’ is amongst the final frontier to unlocking the hard-rusky-man-shell that protects them from anything ‘soft, wet and whimsical’. How we do this is the question.
When identity is challenged or in flux, people turn to cultural ‘norms’ to make them feel at ease. While eating meat is still the picture of manliness, the pervasiveness of this is going to be hard to tackle. Interestingly, when a person perceives a threat to their sense of identity, the same areas in the brain light up as when being physically attacked or threatened – that way, threatening a man’s identity with a plant-based diet could be sending them back even further into their macho ‘man’ persona. In this though, accepting the propensity to return to the old blueprint, perhaps an answer emerges; appeal to the ‘man’ in the man…
Appealing to the ‘man’ in the man
We need to translate the messaging into their values – ‘being fit, virile and the protector of the family are qualities of a plant eater’.
For those that think eating meat is manly, then perhaps they will be shocked to know that its consumption is linked to erectile dysfunction, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer to name a few side effects. James Cameron’s new feature documentary, The Game Changers, which presents elite male vegan athletes, is on the horizon for public release and I for one am hoping that this will do a lot of good. The film gives masculinity a new narrative and tells another story, where the side effects of a plant-based diet can reduce your risk of disease and improve your strength and performance. You only have to look at Torre Washington, vegan bodybuilder, to know that plant-powered is supercharged.
There is a serious side to this, with so many health concerns and fatal diseases caused by a diet high in meat consumption and suicide being the highest killer of men under the age of 45, there is important work to be done in supporting men towards good emotional and physical health. Leaving the macho man persona in the past where it belongs, along with eating meat as an identity symbol, are the next vital stages.
Goodbye Mr Macho
I for one, as someone who has always felt distant from the male archetype, welcome the death of machismo without the death of the man. I welcome the man-bag and the man-scara, but I also know we need to bring all men along for the ride. I’m aware of a sense that men are dumb Neanderthals that need us to hold their hands and lead them away from their barbecue safe-space, but I can’t help thinking that there’s merit in conjuring this level of guidance to those that are lost. People need time and compassion and to be approached with language they can connect with.
First, let’s welcome all of the macho language into the movement to capture them and then work to translate the language of empathy and compassion into the 21st-century characteristics of man. The vegan movement can do so much more for society than improve the physical and mental health of half of the population. When empathy and compassion are second nature, think of the crime stats, think of the pub brawls, think of these men as fathers, husbands, bosses, MP’s… think of how the world could be transformed when the ‘man’ in the man is released. Leaving just the man. Healthy and alive.
In 2016, after a switch to a plant-based diet, James looked for ways his work and energy to further veganism could combine. He is now the Media & Communications Manager for global food awareness organisation ProVeg International.