Charlotte Willis explores why gender is a factor in veganism and how to stop the stereotyping.
The global vegan population is predominantly female, but why is that? We certainly face some dilemmas with regard to a conflicted media portrayal of masculinity, so perhaps following a plant-based diet may offer the opportunity to break stereotypes for the better.
“Men eat meat. End of story.”
As I sit across the table from another man, on another date, at another omni-friendly restaurant, the topic of conversation slowly drifts towards an area I’d much rather not venture towards, or in fact anywhere near, on the first date. Diet. For some men I’ve spoken to, just the idea of sustaining oneself on a diet that is free from meat (let alone any and all animal products entirely) is enough to make the air go stale. It’s a thought so unimaginable, one must draw upon every line of reasoning they can to defend the medium-rare steak sat in front of them.
I’ve heard every line. My personal favourite being “God put animals on this earth for us to use, consume and eat”. Safe to say, there was no second date.
Closer to home, my brother and father were the last ones in my immediate family to transition into a vegan diet. The vast majority of my male friends scoff at the idea of being vegan, while my female friends remain curious, open-minded and generally more accepting. Each and every year, the majority of Veganuary participants are overwhelmingly female, and our social media feeds blow up with more and more influencers choosing to be a #PlantBasedWoman every day. It seems, for once, that the female population has the upper hand. We’re more inclined to actively choose a diet and lifestyle that prolongs our health, saves animals and helps restore the planet. Which begs the question, what’s to blame for this ridiculous gender gap when it comes to veganism?
A false sense of masculinity
It’s no surprise that the diet one chooses to follow has implications upon how we are perceived by society. For example, those who consume a predominantly healthy diet are perceived as more positive, attractive and morally justified individuals than those who choose to eat unhealthy foods. What’s more, psychological research into the associations between diet and gender perceptions have found a significant association between meat and masculinity, particularly when it comes to the traditional perception of what it means to demonstrate and emanate a sense of manliness.
This association has been proven across a variety of cultures and contexts. Interestingly, one particular piece of research in 2010 discovered how males who did not consume meat (following a vegan or vegetarian diet) were actually the most likely to report feelings of pressure to consume meat and animal products, as to distance themselves from femininity, when compared to omnivores.*
Quite interestingly, recent research has outlined a strong association between masculinity and the consumption of meat, via analysis of advertisements, which frequently associate women and meat together (providing a message that the consumption of meat is akin to the consumption of women). It also remains true that advertisements of fast food products targeted at males are most likely to be aired during sporting events on television, and frequently use imagery that demonstrates males as engaging in physical displays and endorsing male role expectations of barbecuing and delivering the Sunday roast to the family table.*
When we look at these overwhelming societal gender roles assigned to males regarding their dietary consumption of meat, it isn’t too surprising that there seems to be an almost ingrained, population-wide association between femininity and veganism. If eating meat is what society comes to expect from males, there is a strong likelihood that these cultural norms will push traditionalist men (those conforming to, or whom are highly influenced by, societal and cultural norms) towards carnivorous dietary tendencies, and away from a plant-based lifestyle.
It’s normal for men to die from heart disease… Right?
I’m sure we’re all aware of the general disconnection in knowledge between what we eat and our health. Doctors are far more likely to prescribe statins for high blood pressure, or beta blockers for heart disease, than they are to suggest their patients adopt the only diet that has been clinically proven to reverse and prevent one of the biggest killers of the Western world – spoiler alert: it’s a plant-based diet.
Which begs the question, with a higher male mortality rate from largely preventable cardiovascular diseases compared to females, have we become susceptible to pigeon-holing diseases of the diet and lifestyle into our expectations of what it means to be a male? Could it be, that the majority of doctors and clinicians are reluctant to suggest the adoption of an entirely plant-based diet as a part of their patient’s recovery and treatment programme, simply because they uphold the stereotypical gendered association of meat and manliness?
This sort of distorted logic puts male health into a dangerous position. The refusal to adopt a potentially life-saving diet, due to being held back by a falsehood that eating a plant-based diet increases your femininity, is in itself nonsensical, and in the longer term, potentially lethal. If male patients scoff at the idea of eating a wholefood, plant-based diet to reduce their incidence of potentially life-threatening illness due to cultural expectations, the potential health of almost half of the world’s population is at a critical tipping point.
There’s nothing manly about killing animals
Perhaps there’s something to be said for males eating animals, if one wants to be viewed as a provider, or a “bread-winner” so to speak. I can appreciate that way back when, in the evolutionary days millions of years ago, there may have been a sense of pride and grandeur surrounding the ability to use and manipulate tools to catch and kill prey. I’m sure such advantages were revered and desirable in the days when the first hominid species began evolving towards where we are today (hunched up over a computer screen, ah… you’ve got to love evolution!)
But that’s just what we did. We evolved. Just as we evolved and developed a specific region of our brain to enable us to have conscious perceptions and abstract thinking, we evolved in our diets, our nutritional requirements and our relationship with the earth. We are now living in a Western agricultural society, so rich in diversity and nutrient density that we no longer need to rely upon the killing or manipulation of animals to sustain ourselves.
It’s a well-known fact that we are far better off (economically, nutritionally and environmentally) consuming the grain that we feed to the animals, as opposed to eating the animals themselves. We have developed a food industry, which can provide us with a complete range of foods to nourish ourselves through the exclusive consumption of plants, without the requirement to kill or consume an innocent animal. So why would we continue to do so?
There’s nothing manly about killing and consuming animals in a society where there is no physiological, environmental or nutritional benefits of doing so. That’s just reckless, callous and cold behaviour. Far from any definition of what I would believe would be ‘male’.
While 2018 brought into the spotlight such plant-based delights to the senses as the Beyond Meat burger, the Pizza Hut vegan range and Gregg’s sausage roll, there were ripples in the ocean beginning to form into waves of change emanating from the male vegan cohort of influencers, celebrities and prominent public figures. For example, there’s no denying that Jay Z’s announcement of his vegan diet (and investment into a recent vegan cookie-based business venture) has catapulted veganism into the modern-male realm with avid success, while athletes and body-builders such as Derek Simnett, Rich Roll and Nimai Delgado continue to inspire and kill stereotypes (not animals) through their lifestyle choices.
At the time of writing this piece, we are eagerly awaiting the release of the truly revolutionary documentary The Game Changers. This feature-length production will feature the stories of elite vegan athletes and sporting figures, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Patrik Baboumian, with a view to educating males, and creating a new stereotype amongst the all too often animal-product-dominated world of athleticism and sports performance. One to show to your partners, brothers and male friends, for sure.
On the contrary, it’s also empowering for males to gain recognition for their compassion towards animals and for adopting a proactive and ethical stance on environmental responsibility. Never before has the media (particularly social media) been so open to accepting and supporting male activists such as Earthling Ed and Seb Alex, who campaign for animal liberation through non-violent activism.
There has also been a marked rise in the popularity of plant-based male chefs. Just look at the insane book sales experienced by the Bosh! boys, Gaz Oakley, Brett Cobley, Derek Sarno and the twin brothers behind The Happy Pear. All men acting as shining examples of what it takes to be vegan, and male, in the competitive industry of celebrity cooking. It is hopeful to see how many men will eventually become inspired to try veganism, thanks to the work of such influential individuals within the movement. If we define ourselves, even partially, by use of cultural and societal norms, then I am grateful to these passionate and compassionate males, working to dispel the harmful stereotypes of veganism that exist within our greater society.
Slowly but surely, we are beginning to gain insight into a future world. One in which both males and females are viewed as being equally justified in their reasoning to adopt a plant-based diet. Being manly in the 21st century does not, and should not, require an individual to jeopardise their health, or that of the planet or the animals around us, in order to justify an upheld cultural norm. Being manly is not unnecessarily harming animals when there is ample and plentiful alternative foods to be found elsewhere. Being manly is not a display of ancestry-based indulgence in meat and animal products.
Surely, being manly is to make an informed and conscious decision to adopt a diet which is sustainable in every sense of the term. Implementing an evolved diet, which is modern and ethical, and quite frankly, makes the most logical sense. Being manly is to be vegan, end of story.
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.