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Fragile masculinity says meat is manly. If we don't challenge that, people will die and the earth will be irreversibly damaged

The latest study shows your diet may be killing you. Now is not the time to call your vegan friends 'soyboys'

Victoria Gagliardo-Silver
New York
Thursday 04 April 2019 17:22 BST
Western diet now killing more than smoking and high blood pressure, study suggests

The earth is dying, and so are our bodies.

If meat consumption is one of the factors in destroying the planet, giving humans cancer and heart disease, contributing to 11 million deaths worldwide, then perhaps it’s time to look to veganism as a potential solution for both the global health of humans, and the health of the earth itself. But there’s one thing standing in the way: gender politics.

Animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions, the driving cause of deforestation, and, because 80 per cent of the world’s land-dwelling animal and plant species live in forests, one of the primary causes of species extinction as well.

At this point in time, the global climate is changing rapidly because of humans, and the earth cannot sustain itself under the stress that animal agriculture induces. Each pound of commercial meat takes 12 pounds of grain to produce — each pound of beef produced requires 1,799 gallons of fresh water. The production of animal products and the mass death of animals for human consumption is destroying the planet.

As a vegan myself, I know there is no sugar-coating the reality: meat is not a sustainable, or arguably healthy, food source. It is an ongoing system that promotes the undue cruelty and death of animals for the pleasure of humans.

So why does it continue to be seen as a symbol of manliness to eat meat?

Over the years I have watched men defend their consumption of meat to insane ends, saying variations of “real men eat red meat and punch nerds in the face”. It’s not exactly a cogent line of argument.

Meat, masculinity, and the intersection of the two have been investigated by countless social scientists. The most famous and well known may be Carol J Adams in her 1999 work The Sexual Politics of Meat. Adams investigates and details the relationship between advertisement, meat consumption, and the patriarchy, determining that in American media, meat has been gendered and deemed a symbol of masculinity in order to boost sales.

The gendering of food seen in the promotion of products like Manwich to Carl’s Jr weirdly sexualised burger commercials pushes the message that meat is for men (and the opposite for women: it’s always women with salads in stock imagery). This idea now runs so deeply that in a study done by the University of Hawaii, it was found that men routinely incorporate more red meat into their diet as reassurance when they feel their masculinity is threatened.

When tons of research says that a plant-based diet is both the best for people and our planet, and men continue eating meat because it’s what men have been socialised to do, we must demand change and accountability.

To be frank, the earth is too fragile to accommodate animal agriculture for the sake of fragile masculinity.

In a Twitter poll directed at men, 45 per cent of respondents reported their biggest barrier to leading a vegan diet was social stigma. Thirty-nine per cent responded their biggest barrier was masculinity. But why?

Well, perhaps because vegan men are routinely called ‘beta males with limited options in the outside world’, with ‘way low testosterone levels’, ‘x/y organisms who don't eat meat, not men’, ‘pushovers, controlled by women, who have feminine characteristics’, people who ‘aren’t capable of hunting and gathering’ and ‘soyboy, low testosterone feminists’.

In reality, vegan men who look like Nick Squires, a champion powerlifter and vegan of five years, are combatting that narrative. When asked about his relationship with masculinity and powerlifting after he adopted a vegan lifestyle, Squires said, “There’s so much in the way of traditional gender roles that I think cause men to be reluctant about veganism. Putting aside the misinformed conception that you need animal proteins to build muscle, there’s an idea that men need to be muscular, and to most people this is tied to the consumption of animal products.”

When I asked him what he thinks it will take for more men to take on a vegan lifestyle, Squires said that he thinks that unfortunately appealing to traditional gender roles may be the way to go. “I'd love to say that I hope the idea that empathy will stop being viewed as feminine, but I don't know if that will happen. What's more likely is that the rise of vegan men will be caused by the more traditionally masculine packaging or advertising of vegan food products, as well as the presence of high-profile vegan men who exhibit traditionally masculine physical traits.”

He continued, “If you look at the phenomenon of the term ‘Soyboy’, there’s this pervasive idea that a man who doesn’t consume animal proteins is feminine, weak. Fast food commercials sexualising women to sell burgers, Father’s Day sales on BBQs, TV characters like Ron Swanson — don’t get me wrong, one of the best characters in television — [are] all subconsciously telling us that eating meat is masculine.”

When companies like Beyond Meat, makers of the Beyond Burgers, Brats, and Hot Italian Sausage are in your local supermarket, fast food restaurants like Carl’s Jr and Burger King now sell a realistic vegan burger, and there is more than enough evidence that animal agriculture is terrible for the environment, forgoing animal products should be an easy choice.

You can still have your bacon cheeseburger, you can still become a champion powerlifter, and you can prove your mental strength by resisting a narrative which only benefits advertisers and people who don’t believe in climate change. If you care about the planet, veganism, or even just reducing your own dietary risks, then men: it’s up to you to make the change.

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