One third of Americans will resolve to go to the gym more in 2019. I’m resolving to go less.
In the last year, I’ve lifted weights for hours each week, hoping to prove vegans can gain muscle too, and it worked. I didn’t undergo a dramatic transformation, but my arms now fill out my shirt sleeves a little more, and a few friends noticed the change. But once achieved the personal victory felt hollow. I thought weightlifting would somehow make me a better representative for plant-based eating. Instead, I felt duped. In my effort to deconstruct stereotypes about vegan men, I reinforced the outdated concept that one’s physical strength determines one’s masculinity.
Now, I’ve always been thin, and I grew up playing sports that require more cardiovascular endurance than muscle, like running. In my early twenties, I even ran fast enough to place high in some local races. Around that time, I also became vegan, inspired by writings on nonviolence from Gandhi and Cesar Chavez. I didn’t just become vegan – shocked by the cruelty of factory farming I saw in undercover videos, I became a fully fledged advocate. But I quickly learned that in speaking out for animals, I wasn’t just representing myself. I was representing veganism in a society that erroneously associates meat with muscle, and muscle with masculinity.
In my early days of advocacy, I talked to young men who worried they might lose their competitive edge if they swapped chickens for chickpeas. I’d point to meat-free Olympians as proof they’d be just fine, but to no avail. All the while I wondered if they looked at my physique – a typical runner’s body – and decided to continue eating meat.
Frustrated – and worn down by several running injuries – I eventually put my running shoes away and began lifting weights. In time, I packed on an extra 15 pounds of muscle. Deep down I knew it was all a little silly but I had a stubborn desire to prove people wrong, so I carried on, challenging one iteration of toxic masculinity – gender norms thrust upon boys and men expecting us to be dominant, aggressive and insensitive – while subconsciously trapped in another.
I’m not alone. There’s a flourishing subculture of meat-free bodybuilders, including the PlantBuilt collective and the Badass Vegan. I think there’s value in their efforts to change the public’s assumptions, but I also fear we may be giving the stereotype more attention than it deserves, while playing into the meat industry’s game of body politics.
Of course, vegans can be just as strong and fast as omnivores – maybe more so. Kendrick Farris, a vegan, was the only American weightlifter to qualify for the 2016 Olympics; track and field legend Carl Lewis was an outspoken vegan; and a new documentary by James Cameron, Gamechangers, spotlights Patrik Baboumian, a vegan crowned Germany’s strongest man.
Most vegan men will be familiar with these athletes, as we often point to them as proof that we vegans can also be traditionally “masculine”. The issue comes up frequently because vegan men are held to a higher standard, having to defend our bodies while explaining our ethics, despite the fact that vegans come in all shapes and sizes, just like everyone else. If we’re thin, it’s assumed we’re thin because we’re vegan, yet if a man who eats meat is thin that’s just his natural body type.
This illogical thinking is learned, as we’re all exposed to backwards marketing that reinforces this notion: Hungry Man’s “Eat like a Man” commercial; Burger King’s “I Am Man” commercial (which deems healthy food “chick food”); Carl’s Jr’s “Everybody Loves Big Breasts” ad; and a Men’s Health article that states, “Vegetables are for girls” (so much for men’s “health”).
This marketing has real consequences. Chrissy Brisette, RD, says: “These socially influenced eating patterns could in part help explain why men are at a higher risk of heart disease and some cancers.” Unsurprisingly, high meat consumption is also linked to increased risk of kidney problems and type 2 diabetes, and men in the US eat twice as much meat as the government recommends.
The association between meat and masculinity is so pervasive that researchers at the University of Southampton found some men don’t order vegetarian at restaurants, afraid they’ll be shamed by their male friends. Another study found that when men’s masculinity was threatened, the availability of meat in a dish lowered their anxiety. Senator Ted Cruz even attacked tofu as a veiled threat to Texans’ rugged identity, following the time-honoured tradition of alt-righters using soy consumption as an insult to one’s masculinity. Yes, “male fragility” appears to be alive and well.
It’s clear we need to decouple meat and masculinity or else we’ll continue to stigmatise a way of eating – plant-based – that is better for men’s health. We can reject the toxic masculinity that the meat and fast-food industries sell us and not let our gender determine what we eat. And we can redefine masculinity to condemn harm rather than justify it.
I’ve recently cut my gym time in half. I’m done trying to break down a stereotype that reinforces harmful gender norms. At first, I felt I was giving up on the progress I had made, which I thought might help me give veganism a better look. But now, I know it’s not worth trying to end one stereotype while reinforcing another. I’ll use my newfound time for running and cooking – among other foods – tofu.
Kenny Torrella is the director of communications at Mercy For Animals
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies