Where Have All The Vegan Men Gone?
Man hunt meat. Man cook meat. Man eat meat. It’s a prehistoric stereotype (though not completely true, as early humans also gathered a large proportion of their food and heavily relied on starch) that influences the way male diets are perceived.
Manliness and meat-eating have long been mutually exclusive – take these images as examples. This photo (right) suggests the only way to be a ‘proper bloke’, along with being covered in copious amounts of hair, is to ‘eat meat with your hands’ as ‘this will alert any potential wives to your natural abilities to provide’. Hetero-normativity aside, what being a provider and abstaining from cutlery usage have to do with one another, I don’t know, but, satirical or not, the implication is clear; real men eat meat. This meme (left) takes an even more extreme route, claiming that if a man is vegan he must have a vagina, using veganism as a weapon to de-sex a man entirely (I’m aware that my analysis of gender here is limited, but I’m just trying to simplify the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ to the same level of understanding as this meme-maker).
Such toxic stereotypes, it seems, are having a dramatic effect on the vegan and vegetarian population. In a survey conducted by the Vegan Society in 2016, it was found that 542,000 Brits were following a vegan diet – however, only 37% of those were male. Two years on, a comparethemarket.com survey found that the total number of UK vegans had increased to 3.5 million – though gender breakdowns were not included within the report, we might suggest a similar trend to 2016 was being followed. Personally, I know very few male vegans, or even vegetarians, while it would take more than my ten fingers to count the number of women I know who abstain from meat. With this in mind, I set out to investigate the factors that might be holding men back from a meatless diet.
According to Dr Richard Twine, the co-founder of Edge Hill University’s Centre for Human Animal Studies, “meat remains for many men a stable, if arbitrary, hook on which to hang their gender identity.” Professor Laura Wright of Western Carolina University, concurs that meat-eating and masculine identity are intrinsically linked; “the consumption of meat is so clearly aligned with white, heterosexual masculinity as to be, at this point, inseparable from it.” I spoke to a real-life vegan, 19-year-old Aneesa, on this issue and she also agreed that there were connections between femininity and veganism; “the vegan movement is often depicted as gentle and caring, something that has feminine connotations.” She also noted that the lack of male presence in the vegan community might be problematic, saying, “I think this can be off-putting to men joining the movement, due to the pre-existing stigmas around masculine ideals and male and female spaces.” Looking back to figures 1 and 2 from earlier, gender politics are certainly at play as meat-eating not only acts as an opportunity for a man to attract a female partner, but also as a sign that he does indeed have a penis.
For those men who choose not to eat meat, social shaming is part of the package. “I think there is a stigma around men and not eating meat,” said Bryn, a 21-year-old vegan man who I spoke to, “there’s a stigma around not eating meat in general but especially around men.” A 2018 research study by the University of Southampton found that ‘men had experienced “social isolation” among friends after admitting to reducing their consumption of meat’. As a result, many men claimed feeling afraid to order vegetarian options amongst their peers at restaurants.
Along with the social stigma, it seems men are also held back from a meat-free diet due to misconceptions about not being able to build muscle effectively. “Because men are portrayed as so muscular in the media, it is ingrained that if you eat a lot of meat you’ll grow big and strong. I think a lot of men are put off by the idea of veganism because they feel they have to fulfil this body image. When I was trying to grow muscle I thought I would have to eat loads of chicken and eggs to get where I wanted,” said Jake, 19, who isn’t vegan or vegetarian but recently changed his diet to exclude red meat and fish. Pescatarian Tom, 21, who gave up meat for environmental reasons at Christmas, shared this view, saying, “I think there is a stigma surrounding men becoming vegetarian or vegan, which I imagine stems from stereotypes of typically masculine habits and masculine body image, and the idea that a high protein intake to achieve that can only come from eating meat.” Despite the common misconception, you can build muscle on a meat-free diet, as protein is readily found in foodstuffs like beans, legumes, nuts, tempeh, tofu, soy, and seitan, and there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian body-builders to prove this.
However, this is not a universally felt stigma. John, who gave up meat 8 years ago, told me, ‘I’ve never really faces any strange reactions when I’ve said that I’m vegetarian, and definitely none that seemed affected by gendered expectations.’ Though, he did admit that there is a male-female disparity in the meat-free community; ‘until a recent conversation about how I knew of more female vegetarian and vegans than male ones, I had never really considered gender coming into it at all, possibly because quite a lot of my male friends are vegetarians too.’
Whether directly or indirectly, the problem of men is staring the vegan and vegetarian community directly in the eyes – but what can be done to solve it? It’s important to dispel food misconceptions and ideas of meat-free diets as intrinsically feminine by allowing more male advocates to rise to prominence. Earthling Ed, a popular vegan activist has a growing YouTube platform with nearly 300,000 subscribers, though some of his videos have views in the millions. His most popular video, ‘You Will Never Look at Your Life in the Same Way Again’, received masses of positive feedback and a number of comments indicated that his words pushed them to go vegan, regardless of age or gender. “62-year-old dude here and 5 days into my journey of being “animal free”,” wrote one viewer. With veganism a largely women-led movement, people like Ed could be exactly what is needed to encourage more men to make a change.
Plant Based News, ‘Why Aren’t More Men Vegan?’, Feb 21 2018
Effort Level Why, ‘Toxic Masculinity is Preventing Us From Embracing Veganism’, Sept 3 2017
The Vegan Society, ‘Find out how many vegans there are in Great Britain’, May 17 2016
Compare The Market, ‘Cars Against Humanity… what would you give up to improve the environment?', 2018
The Telegraph, ‘Men fear social shame of ordering vegetarian dishes, study finds’, Aug 26 2018
PETA, '14 vegan bodybuilders will literally smash your vegan stereotype’, May 24 2017
Image from: NordWood Themes