Sex and gender

On ‘meatheads’ and ‘soy boys’

Alina Salmen and Kristof Dhont on the gendered nature of meat consumption and veganism.

16 November 2020

Sweaty, muscly men punching bags and lifting weights to the sound of heavy grunts and loud hip-hop music… The opening sequence of James Cameron’s recent documentary The Game Changers leaves no doubt that this is not your run-of-the-mill pro-vegan documentary. Rather than shedding light on animal cruelty or making a case for the disastrous environmental impact of meat consumption, The Ultimate Fighter winner James Wilks travels around the globe to meet plant-based professional athletes, aiming to clear up the myth that animal protein is necessary for physical strength and performance.

The idea that meat is manly is engrained in society and permeates pop culture and advertising. For instance, meat advertisements often target men by praising the masculinity of eating meat or by portraying sexualised women alongside meat, implying that both women and animals are consumption products for men. Several scholars have picked up on this, including vegan feminist Carol J. Adams. As early as 1990, Adams wrote that ‘in some respects we all acknowledge the sexual politics of meat. When we think that men, especially male athletes, need meat, or when wives report that they could give up meat but they fix it for their husbands, the overt association between meat eating and virile maleness is enacted.’

Such ideas have long been confined to philosophical and sociological spaces. But in recent years, and with the growing popularity of plant-based diets, psychological scientists have also developed a keen interest in the link between meat and masculinity and its implications for individuals and society.

Meat is manly

What does psychological research say about the meat-masculinity hypothesis? A straightforward first test is to compare men and women’s levels of meat consumption. And indeed, research consistently shows that, across cultures, men eat bigger portions of meat and eat meat more frequently than women. Women on the other hand report eating more fruit, vegetables, vegetarian meat substitutes, and vegetarian meals than men. Women are also more likely to self-identify as vegetarian or vegan. In other words, gender dynamics have a profound impact on meat eating habits, consistent with the meat-masculinity hypothesis (Loughnan & Davies, 2020; Rosenfeld, 2018; Ruby, 2012).

Men and women do not just differ in their levels of meat consumption but also in the way they think and talk about meat. In research by Hank Rothgerber (2012), men not only reported consuming more meat than women, they also justified eating meat differently. Compared to women, men were more inclined to endorse justifications stressing the hierarchy between humans and animals; specifically, that humans are on top of the food chain and have the right to eat animals. Men were also unapologetic about the fact that they just like eating meat too much to give it up. Women on the other hand were more likely to say that they try to avoid thinking about the meat they consume, and to avoid associating meat with the animal it comes from.

Clearly, gender differences in meat consumption are sizable and robust, and overall, men seem more comfortable with the idea of eating animals. But do people really believe that meat is manly?

Paul Rozin and his colleagues (2012) showed in a range of studies that meat does indeed symbolise masculinity. For example, participants were quicker to associate meat with masculinity than with femininity in an implicit association test. In another study, when asked explicitly, participants rated meat, and especially mammal muscle meat such as hamburger and steak, as much more masculine than feminine. The opposite was true for other food groups – chocolate and peach for example were rated as more feminine than masculine. Furthermore, analysing 20 languages with gendered nouns like German or French, Rozin and his colleagues found that meat and meat-related words are more often masculine than feminine. So we associate meat with masculinity both implicitly and explicitly, and this association is even reflected in how language is constructed.

Violating gender norms

If meat signals masculinity, then men who choose not to eat meat might sacrifice more than just their bacon. Indeed, the backlash against veganism and vegetarianism, with gendered insults such as ‘soy boy’, seems to be particularly directed at vegan (or vegetarian) men. Being a minority in most cultures, vegans and vegetarians are often targets of prejudice, comparable to the level of bias people hold against other minority groups (Hodson et al., 2020; MacInnis & Hodson, 2017). However, vegan and vegetarian men are under special scrutiny and are more disliked than vegan and vegetarian women (MacInnis & Hodson, 2017). In addition to belonging to a minority, they also violate masculine gender norms and are therefore perceived as less masculine.

To test this idea, Ruby and Heine (2011) presented participants with a description of a person who enjoys reading, going to the movies, and hiking. Additionally, the person was described as either a vegetarian or an omnivore. Half of the participants read about a man called Jim, while the other half read about a woman called Suzy, and all were asked to rate the masculinity of this person. Unsurprisingly, Suzy was deemed less masculine than Jim. More importantly, vegetarians were also perceived as less masculine than omnivores, but only when male, not when female. Specifically, vegetarian men were perceived as less masculine than omnivorous men, demonstrating the association between men, meat, and masculinity.

Could such ‘loss’ of perceived masculinity come with aversive consequences for vegan and vegetarian men? That is, can lower perceived masculinity explain why anti-vegan prejudice is stronger towards male (vs. female) vegans and vegetarians (see MacInnis & Hodson, 2017)?

Recent findings from our own research indicate that this is indeed the case (Salmen & Dhont, 2020). We found that vegan men are not only perceived as less masculine than omnivorous men, but also that this lower masculinity is further associated with more negative attitudes towards them. In fact, our participants perceived vegan men as less warm and were less keen on being friends with them, and this was largely driven by their perception of vegan men as less masculine. Moreover, these effects were especially pronounced for those who more strongly endorse traditional gender roles.

Vegan men might also be less fortunate than their meat-eating peers in the world of dating (Timeo & Suitner, 2018). In a recent study, omnivorous heterosexual women saw a range of descriptions of men, some of whom were vegetarian, others omnivorous. The vegetarian men were seen as less attractive, less sexy, and less of an ideal partner than the omnivorous men, and this was partly because the vegetarian men were deemed less masculine. When asked about their impression of the men, some women even explicitly referred to their diet (‘He is far from my ideal mate because he is vegetarian’). In another study, male participants were asked to imagine being in a restaurant with a female dating partner. They were then given fictitious menus, containing meat and vegetarian dishes, and asked to pick dishes for themselves and for their partner. The more strongly they associated vegetarianism with femininity, the more likely they were to pick a meat dish for themselves and a vegetarian dish for their partner. Timeo and Suitner conclude that ‘Men seem to eat meat in part because they want to convey a gender-congruent image of themselves, and women seem to reward them for this in their mate selection’.

Preserving manhood

Taken together, vegetarian and vegan men are perceived as less masculine than their meat-eating counterparts, and this can subject them to potential romantic rejection, but also more generally to prejudice and social avoidance. Men’s concerns about perceived masculinity and anti-vegan backlash might present a serious barrier to moving towards a plant-based diet. This is in line with decades of research that indicates that men often go to great lengths to protect their precarious manhood.

Manhood, unlike womanhood, is often perceived as something that needs to be earned, and can easily be lost if one fails to meet society’s standards for manhood (Vandello et al., 2008). Threats to masculinity create anxiety, and men tend to avoid this anxiety by performing and demonstrating their masculinity, often with harmful consequences. For example, the more men conform to traditional masculine role norms, the less likely they are to engage in health behaviours such as medical check-ups, and the more likely they are to engage in risky behaviours, such as risky sexual and driving behaviour (Mahalik et al., 2006). Excessive meat consumption has been linked to long-term health problems (Bouvard et al., 2015), and might join the ranks of risky behaviours that men engage in to demonstrate and preserve their manhood.

Promoting images of muscly plant-based athletes, as in The Game Changers, can help to challenge the idea that meat is essential for strength, uncoupling meat from masculinity. These images may take away barriers that stop men from becoming vegan. At the same time, such an approach relies on the stereotypical ideal of masculinity and could even reinforce the problematic idea that real men should be strong. Whether such efforts really can ‘change the game’ is a question we have yet to tackle.

- Alina Salmen is a PhD student in Social Psychology at the University of Kent

- Kristof Dhont is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Kent


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