“Real men eat only steak” --- a social stigma that needs an urgent stop!
I was having a casual conversation with my friend, let’s say Tom, and things got interesting when we came across the topic of men being a vegan or vegetarian.
“If one of my close guy friends went vegan suddenly, I would be fine, maybe just make fun of him occasionally. But if you told me to picture a vegan guy, he’d be a skinny effeminate dude who likes to order an oat milk 'Laatay' in Starbucks every day.“
I laughed because of Tom's impersonation on “Laatay”. But it makes me wonder why even among younger generations - men especially - this concept of “vegan equal to being less masculine” still exists despite all the advocacies on a plant-based diet. Why are females still the majority when it comes to being vegan or vegetarian? What are the possible causes of such a phenomenon? And most importantly, what can we do about it? Not only in the western world, where meat (red meat in particular) is a popular item on the plates, across Asian countries such as China and Taiwan, there are still significantly fewer male vegans and vegetarians. In the US, men only account for 24% for the total vegan and vegetarian population; in Taiwan, 35.4%; in Sweden, only 4% of men stated that they were vegetarians while the figure for women was double. These numbers indicate that the men’s reluctance on changing into a plant-based diet is beyond geographical constraints and religious differences. But why is it the case? There are three main theories on the phenomenon based on the observations done by psychologists over the years.
The first one involves food choices and self-identity. “Precarious masculinity” is the idea that men have constant worries on losing their manly status, and therefore feel the need to prove it at every opportunity. Meat has long been labelled or associated with danger and masculinity. For example, back in hunter-gatherer days, meat was seen as a prized food and hunting was seen as a male activity. Since it was a predominantly patriarchal society, men arranged that meat would go to themselves. Successful hunters were regarded as powerful, and the availability of meat in the community's meals was a direct reflection of their power. This primitive association might still be hardwired in our brain despite hunting is no longer a necessity.
Marketing is also said to have perpetuated the concept of “genderizing” food. In the 19th Century, it became more socially acceptable for parties of women to dine alone as women gained more opportunities to work. The women’s movement in the 1970s destroyed lady-centred luncheonettes and upended the image of the happy housewife preparing her condensed soup casseroles. As reliance on men decreased, restaurants and advertising executives started labelling certain food such as desserts and salads as “dainty”, and steak as “manly”. Even now, we can see men are more associated with meaty dishes like burgers and yoghurts for women.
Such associations can be influential to our choices on food. Gestalt psychology is the idea that the human mind perceives things as a whole, not as its individual parts. When we put this concept in marketing terms, it’s called Brand Fantasy. It has the ability to create and guide consumers’ gut feelings and thus motivate their buying behaviour. If you have a positive association with a brand, you are more likely to choose it over the others. “Genderizing” food can have the same effect on the subconsciousness, making men associate meat with masculinity but in fact, it’s all just part of a marketing technique.
Furthermore, the differences in the capacity of empathy between males and females have led to a large disparity between the number of female and male vegans. Studies have consistently shown that women are more compassionate, and particularly when it comes to animals. Women make up 75% of the members of animal rights groups; in fact, feminists and animal activists have been working hand in hand for more than a century. Alice Wright and Edith Good, two well-known campaigners for women’s suffrage, lobbied the United Nations to give animals formal rights back in the 1940s.
Lastly, it’s the “social dominance theory”. It suggests that men might find meat more appealing because it reinforces their sense of dominance and superiority through viewing animals as unworthy of respect, they are asserting their power over them. The link between meat and dominance isn't just about animals. A study conducted in the 1980s meat-based hunter-gatherer societies tended to be more patriarchal, while the plant-based ones were generally more egalitarian; and another in 2015, also found a link between a preference for a more hierarchically stratified society and the endorsement of the use of animals. Despite years of progress creating an equal world, we are still in a world that is divided into different hidden classes; where men need to demonstrate their “dominance” constantly.
Men definitely need to catch up with women in the race of saving our Earth through a change of diet.
In the era of social media platforms, perhaps celebrities or influencers are a useful source for recruiting men into the green diet club. There is a long list for famous female vegans such as Natalie Portman, Miley Cyrus, Venus Williams, Ariana Grande, Ellie Goulding, Jessica Chastain, Alanis Morissette, Jane Goodall, Princess Beatrice and Beyonce. However, the cast of male celebrity vegans appears tiny in comparison, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joaquin Phoenix, Peter Dinklage, Zac Efron, to name a few. The power of social media and celebrities have been shown in many aspects of our modern society, from international politics to the cancelling culture. If it is used properly, they can become an excellent role model and classroom for men to accept and learn about the ideas of veganism and vegetarianism. Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the best examples. The seven times Mr Olympia champion has ditched his meat and dairy to focus on plant-based eating while staying “big and strong”. This shocked the bodybuilding world as animal proteins are always said to be the only way of gaining muscles. And looking at athletes like David Haye, Lewis Hamilton, Patrik Baboumian, this myth doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Having more male celebrities like them sharing their beliefs on social media platforms can definitely encourage men to take a bigger step towards a plant-based diet.
It’s going to take some more time to alter the instincts our hunter-gatherer ancestors left us and the way modern-day marketing works, however, there are things we can do as an individual! With the ubiquity of access onto social media platforms, we can share information on benefits of plant-based eating; making the diet something common (like how Brand Fantasy works!). And be more supportive and encouraging towards all the men around us, answer their questions and give compliments. Every great movement begins with small steps!
By Wing Ki Leung
Edited by Chandni Sacheti