Food is political. It can bring communities together. It can also shape different aspects of our identities, often with or without our conscious knowing. In my community, particularly with the men who are ex-Gurkhas or in service, there is a culture of cooking meat outside on an open fire and eating it together. Picture a plate of meat cooked with fragrant Nepali spices on one hand, and a beer on the other hand. Back home, slaughtering animals for food is usually a man’s job. This is the same at the butcher’s. Out of my family members, my father is the biggest meat eater. Witnessing these moments, I asked myself — why is eating meat a more ‘masculine’ thing?
In the West, we live in a culture of eating meat. From stocked-up supermarket shelves to its overall availability in restaurants and social places — eating meat is normalised. Meat is not a sentient being, an animal — meat is a product to be sold. According to numerous studies, meat is gendered. Meat consumption is relatively higher among men than women in most continents around the world. I believe deep-ingrained societal attitudes and beliefs still linger and perpetuate a positive perception of meat, influenced by language and social meaning-making. For instance, eating meat is ‘normal’, ‘tasty’, and ‘highly preferred’. Meat dishes form a part of many traditional meals in different cultures and as meat is relatively deemed more expensive, it can be seen as a ‘valued’ food culturally. More importantly, eating meat is implicitly linked to positive qualities that are often traditionally masculine. For example, eating meat makes you “strong”, “big”, and “healthy” are terms I repeatedly heard from my parents and other adults when I was younger. Further, meat protein is conventionally associated with building muscle, reinforcing meat consumption with traditionally masculine traits of being and looking physically strong. However, a healthy plant-based lifestyle is nutritionally adequate and includes enough protein, minus the high cholesterol and fat content as well as the health risks of a diet heavy in red and processed meats. The rhetoric that ‘meat is essential’ is now changing, especially as more people are becoming aware of the true cost of meat on animals, people, and the planet.
According to research by the University of Hawaii, men eat more meat if their masculinity has been threatened. How men eat more meat to be perceived as ‘manly’ not only tells us how men form closeness between one another through eating meat, but it also strongly ties to patriarchal thinking — the misperception that eating meat makes you a ‘man’ and social pressure from society, or other men, for men ‘to be like a man’. The link between masculine socialisation and eating meat is clear and influenced by political systems that dictate our society on a wider scale. We live under the patriarchy. In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, bell hooks defines it as a ‘political system that shapes and informs male identity’. bell hooks states patriarchal masculinity is the dominant form of masculinity in modern society. Elements of masculinity become manipulated by patriarchal masculinity. This informs and creates toxic masculinity — ‘unhealthy elements of socially-constructed ideas of masculinity’ that center on traditionally masculine traits, attitudes, and male dominance at the expense of women. Patriarchal masculinity is made possible therefore by devaluing the feminine. Since eating meat is linked with positive qualities associated with traditionally masculine traits, plant-based foods are often seen as a more feminine choice. Then, to oppose meat suggests being viewed as ‘feminine’, the opposite of ‘manly’ — femininity is perceived as inferior through a patriarchal masculine lens. The masculine socialisation of meat suggests why men eat more meat than women in general, but it is also seeped in misogynistic cultural meanings beyond food choice. Patriarchal masculinity is fragile and does not want to be associated with femininity, hence its connection to meat directly goes against the ethic of care which links to a vegetarian or vegan diet and traditionally feminine traits of empathy and compassion. This further suggests why men are less likely to go plant-based because a meatless diet goes against the hyper-masculine social attributes of being a ‘man’. Feminist scholar Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat argues that men eat meat in order to be ‘masculine and virile’ and through her years of research, investigates the relationship between misogyny and meat in greater detail.
On the other hand, the media has especially played a huge role in creating the cultural symbol of meat as traditionally masculine. This is often done by playing on gender stereotypes such as masculinity tropes and the objectification of women which uphold sexist associations and the gender binary with meat consumption. However, the rhetoric is changing. A new study on consumption trends in the UK by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) reveals that plant-based products are on the rise in the UK, and more people, particularly younger people are going plant-based. Women were also more likely to go plant-based than men. Media outlets like The Guardian are helping raise awareness about the meat industry’s negative environmental impacts in modern society and documentaries such as Game Changers are challenging the ‘meat is masculine’ myth by featuring former successful athletes such as former bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Plant-based products such as Beyond Meat feature plant-based professional athletes, both male and female, as brand ambassadors which shifts the perspective we need meat to be strong and encourages a positive, gender-neutral perception of plant-based eating.
The culture of eating meat links to distorted perceptions of masculinity influenced by the political system of patriarchy that exists in modern Western society. Beyond taste and personal preference, conditioned social and cultural beliefs, tradition, and the power of marketing shape socio-cultural meanings and can implicitly influence our food choices. How meat is tied to closed perceptions of what masculinity stands for can be shifted by challenging patriarchal masculinity itself. The patriarchal social expectations of being a ‘man’ are limited and fuels both misogynistic and pressurising ideals and beliefs. Considering an ethic of compassion and care in our food choices and questioning the conventional and often harmful perceptions of what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ can shift our presumptions and food choices for the better.