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How Masculinity Is Barring Men From Trying Plant-Based Diets

Some men still consider eating meat to be a great pleasure in life — in spite of the environmental costs.

It’s 2006 and a man is upset. He’s hungry, and he’s on a date with a beautiful woman, and the waiter has just brazenly placed before him a plate that has nothing — or at least nothing much — on it. It looks a bit like a small shrine to Instagram minimalism and, frankly, isn’t going to cut it. Man is upset. Man is hungry.

Man even tells us so. “I am man, hear me roar, there’s just too much to ignore,” he sings, borrowing a bit from Helen Reddy, embarrassing his dizzied date, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, insulting her: “I’m way too hungry to settle for chick foooood.” (Emphasis his.)

In fact, what man really wants is what all men (allegedly) want: meat. So he heads across the street to a burger joint to get some, joining a flash mob of other men in a kaleidoscopic march of testosterone: burgers and bacon and fire and muscles. And cars.

And because this is a Burger King commercial, it has to end with some artful, languishing poetry: “Eat like a man, man,” a guy — no, a man — says, with a deep voice. Masculinity restored. Fade to black. Want a burger?

It’s fine if you do. Men, meat, and masculinity have long been ensnared in this constant cultural tango. While it’s true that Popeye got his super strength from spinach, the mantra still goes that real men eat meat, and it follows that many people still associate meat-eating with dominance, power, and virility. (Yes, some men think eating meat helps their sex drive. Reader: it doesn’t.)

Just ask the researchers. “In contemporary North American society, meat is often viewed as an archetypal food for men, with many men not considering a meal without meat to be a ‘real meal,’” social psychologists Dr. Matthew Ruby and Dr. Steven Heine wrote in a 2011 study on meat, morals, and masculinity. Interesting, too, was their finding that vegetarians were perceived as “more virtuous” (which is apparently unfashionable) and “less masculine” (also unfashionable) than omnivorous eaters.

And with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods cropping up in every fast-food restaurant you can dream of, from A&W to Tim Hortons to the very same Burger King in question, it’s no wonder that men seem to be clinging so firmly and desperately to their meat: their food, and their manhood, appears to be in limbo.

But what exactly makes meat so “masculine”?

Consider the stakes (not steaks — get your head out of the gutter!): “If you’re vegetarian, people think of you as sensitive: you’re emotional and you have empathy for animals, which is why you don’t eat them,” Dr. Hank Rothgerber, a social research psychologist at Bellarmine University, told HuffPost Canada. “But masculinity is all about being stoic, tough, emotionless, and not identifying with other people, much less animals.”

So the sensitive vegetarian man, like the sensitive man, is an affront to the social order, or at least to how men imagine they are supposed to be. And studies do confirm this anxiety: many have already found that veganism and vegetarianism are generally thought of as “feminine” practices. Apparently, people have a tendency to associate meatless diets with descriptors like “less likeable,” or “physically weaker,” or, somewhat predictably, “less masculine.”

“Really, a lot of men’s magazines and TV commercials have pushed this idea,” Rothgerber says. “They play off of masculinity and appeal to men’s collective sense of what it means to be a real man.”

“Studies show people perceive vegans and vegetarians as less likeable, physically weaker and — predictably — less masculine.”

You don’t need to squint or look too far to find proof beyond the Burger King ad. You’ve likely seen it yourself. An Esquire cookbook called “Eat Like A Man.” A Men’s Health article arguing “vegetables are for girls.” Literally any ad that sells meat and heterosexual sex as one big package (pardon the pun). (Earlier this month, Carl’s Jr., the fast-food chain infamous for selling burgers with a side of sex, announced it would be revising its marketing strategy.)

Even the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called men “the natural meat-eaters” in his 1984 magnum opus, A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.

“Meat, the nourishing food par excellence, strong and strong-making, giving vigour, blood, and health, is the dish for the men, who take a second helping, whereas the women are satisfied with a small portion,” Bourdieu wrote, almost creepily predicting how today’s North Americans would consider “lighter” foods to be “female” and “heavy” foods to be “male.

Watch: Does eating meat really improve your sex life? Story continues below.

There’s no agreed-upon origin for this whole thing, and there’s probably no way to identify one for sure. Some speculations meander into prehistoric times to argue that the deep-seated association comes from the hunting and gathering period, when men were supposedly tasked with chasing their wild dinner with sharpened, bloodied spears. (An activity that would, ostensibly, require aggression and strength; one could also argue this as the birthplace of the virility myth.)

Others think it’s mostly a social thing, further calcified by product marketing and political campaigns like that famous one from the First World War, in which meat was literally diverted from civilian women to male combatants who needed “enough meat” so they could “go out to drive a tank or spot a sub or dive a plane.”

How meat-eating is contributing to climate change

The problem, though, is that the world is in crisis.

Livestock need lots of space to graze, and forests are often cleared out just to make room for them. (Nevermind the fact that deforestation is the second leading cause of global warming.) The production of animal products is responsible for nearly one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and it takes about 1,799 gallons of fresh water just to make one pound of commercial beef. Essentially, the manly consumption of meat is irreversibly damaging the world.

Just last year, a study conducted by Dalhousie University found that more than half of Canadians are interested in eating less meat, but that men were less likely to ditch it completely — in spite of the effects, they still often consider meat-eating to be “a great pleasure in life.”

Since 2004, consumption of red meat in Canada has been slowly declining. But it doesn’t appear to be declining fast enough, nor is it compensating for the rest of the world’s dietary habits.

A high-level report commissioned by the United Nations, published this year, described plant-based diets as a big opportunity to mitigate climate change.

“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” Hand-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, told the Nature research journal. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”

Meat consumption is not, despite the science, decreasing. The USDA estimated that in 2018, there would be more meat eaten than any other year per capita, per person. “On the one hand, we have climate scholarship and increased scrutiny and more books coming out documenting all these things, but on the other hand, not only does it seem like none of it is reducing meat intake, but the data seems to suggest that it’s actually increasing it,” says Rothgerber. “It’s a really big puzzle.”

Despite the stakes, meat consumption is not globally declining

It’s a big puzzle that Rothgerber has been trying to solve. He believes that recent years have brought increased social pressure to go vegan or vegetarian. Protests for animal rights seem to have grown more and more frequent, and in September, while attending the Toronto International Film Festival, none other than Joaquin Phoenix materialized at a subway station to participate in an afternoon vegan demonstration.

It’s no surprise, then, that some men feel as though their meat — and, by extension, their manhood — is under attack. (The more frequent debuts of Beyond Meat in restaurants kitchens have, not strangely, corresponded with a hostile response from men often hailing from the alt-right.)

Their response to this atmospheric pressure has been a kind of offensive defence. “Men are basically hunkering down and coming up with all sorts of rationalizations and explanations for why they eat meat,” Rothgerber says.

A recent study he did found meat-eaters today experience cognitive dissonance. Most people, he says, care about animals, or at least don’t want to hurt them. If they run over a squirrel, they feel bad. They’re aware that their diets are inconsistent with something — whether it’s their concern for the environment or society’s concern for animals — and it makes them feel uncomfortable. (Have you ever wondered why beef is called “beef” and not cow, or why pork is called “pork” and not “pig”?) They address this discomfort either by changing their diets, or by strategically changing how they think about it.

“They’ll tell themselves that animals don’t feel pain, or we’re meant to eat them, or they taste too good to give up, or they’re necessary for our health,” Rothgerber says. “And so men will come up with these justifications because they feel as though they’re under attack, and those justifications will strengthen their behaviour even more.”

Studies have found that even men who want to reduce their own meat consumption are embarrassed to eat vegetarian or vegan food in public. The irony here is that the supposed masculine thing to do, when pressured by other men to choose meat, would presumably be to remain stoic, to be tough, to refuse to identify. Instead, the winning option is the decision to submit.

“What we have discovered is that many men are interested in eating less meat, they just need the social permission to do so,” Dr. Emma Roe, one of the study’s leaders, said last year, at the Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference in London. Hope, then: a recent study learned men found plant-based diets much more filling than meat. “And as more men make vegetarian and vegan choices, that permission is becoming readily available.”

Funny, then, that the solution, the proposed scientific answer to the problem of the many gaping mouths in the disaster-ravaged nest that is the planet, seems to be ... wait for it ... “chick foooood.

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