It's a tired scene: a first date in a quiet, candle-lit restaurant. Small talk is made. The waiter arrives at the table. The man orders the steak. The woman, a salad. It may be a stereotype (death to the first date salad!) and yet, it's a universally recognizable one. Cultural norms and the advertising industry have had us identifying genders with dietary choices for decades now.
A supporting example: Google image search "men eating." Then do the same with "women eating." You'll notice most of the immediate stock shots are of men forking meat, while women munch salads looking strangely happy. This visual paints the picture that plant food is for ladies, and perhaps cows, but men? Not so much. For many men, meat is an inarguable symbol of masculinity. We've been fed this idea for decades. If you are what you (m)eat, and you're a man, then you eat meat.
So does the meat make the man? A team of consumer researchers led by Dr. Attila Pohlmann from the University of Hawaii is studying just that: the effects of meat consumption on perceived levels of masculinity.
In a series of experiments, researchers found that after consumers experience a threat to their masculinity, the availability of a meat dish lowered their anxiety back to the level of an unthreatened control group. A flesh-free alternative presented to the threatened group did not produce the same anxiety-alleviating effect. The researchers hypothesize this effect is due to the masculinity-symbolizing power of meat. Or, in layman's terms: eat a steak, feel more like a man.
Meat in the media has become more controversial over the past several years as meat-free lifestyles like veganism and vegetarianism have gained spotlight and the health and environmental implications of the U.S.' massive meat consumption has gone under scrutiny.
But with meat still being the "manly" choice, it may become even harder for male consumers to opt for a meat-free lifestyle, even if they support it in theory. It's hard to shift an individual's perception without first tackling their society's view.
"The strongly pronounced gender-food linkage presents a dilemma for traditionally masculine persons when it comes to deciding what to eat," says Pohlmann, a vegetarian himself. "Consistently, they choose the steak over the vegetarian alternative." Pohlmann believes that accurately exploring and then exposing the psychological and physiological factors involved in this tie will hopefully influence marketing messages about masculinity and meat consumption in socially beneficial ways.
He's not the first to explore this topic.
Participants from a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research rated men who ate meat as more masculine than meat-free men, and a 2011 study from Appetite journal found that vegetarian men were still viewed as manly, but vegan men were seen as effeminate.
In the book The Sexual Politics of Meat, it's argued that the connection between meat and masculinity goes far beyond typical sexist advertising as it articulates the hidden connections between meat eating and patriarchy. That book hit shelves in 1990, so this idea has been percolating for some time now.
"I don't necessarily equate manliness with my eating lifestyle," says entertainment writer Nick Caruso, who follows a loose Paleo diet. "But that said, there's something to chowing down on a rare, bloody steak and really feeling at one with the circle of life. So it's a mixed bag sometimes."
Not all men find going meat-free to be a hit to their mojo.
Big name men have been eschewing meat in the media for years now. Bill Clinton, Moby and Paul McCartney have all publicly discussed their meat-free diets. Not manly enough for you? How about Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto or Joaquin Phoenix?
Samuel L. Jackson, too, has talked openly about being meat-free.
"It's a new vegan diet. I'm just trying to live forever," the "Bad Ass Motherf*cker" told Yahoo.
Pro athletes Prince Fielder and Carl Lewis tackle impressive physical feats while eschewing meat. And if you're swimming in the vegan pool, then you've likely heard about Brendan Brazier, John Lewis (aka the Bad Ass Vegan), and Rich Roll, all highly athletic, ultra masculine men who have been off the meat for ages.
Despite these prime examples, society doesn't seem quite ready to divorce itself from the meaty man narrative.
"Most people who have an opinion on what a 'man' or 'woman' is or does probably has a skewed view on gender roles," says photographer Geoff Souder, who has gotten a fair share of "eat like a man" comments since he went off meat six years ago. "It's a misplaced aggression, but I have no problem shutting it down."
"With anything in Western society, it has to do with marketing," says vegan chef, author and actor Ayinde Howell, founder of vegan blog iEatGrass.com. "Backed up by the entertainment industry is the idea that the bloodier the steak, the more manly the man, the same way it once was with the man smoking cigarettes." A lifelong vegan (meaning his parents raised him that way), Howell says he has never felt his manhood was under siege when others learn he eats no meat--other than the typical scrutinization he gets for being vegan in general.
Howell's link between eating meat and smoking cigarettes is an interesting one; twenty years from now, will meat consumers be ostracized the way smokers are today?
"I think vegan men are setting great examples to the world," Howell continues. "The more athletes and businessmen, or anyone who excels at their craft, the better because we can draw a direct line between the way they eat and the way they perform on the field or in the boardroom. It's helpful in changing that stereotype."
"Eating meat filled with estrogen and antibiotics? It's supposed to be manly?" asks author and YouTube personality Chris Cooney of The Vegan Zombie. "No thanks. I'll stick with plant protein. Compassion is the new sexy."
Pohlmann's team are currently securing additional funding to conduct a series of saliva tests in hopes of expanding their initial findings using hormonal biomarkers, such as testosterone and cortisol.
As meat-free continues to go mainstream (An immense number plant-based restaurants opened their doors in 2015 alone), will society's perceived link between masculinity and meat be broken? Probably not if we can't stop sexualizing bacon.