There has been an extraordinary upsurge in the number of people deciding to go vegan over the past 10 years. What with concerns about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, combined with claims that the diet can be beneficial to our health, the number of vegans has doubled across Europe and the US.
One factor, however, seems to significantly increase our chances of abandoning animal products altogether. That factor is being a woman.
In the UK in 2016, the Vegan Society found that twice as many women as men were vegan. It’s not just the UK though, with statistics showing an incredible 79 per cent of vegans in the US identify as female. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise as animal rights and feminism have long gone hand in hand, with activists seeing the refusal to eat meat as a form of rebellion against the patriarchal status quo.
Meat and masculinity
Whether or not you subscribe to this way of thinking, the figures certainly seem to suggest something must be going on. So why do fewer men adopt a plant-based diet?
There are a couple of possible reasons. Meat and gender have likely been linked since the beginning of our time on this planet. Hunting was important to early humans with food gathering tasks split into gendered roles. Men went out to kill large game animals while women typically ate smaller portions of meat and collected plant foods. For chimpanzees, the more successful a male is at hunting, the better his social status. This was probably also true for our hunter-gather ancestors where studies have controversially suggested meat may have meant a bigger brain.
Men in most western societies today aren’t likely to be out tackling game to feed their families, but are still more likely to associate meat with ideas of health and strength. A 2018 study found that concepts like “virility” and “power” were a part of the relationship we as a species have with eating meat and conventional ideas of what it means to be a man.
If millennia of social conditioning causes us to associate meat and masculinity, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that men who go vegan don’t always get a positive reaction from those around them.
Lecturer in Human Geography at Newcastle University, Dr Michael J Richardson, is currently researching the link between meat and masculinities and says that the way people react to this apparent challenge to masculinity can vary. “It really depends on who you speak with regarding which defence mechanism they'll draw upon - as in young men who already consider themselves as fit, gym goers and into health and fitness tend to defend their meat heavy diets more adamantly.”
He is publishing a book on the topic later this year entitled Redefining Masculinity: feminism, family and food but reactions from people he knew brought the topic closer to home. As a vegan for almost three years, when he first made changes to his diet, he saw some of these defensive responses from his friends.
“My experience, as a sport-loving, football playing, fit, young, heterosexual white man was entirely expected within the friendship group,” Richardson explains. “Like any other challenge to the structures of hegemonic masculinities, once 'outed' as vegan, the immediate accusations of weakness and homosexuality come to the fore.”
Insults like “soy boy”, defined by urban dictionary as a phrase to describe “males who completely and utterly lack all necessary masculine qualities”, are clear indications of this attitude in popular culture. Widespread a few years ago on sites like Twitter and Reddit, the term gained traction with far-right commenters seeking to distance themselves from anything deemed “feminine” or “weak”.
Permission to be different
These negative responses could be a part of why more women identify as vegan in surveys on the subject. Even if men are interested in eating less meat, without acceptance it can still be a difficult choice, explains a study from the University of Southampton. The more men that take the leap, the easier it gets, researcher Dr Emma Roe told a conference when the paper was presented. Eating meatless meals in a group removed pressured and ‘normalised’ plant-based choices for the men who took part in the study.
“What we have discovered is that many men are interested in eating less meat, they just need social permission to do so – and as more men make vegetarian and vegan choices, that permission is becoming more readily available.”
Documentaries like Game Changers are beginning to change the tune as well. “I do think that the different routes into veganism matter however and can provoke very different responses,” adds Richardson. Gym-goers and health enthusiasts are particularly receptive to these newer vegan insights, he says.
“What's important to note about veganism is that the health and fitness angle is only one prong of a trident approach. The other two, of environmentalism and animal rights, carry different weight within these discussions.”
Changing the game
Mark Hibbitts, an ex-commercial fisherman and copywriter, was one of those men who changed their mind. “About 7 years ago my long-term veggie wife decided to go vegan, and I wasn’t happy about it,” says Mark Hibbitts. “After a while, I decided to do my own research so I could find a way to talk her out of this ‘silly phase’.”
But, in doing his own research, Hibbitts managed to do the opposite and eventually ended up convincing himself to join his wife in her newfound veganism. “Instead I discovered animal agriculture – an industry so cruel and environmentally damaging that even I couldn’t support it any more.”
At first, he found that friends resorted to the usual “bacon jokes” but Hibbitts has used his own experience to help change a few minds. “All in all people understand why I’m doing this and ask for advice on cutting meat and dairy from their diet,” he explains, “So many people have chosen to either reduce their intake of animal products or go completely vegan since speaking with me.”
As Dr Roe’s paper states, unravelling this mystery is an important task if we are to meet environmental targets for a reduction in meat-eating set by organisations like the IPCC. Those like Mark Hibbitts who choose to take the leap could, if the research is correct, help to encourage a sense of social approval that starts to balance out the vegan population.