Veganism: a masculine choice?

| 4th February 2019
Vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian eats some spinach

Some strongmen are spinach-fuelled...

Men are less likely than women to be vegan, but veganism can help individuals express their masculinity.

We have overlooked the many strong links between veganism and masculinity.

It is increasingly common to decouple the idea of gender from traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity. Still, it may be the case that traditional masculinity helps to explain why only 40 percent of the UK’s vegans are men.

However, I think that veganism can in fact help people express their masculinity. It’s time to talk about veganism and men.

We know that these ideas are fraught: Gillette’s latest advert is ample reminder of that. But it’s hard to deny that identifying as a man has long been, and still is, attached to a lot of traditional ideas of masculinity.

Gendered traits

I won’t be arguing that by virtue of being a man, you should be masculine, and therefore vegan. I will instead be arguing that if you feel masculine, then this shouldn’t be a barrier to going vegan. I will be using such terms as “masculine” simply to refer to the traits that society currently sees as masculine, and will not be evaluating whether these traits are exclusively masculine or whether they should be embraced by men.

We have overlooked the many strong links between masculinity and veganism. Here are three.

  1. Protecting others from harm

Veganism is arguably an attempt to minimise harm. Vegans are often motivated by the negative environmental impact of animal products, and the suffering animals are put through in now-widespread production methods. Obviously, protecting others from harm is in no way an essentially masculine trait. But from defensive war to stopping one’s son from being bullied at school, men have often seen it as part of their identity to protect others from harm. Veganism allows men to express this.

  1. Standing up for a cause

In The Kite Runner, Amir’s father declares that “a boy who can’t stand up for himself turns into a man who can’t stand up for anything”. Whilst again not essentially masculine, historically masculinity has been linked to standing up for yourself, for others, and for the causes which advance their interests. “Speak truth to power” is another phrase which has echoes of masculinity ringing through its syllables.

Veganism is a multifaceted cause, and is championed by all sorts of different people with different concerns: climate change, land use, health, human rights, inequality, animal rights, or animal welfare. Virtually all men care about at least one of these issues. Switching to veganism can help men stand up for what they believe in.

  1. Fitness

Veganism has been linked to many health benefits. Fitness is firmly part of the concept of masculinity used in the UK today. The World Health Organization’s classification of many meat products as cancer-causing or probably cancer-causing comes as many male athletes are turning to plant-based diets to offer fresh strength. Boxer David Haye, F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, European powerlifting champions and whole football clubs are going vegan, saying that a fresher, plant-based diet is giving them the edge.

Not so fast

My critic – let’s call him Alan – might come back and say “look, there may be some links to masculinity, but what about the overriding masculinity of meat? Meat-eating is natural, strength-inducing, and morally acceptable once we get over our feminine emotions about animals.”

Alan says that “in the past, hunting was the man’s job. Men have hunted animals and eaten meat for millennia. Man’s past dealings with meat make it masculine”.

The first problem with Alan’s idea that meat is natural and therefore masculine is that practically no meat is sourced in a hunter-gatherer fashion. It is typically found, as we all know, in shiny plastic packaging, dissociated from its origin. Or perhaps it is served straight to the customer, dispensing with any risk of having to touch raw meat.

Second, on reflection society actually thinks of masculinity and naturalness as very separate. Society’s alpha male wears a suit. He sports a watch. He drives a car. Suits, watches, and cars are not natural objects. Very little “naturalness” seems required for society to view a man as masculine. If manliness required hunting, basically every symbol of masculinity from the red carpet, silver screen, or gleaming spacecraft is deeply emasculated. But they are not: Brad Pitt and co., whilst entirely divorced from the natural habitat of human beings, are enduring symbols of uber-masculinity.

And thirdly, virtually all men find a natural approach to manliness morally troubling, once they consider what it involves. In nature, things happen which would show a depraved character if performed by people. Men want a masculinity worth its salt in our era, not a form of it that is wedded to some pre-human time. Why think what is natural is always good?

Building strength 

“Alright”, says Alan, “but meat is a bringer of strength. It gives you protein. It is a necessity.”

However, the evidence shows that meat is not necessary for health, sport, strength, or muscle. Actually, if you lift, beans are a better bet than beef. There are diseases and cancers associated with animal protein. 

Sticking to plant-based protein ensures you can have the large amount of protein you want whilst avoiding the cancer risk many animal proteins carry. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, and peas are coming back, in new and better forms.

Alan still thinks, though, that “the view animals have rights or that their suffering matters gains its traction only from emotion, rather than any form of reasoned argument”.

This claim couldn’t be further from the truth. Veganism is seen as intellectually respectable among those whose job it is to think critically and logically about ethics. It is seen as the conclusion of reasonable argument, rather than something only emotion can produce.

Take a stand

Many people think that animals’ needs present no reason to modify Western diets that rely on factory farms, because pigs and cows don’t matter. At the same time, they think, along with everyone else, that dogs and cats do matter. But there is no logical consistency in the view that dogs must be treated well but pigs may be treated as mere resources.

Of course, veganism might be objectively masculine overall whilst being seen differently. How do we deal with that?

The answer is that such perceptions can be shaken off because they are baseless. They would say more about the insecurities of accuser than the masculinity of the man addressed.

Men can get behind veganism. For those to whom their masculine identities are cherished, masculinity can be expressed through veganism, rather than being hindered by it. Fellow men: take a stand. And if the stand that you decide to take is veganism, that goes hand in hand with the man you are.

This Author 

William Gildea is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society, whose environmental policy team tweets at @GrowGreenTeam.

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