If you’re wondering if we gender food, google “man eating.” Cool, dudes shoving burgers down their throats. Now google “woman eating.” Salads abound. From these stock images, one would think that women pretty much eat only cubes of fruit and iceberg lettuce while laughing into their forks.
On one level, these search results might seem more indicative of female diet culture than of men’s diets; we’re more likely to view a diet of solely salad as a trendy fad than we would a diet that largely consists of meat (looking at you, keto fiends). That’s because we already assume that eating massive quantities of meat is the norm—the average American ate 198 pounds of meat in the year 2014 compared to the world average of about 91 pounds. We are a meat-centric society and, despite the growing number of very vocal plant-based folk, meat consumption is soaring (annual meat consumption per person in the U.S. was predicted to be to 222 pounds for the year of 2018). America is increasingly meat-obsessed, and when you take a closer look at our country (the “steak of the union,” if I may) it’s hardly surprising. Whether it’s Hungry-Man Frozen Dinners TV commercials or the not so wholesome not so family farm Perdue chickens, America loves meat. So why aren’t both women and men on Google Images chowing down steaks? Why is meat so connected to masculinity?
We could, of course, approach it from a naïve “first humans” perspective: men are hunters, women are gatherers. But even if that perspective is anthropologically accurate, it’s strange that the association has lived on considering the only spears most men wield now are the sticks inside their corn dogs. According to a study done by the Vegan Society, 63 percent of vegans identify as female, while 37 percent identify as male. This divide is slightly more even but still apparent in vegetarians, with 41 percent of vegetarians in the U.S. identifying as male. Men aren’t hunting animals as a means to survive anymore, but there still seems to be an inextricable link between meat consumption and manhood.
We seem to think that meat reinforces this idealized conception of manhood, that we are the number one predator. But ironically, in today's corporate capitalist world, this sentiment has only allowed men to be targeted by meat corporations. Take Burger King’s “I Am Man” commercial from 2007: a man leaves his date at a restaurant because he doesn’t want to “settle for chick food.” The commercial ends with the statement “Eat like a man, man.” Basically, the message is that maleness is predicated on consuming a meat manufactured by a corporation (Burger King). In the same way that beauty narratives tell women they need x product to be truly beautiful, our society has posed meat consumption as something integral to manhood. It also sets up yet another way to pit women against one another, as some women use misogynist food narratives to their favor by asserting they’re not like “typical women.” The girl who gets a burger on the first date is a cool, one-of-the-guys kind of girl, while the girl who eats a salad is overly concerned with her figure or too girly. If there’s anything more American than meat, it’s misogyny!
Thinking of meat as synonymous with strength isn’t solely capitalism’s fault, but colonialism as well (although those are both just dressed-up words for the exploitation of poor people. You say tomato, I say subjugation of millions). In postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi’s book Affective Communities, she highlights how the meat-eating English used meat as a colonialist means of control over India; meat was seen as food of the strong and “intelligent” colonizer, the diet of “civilized” English society. She argues that the English used meat consumption as an “ideological tactic” against the more plant-based Indians: if meat meant strength and superiority, a vegetarian diet meant inferiority, illness, and weakness.
I wanted to see what masculine people had to say about meat. Did they notice the emphasis on meat eating in America or was I driving myself crazy over nothing? To George, who I knew in high school and struggle to call a man rather than a boy, “meat means protein and gains that’s about all that comes to mind.” From what I gathered during our brief conversation, George seems to work out a lot now, which was why he described himself as “particularly masculine.” He and his frat brothers apparently all eat a lot of meat and work out together; to them, the protein they get from meat translates directly into masculine “gains” and enormous pulsing man muscles. Meat means gains, gains mean masculinity, so by transitive property of frattiness, meat means ... masculinity, I guess.
Although George’s brief, no-nonsense answers were helpful, I was able to pull a lot more out of Joe, a fellow CC student. He pointed out that “when male-identifying people grow up, we learn that eating meat makes you strong and tough, and we’re eating all these mostly female animals.” This was another aspect of gendering meat I hadn’t even considered... There isn’t exactly a huge number of bulls or roosters on farms, and they don’t produce milk or eggs. Why? (Upon further investigation, I learned that bull meat apparently grows tougher than cow meat, hence the popularity of veal, which is made from infant bulls.) Joe also noticed a lot of coded meat messages growing up, like the “associations you see on TV and commercials with meat and ‘manliness’ and being a ‘big tough man’” or how “eating my first Big Mac definitely felt like a weird male rite of passage.”
Joe and another former high school classmate of mine, Patrick*, noticed the ways in which meat-related slang is tied to masculinity. There are a lot of typically masculine meat-related idioms: two people in a fight have “beef;” if you “beat your meat” you’re masturbating a penis; if you get wild you’re “going ham;” the list goes on and on. Joe and Patrick recalled a few more good ones, like “sausage fest” and “beef up.” Joe got on a roll once he started, sending me multiple messages:
1:39 PM: "choke the chicken" as a euphemism for masturbation
3:22 PM: I've also heard a woman’s butt referred to as "booty meat"
9:35 PM: I just remembered the term "meathead," I hear that a lot to refer to a muscular male who is unintelligent.
So yeah, there’s a lot of slang, although Patrick told me, “I've always thought that meat as a euphemism for dick was kind of unsettling, because meat is something that gets bitten off, chewed, and digested, and I want exactly none of that associated with my dick.” I thought that was pretty fair.
But I was unsettled by something else: when we associate meat with the penis and muscle, where does that leave vegetarian and vegan men? Are they stripped of “manhood” because of their dietary choices? Can you be manly without meat?
There’s increasing evidence that you can. Notable manly vegans include famed quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick, “Jackass” stuntman Steve-O, and NFL star Tony Gonzalez. If male athletes are beefing up sans beef, then how are they asserting their masculinity outside of our consumer emphasis that meat is male? I asked professional vegan bodybuilder, health coach, and master fitness trainer Korin Sutton. Korin isn’t just fit; he’s built. A recent photo he posted on Instagram claims he has five percent body fat, and that’s not hard to believe at all. He’s a typical Adonis, the last person you’d want to start a fight with in a bar. An ex-military man, he turned vegan when he realized “that all the medals that I earned in the military didn’t serve any justice in what my heart was desiring.” That desire, in Korin’s eyes, was saving animal lives through a vegan diet. He believes that men eat more meat than women only because they’re raised to believe that men eat more meat, thus creating a cycle in which men eat meat to uphold a norm. Since going vegan, Sutton says he’s “glad that my mindset has changed and realized that food has no gender roles.”
Sutton is stereotypically masculine, but, overall, the men I talked to fell in varying places along the scale of masculinity. There’s George with his gains and frat brothers, Joe with his boyish ebullience and love of music, and Patrick, whose most memorable attribute during high school was the trench coat and fez he wore every day, and his assertion that he was building an authentic World War II enigma machine. You don’t have to be a typical “man” to fall prey to our society’s fixation on meat. Whether you’re a little masculine or a lot masculine, you’re still subject to masculinity standards.
But where does this association become fuel for toxic masculinity and male aggression? Considering that very few people kill the food they eat, men are more likely hunting for Tyson coupons than hunting for wooly mammoths. But all it takes is a glance at the evening news to confirm that male aggression is alive and well. To be clear, I’m not blaming meat for this; male violence has been excused and upheld by our society for hundreds of years, and it’s not as if plant-based men are removed from that structure. Male aggression isn’t based on meat but dominance. Meat consumption is also based on that same notion of dominance. That they sometimes intersect is hardly surprising; after all, society has long been obsessed with both the superiority of men over women and humans over other animals.
How do we begin to break down this view? Is it, as some vegetarians might suggest, by not eating meat at all? Is the problem meat itself, or how we eat it? I promised myself to steer clear of vegan moralizing in this article, so I’m not going to yell about switching to a plant-based diet. But I also wonder if we changed the way we consume meat, then some of those man/beast dichotomies would start to fall apart. If we don’t think about the way food informs our decisions and attitudes, then we fail to notice how we perpetuate toxic ideals in our culture.
Can we even really separate our food from the society that produces it? For a country so obsessed with eating food, we don’t seem to actually think about food that much. We’re constantly inundated with food advertisements and Tasty videos and pictures on Instagram, but we fail to seriously acknowledge issues like the obesity epidemic or cardiac arrest-related deaths or eating disorders. We cling to labels like “free-range” or “cage-free” without learning what they really mean, or fixate on “clean” or “cruelty-free” eating.
The ethical food movement may urge us to stop eating so much meat, but it is still wrapped up in the stereotypes that characterize the way we masculinize meat. Labelling some foods as “clean” implies others are “dirty,” which is not only classist and shamey, but dangerous. Once we use our food as a way to inform and fill out our identities, it becomes a fixed element in our lifestyle. Treating foods as central to our identity is fine and healthy when it comes to cultural foods and ethnic culinary traditions, but using meat-eating to boost our identity in terms of fitness, gender, or sexuality by over-emphasizing it as a necessary staple is the antithesis of sustainability. Not only have we made it normal to eat way too much meat, and emasculated men who refuse to do so, but we’ve also tossed out the human habit of an incredibly varied and ever-changing diet that our bodies need to thrive.
We’ve twisted one of the most basic parts of humanity into a way we abuse ourselves and others. If we can’t examine what sustains us physically, how the hell are we supposed to examine what sustains us mentally, emotionally, or spiritually? Taking a closer look at not just what we eat, but how we eat and why we eat what we do is crucial to living that Socratic examined life. So how do we convince people to pay attention to what they eat without conflating certain foods with certain characteristics in a way that upholds the same toxic standards that pit people against each other and the planet?
I don’t know, but it’s certainly something to chew on.
Heat Issue | November 2018