To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2018). The role of meat consumption in the social construction, performance and perception of masculinity/ies, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).
Throughout human history, innumerable forms of masculinity have existed in different social and cultural contexts. However, the consumption of meat, especially red meat, has long been associated with being a man, largely due to the historical conception of men as ‘hunter-gatherers’. In contemporary Western society, despite the existence of many alternative forms of masculinity, the dominant conception of masculinity continues to be that which idealises qualities such as authority, physical strength and rationality, and posits that ‘real men eat meat’. This hegemonic masculinity dominates over all other forms of masculinity perceived to be inferior, and all forms of femininity. This essay will explore the role of meat in the social construction and performance of hegemonic and alternative masculinities, how vegetarian and vegan men’s masculinity is constructed, and how it is perceived by others.
According to Connell (2005), hegemonic masculinity is associated with rationality and authority while femininity relates to emotionality and weakness. This may explain why men are less likely than women to choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, since “both emotional concern for farmed animals and farmed animals themselves are feminized and denigrated, whilst slaughter and meat-eating are masculinized and celebrated” (Parry, 2010: p.381). Both hunting and eating meat have long been activities through which men have defined their masculinity (Gelfer, 2013). Sumpter (2015) argues that men’s role in hunting is what led to meat – the product of the hunt – to become associated with masculinity. Following gender roles throughout history, the association of meat and masculinity has remained persistent. For example, in the 1800s, male slaves in Virginia, United States, were given twice as much meat as the female slaves, and during the Second World War meat was taken from civilian women and given to male soldiers “to keep them strong and alert” (Sumpter, 2015: p.106; Kellman, 2000). Meat is not only symbolic of masculinity but also of patriarchy, as in Western European, African and Asian cultures it has long been associated with manhood, male power and virility (Adams cited in Ruby and Heine, 2011).
In contemporary society, males’ preference of meat, particularly red meat, begins at an early age (Caine-Bish; Scheule cited in Sumpter, 2015). Even with men in Western countries adapting their masculinity to suit the inclusion of women in the workforce – for example by sharing household chores and cooking – acts such as carving, grilling or barbecuing meat are still generally reserved for men. The perpetuation of the idea that ‘real men eat meat’ in contemporary society is arguably largely due to advertising (See Buerkle, 2009; Rogers, 2008). Since higher meat consumption equals higher perceived levels of masculinity (Thomas, 2016), it is unsurprising that studies show that women who consume more vegetables are perceived as more feminine (Rozin et al. cited in Sumpter, 2015). Women also consume more vegetables and leafy greens than men in the United States (Economic Research Service, cited in Sumpter, 2015), and tend to choose lighter meat than men. These findings suggest that women’s eating practices are also shaped by hegemonic masculinity, which dichotomises the fluid relationship of femininity and masculinity, presenting them as polar opposites (Sumpter, 2015).
It is important to note that male food-related practices, meanings and preferences, including men’s consumption of meat, are influenced by occupational class (Roos, Prattala and Koski, 2001), culture and ethnicity (Schösler, 2015). Regarding the intersectionality between gender and class, Roos, Prättälä and Koski (ibid.) found in their study of Finnish carpenters and engineers that the carpenters – representative of working class manual labourers – favoured meat dishes more often than the engineers, who may be considered middle class office workers. This was largely due to a common justification of the working class men that their work was highly physical and that meat provides them with strength and endurance. However, all the men talked about eating more vegetables, which marks a relatively recent move towards higher vegetable consumption across men and women, likely driven by the promotion of healthy living. Although there are differences in meat’s importance to performances of masculinity in different social and cultural contexts, Nath (2010) argues that men’s beliefs about the importance of meat are likely evident in all ethnic and socio-economic strata. In response to this, I believe research into the alternative masculinities of men whose religious or spiritual practices promote a vegetarian or vegan diet (such as Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism) could contradict this assertion, or at least offer insight into how these men renegotiate constructions of masculinity. It could also increase our understanding of how these religious communities in general may have different perceptions of masculinity.
Regarding the existing research that examines the intersection of meat and masculinity with religion, Gelfer (2013) researched the use of hunting and meat-eating to create ‘masculine spaces’ and promote participation in men’s Christian ministries in the United States and Australia. He describes some of the names of events held by the men’s ministries, including “Men Meating the Challenge BBQ”, “Men’s Ministry BBQ Cook-Off”, “Guys Grillin’ at Grace”, “Men’s Meat and Greet” and so on. Gelfer argues that the Australian men’s ministries “extend the use of meat beyond their American counterparts” (2013, p.86), describing one men’s ministry called “Real Meat For Real Men!” whose advertisements show steaks sizzling on a barbecue. In his analysis of these ministries, Gelfer argues, “meat is not just something that is inherently bound up with masculine gender performances, but also patriarchy and sexuality. Meat is a sign of power for men” (Adams cited in Gelfer, 2013). Gelfer asserts that “large slabs of bleeding meat […] are the last symbol of machismo” (Jean Mayer cited in Gelfer, 2010) in a world where men’s occupational roles are increasingly less masculine in the traditional sense. Sumpter (2015) furthers Gelfer’s analysis of these men’s ministries by suggesting that the emotional nature of a group of men coming together to talk about God “contradict the theory of hegemonic masculinity that assumes any form of emotion should be denied” (Bird cited in Sumpter, 2015: p.110). She argues that the men compensate for this by hyper-reinforcing other hegemonic masculine characteristics, namely the consumption – and often butchery and grilling – of meat.
The theory that men compensate for elements of hegemonic masculinity they fail to perform by exaggerating their performance of others, can be found throughout the literature on masculinity, and meat and masculinity. It could provide an explanation for the phenomenon of vegan bodybuilders, which I have not found discussed in academic literature. Within the heterosexual, male vegan community, there is a particular focus on bodybuilding. Because vegan men are perceived as less masculine than both vegetarians and omnivores, arguably a common method to compensate for their lack of meat consumption and reinforce other hetero-masculine characteristics – such as strength, competition and autonomy – is to practice bodybuilding. Another method that vegetarian and vegan men employ in striving to meet the expectations of hegemonic masculinity, is to consume mock meats. Messerschmitt (cited in Sumpter, 2015), argues that vegetarian men are able to form a new local level of masculinity within men-only social environments based around meat eating (e.g. barbecues) using meat replacement products. Although not consuming the flesh of a dead animal, vegetarian and vegan men are able to consume products that imitate meat such as burgers, sausages, bacon-style rashers, Tofurky and even vegan spare ribs.
A recent ‘breakthrough’ in meat substitutes is what has come to be known, thanks to the news and social media, as ‘the vegan burger that bleeds’ (Waugh, 2017). The product, developed by Californian based Beyond Meat, is arguably a clear example of this theory, as it enables men to replicate masculine behaviour such as grilling bloody pieces of ‘red’ meat, as closely as possible without actually consuming meat. In fact, many of the aforementioned studies found that eating red meat in particular – ‘red’ referring to the animal’s blood present in the meat – is associated with the highest levels of masculinity. As a result, this particular vegan burger serves as a better reinforcement of hegemonic masculinity than, for example, one which replicates a breaded chicken burger, which would likely be perceived as feminine. Sumpter argues that men use these products as a “social instrument and symbol to be perceived as masculine instead of an instrument that challenges hegemony” (2015: p.112). In agreement with Nath’s (2010) assertion that “vegetarian and vegan men are an under-researched minority in social science literature” (p.263), I believe that research into the products consumed by vegetarian and vegan men and women could provide more insight into whether men opt for more meat-style products than women, which would suggest that these men still strive for hegemonic masculinity. Further research could also discover if, and if so how, men who choose not to eat meat form alternative masculinities that challenge hegemony, or if they aspire to hegemonic masculinity by reinforcing other characteristics, such as strength through vegan bodybuilding or discipline and autonomy through their controlled diet.
Regarding how hegemonic masculinity’s framing of meat consumption affects perceptions of vegetarians and vegans, Walker (cited in Ruby and Heine, 2011) found that women in his study were more accepting of vegetarians than men, and generally participants in Ruby and Heine’s (2011) study perceived vegetarian men as less masculine than omnivores. However, across Thomas’ (2016) four studies of the effect of diet on perceptions of masculinity, she found that contrary to Ruby and Heine’s (2011) findings, vegetarianism is no longer associated with lower ratings of perceived masculinity. One explanation for this is that the vegetarian diet can include high-fat dairy and eggs, and higher-fat foods are associated with masculinity (Stein and Nemeroff cited in Thomas, 2016). However, Thomas argues that it is more likely due to the increasingly high number of US Americans eating at least one meatless meal a week, meaning they are less likely to derogate vegetarians since they share some of the same eating practices. Interestingly, Thomas found that vegans were perceived as less masculine than omnivores but that it is “the choice to be vegan that leads to lower ratings of masculinity” (2016, p.85) compared to men who are vegan out of necessity, for example for health. This difference could be explained by hegemonic masculinity’s emphasis on rejecting any femininity, including emotional attachment. The men who are vegan for choice are more likely to be seen as caring about the environment or animal suffering. Nath (2010) argues that vegetarian and vegan men “must tolerate having their masculinity questioned, as a direct consequence of hegemonic masculinity norm enforcement” (p.266). Here we can see the Foucauldian power relations present in interactions between social actors who reject two dominant norms – hegemonic masculinity and meat eating – and those who do not.
To highlight the sociological importance of meat in the construction and performance of male gender roles and their perception by others, a summary of the wider implications of this relationship between meat and masculinity is necessary. Hegemonic masculinity is not only harmful to men’s health and life expectancy – due to unhealthy diet and its strong link to disproportionately high rates of male suicide – but it is also a major barrier to achieving sustainability. In order to achieve the objectives set in place to tackle climate change, sustainability, food security and diet-related health issues, a transition to a less meat-based diet is necessary (see Aiking, 2014; Friel et al., 2009; Westhoek et al., 2014, cited in Schösler et al., 2015). However, the link between meat and hegemonic masculinity present barriers to this transition. Moreover, Nath (2010) argues that, considering the negative attitudes of men towards vegetarianism and veganism, it may be difficult to achieve an improvement in men’s health by reducing dietary intake of saturated animal fats and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. To overcome this barrier in order to transition to a more sustainable, healthful world, I believe further research into masculinity’s relation to meat consumption is essential.
To conclude, meat plays an important role in men’s performance of masculinity across many socio-economic and cultural contexts. The amount of meat a man consumes is a defining characteristic in how others perceive their masculinity, with higher levels of meat consumption leading to higher levels of perceived masculinity (Thomas, 2016), and vegans being the group considered least masculine. The research seems to suggest that men who are vegetarian or vegan are likely to exaggerate other elements of hegemonic masculinity to still be perceived as masculine, and employ the use of meat substitute products to renegotiate their performance of ‘meat-loving’ masculinity and gain access to cultural displays of manliness such as barbecues. In all of the literature reviewed, the alternative masculinities of men whose religious or spiritual practices promote a vegetarian or vegan diet (such as Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism) were not examined. I believe further research into this demographic is necessary to further our understanding in this field and ensure that the study of the relationship between meat and masculinity does not fail to include non-white populations.
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