We're told that men love meat, crave meat, need meat, and although the vegetarian and vegan movements have become increasingly accessible in recent years, the question lingers: If you give up meat, do you also give up the full potential of your manhood? Do you become, somehow, soft?
Rather than dispensing with this dated notion, many vegans and vegetarians today argue that you can still be masculine without meat. Stories abound in the meat-free media of men breaking world records and winning UFC fights—hailed as proof that you don't have to eat meat to be strong. It's true, but there's a whiff of desperation around the fanfare, revealing a deep need to be accepted by the meat-obsessed, macho culture at large. From bodybuilders to ultra-marathoners, there are few things the plant-based-diet community likes to promote more than the idea that manliness is attainable even without meat. It's all part of the effort to make the movement more widely palatable—to distance it from its feminine, hippy-dippy past.
Feminism and vegetarianism have a long, entwined history. Carol J. Adams published the most authoritative work on the connection in 1990's The Sexual Politics of Meat. She defines the title's concept as "an attitude and action that animalizes women and sexualizes and feminizes animals"; in other words, in a patriarchal, meat-eating society, women and animals are denied their own subjectivity, transformed into what she calls the "absent referent." When a lamb is slaughtered and butchered, one is sold a "leg of lamb" rather than a lamb's leg. Ownership of one's body, which was never there in the first place, is completely dissolved when the body is what's for dinner.
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This connection between vegetarianism and feminism was more pronounced in the second wave of feminist theory, as part of an ecofeminist ideology that views the dominance of both nature and animals as akin to the exploitation of women. When the explicitly feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore Bloodroot opened in Connecticut in the 70s, it was understood that to run a feminist restaurant meant to not cook meat, according to chef Selma Miriam. In the 90s, Kathleen Hanna sang, "Eat meat, hate blacks, beat your fuckin' wife / It's all the same thing" in Bikini Kill's "Liar." These offenses are not equivalent, and Hanna has since regretted the lyrics, but there were, at times, more pronounced connections between the two ideologies than there are today.
The Sexual Politics of Meat came out in an era that seemed historically ripe for furthering the discussion. The book has been released in new editions, with new forewords, for both its 20th and 25th anniversaries, but neither points to any significant positive cultural developments. Male chefs with tattoos like this one, depicting the dissected body of a pig and captioned "Food Porn," are perhaps a recent phenomenon, but they link meat, sexualization, and masculine dominance in a way writers like Adams criticized years ago.
"What The Sexual Politics of Meat is trying to do is say that the patriarchal attitude, or the patriarchal ethics, of meat eating creates other beings as objects, not as subjects," Adams tells me over the phone. I ask her whether the farm-to-table movement of "knowing your meat" has changed her theory at all; it hasn't. Instead, it's further reinforced the lack of agency given to animals. "Farm-to-table is trying to say, 'Hey, we're humanizing this,'" she says. "But they aren't really humanizing it, because your experience of the farm is still of the animals as objects for your appetite."
When I bring up the pattern of the vegetarian and vegan movements promoting themselves the same way meat eaters do, she laughs heartily. "It's like, 'plant-strong'—why can't we be 'plant-kind'?" she asks, referring to a common vegan T-shirt slogan. "Rather than saying, 'Veganism is going to challenge basic concepts of masculinity. Veganism is going to shake up the gender binary. Veganism is going to reject the sexual politics of meat,'" Adams says, "what happens is we end up accepting the dominant discourse and the patriarchal way of framing. It's just like, 'Hey, you don't have to worry about your testosterone. You don't have to worry about your masculinity.' It's assuaging rather than standing [in opposition]."
There are deeply ingrained cultural reasons for why it's so difficult to break free of the dominant discourse around meat and masculinity. In her recently released book Meathooked, writer Marta Zaraska looks at why human beings have not been able to stop eating meat, despite evidence of its disastrous effects on the climate and our health. She explores how meat has long been a status symbol—in gender, class, and even nationalism. "Our relationship to meat is powerful," Zaraska writes, and that's why our books and films and advertisements use meat analogues so widely and eagerly: If you remove this symbol, you have to make up the difference somehow. When you're no longer exerting power over animals, it helps to at least look like you could, and to eat food that resembles flesh.
It's not surprising, then, who is most attached to the consumption of animals: "Recent scientific studies confirm that those of us who hold authoritarian beliefs, who think social hierarchy is important, who seek wealth and power and support human dominance over nature, eat more meat than those who stand against inequality," Zaraska writes.
Zaraska, a vegetarian, is pragmatic (and somewhat pessimistic) in her thoughts on why the movement against meat consumption can't write new rules. "In a perfect world, we wouldn't need to advertise vegetarianism or veganism by using old cultural stereotypes and clichés; we wouldn't need to emphasize that vegetarian men are still masculine and powerful, and so on," she tells me over email. "But we don't live in a perfect world, and sometimes it's better to play on these cultural stereotypes and the old symbolism of meat to encourage people to slowly change their ways and reduce meat consumption. Then, maybe, in the future, we will be able to completely forgo that historical heritage, forget that meat used to symbolize power over the nature, over the poor, over women. But we are not there yet, not even close."
It's very clear how far away we are in some of the coverage vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli's successful fast-casual restaurant By Chloe has received since it opened in New York City in 2015. One New York Post article, headlined "This sexy chef will turn you vegan" (and written by a woman), drew attention to Coscarelli's "glossy hair and model figure" that "make her the pinup gal for veganism." The food is secondary; what's taken for granted here is that you want to either look like or be with this chef. If eschewing meat will grant you that, cool. Coscarelli herself, in discussing her shiitake bacon, notes that her non-vegan boyfriend "can't tell the difference" between it and its pig-derived counterpart. Traditional roles and palates are reinforced even when no meat is being consumed.
In other words, the vegan and vegetarian movements somehow manage to simultaneously promote the ideal masculine body and the ideal feminine one. The 2005 vegan diet book Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin and the 2015 cookbook The Lookbook Cookbook by Jessica Milan also bank on the trope of vegans having model looks, the latter quite literally, with each recipe accompanied by a stylized portrait of a thin model enjoying her meal. "I see this over and over again; we just get right to the point where we could be having this transformative moment of reconceptualizing basic cultural structures, and we turn away from it," says Adams. "It just shows the power of the sexual politics of meat. It's so powerful that it's constantly finding ways to re-incorporate people."