Recently, when I read through the findings of an informal British study conducted on men’s meat-eating habits, I immediately recalled a classic Seinfeld episode. “The Wink” aired in 1995, and features a newly health-conscious Jerry—he’s put on a few extra pounds, and is trying to lose them—gravitating towards a vegetarian diet. Unfortunately, the woman he’s dating is an inveterate carnivore, serving Jerry mutton and dragging him to a steakhouse for lunch. Throughout the episode, Jerry is consumed by anxiety surrounding his “un-manly” proclivities; at the lunch, he informs his date that he’s “not really much of a meat eater,” and she reacts with horror: “Are you one of those—” she begins to ask him, not daring to utter the v-word, and he responds wincingly, “Well, no, I’m not one of those.” Still, after learning that the steakhouse’s lightest meat option is a full roasted chicken stuffed with ham and topped with Gorgonzola, Jerry just can’t do it—and he orders a salad instead. As he does so, his face crinkles with shame, and he replays the words in his head: “Just a salad… just a salad… just a salad...”
That’s exactly the way a small group of British men, participants of a University of Southampton research project, feel about their vegetarianism, according to researchers. The Man Food Project, headed by Dr. Emma Roe and Dr. Paul Hurley, brought together 22 men whose diets include only limited amounts of meat: “green men” who are exploring vegetarianism because of environmental concerns; “exercising men” who want to build muscle without eating meat; and men who rely on food sourced from food banks, and therefore don’t get to eat much meat. Roe and Hurley have found that these men find it challenging to order vegetarian options in public, around other dudes.
“A number of them relayed different experiences that indicated shame, embarrassment, or conflict-avoidance that on occasion led them to eat meat, or offer meat to guests in their house,” Dr. Roe told MUNCHIES.
As more and more of the world’s agricultural land is used to grow livestock or their food, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, an increasing number of environmental experts have recommended that eaters cut back on the amount of meat they consume. Vegetarian and vegan options are are widely available these days, yet the global level of meat consumption has increased significantly over recent decades, according to Roe. The team behind Man Food wanted to explore what kinds of social and cultural challenges exist that might impede diners—especially men—from opting to go vegetarian.
Roe and Hurley gathered the participants in a series of informal workshops, during which the researchers and the subjects collaborated to prepare a vegetarian, vegan, or meat meal, chatting meanwhile about their diets and how they were perceived. The researchers figured that in this relaxed setting, the men could be more truthful about their experiences than they might be in a rigid clinical trial or a one-on-one interview.
“It's like those 'washing up' conversations you have at home, where you're able to be a lot more frank than if you were talking face-to-face,” Roe said.
As the group ate the meal, conversation typically turned towards the men’s feelings on trying to stick to a vegetarian diet. Unprompted by the researchers, Roe said, on one occasion one of the “green” men—a vegetarian of 27 years—asked the group, “Do you ever feel ashamed about being a vegetarian?” Many of them reported that they did.
Vegetarianism—and veganism in particular—is often perceived as a feminine way to eat. Think of all those Instagram influencers clutching green juices and flavored nut butters: They’re almost all women. A 2016 study published by the UK’s Vegan Society found that 63 percent of the vegans surveyed identified as women, while only 37 percent of the vegans were men. As Roe explained, cultural expectations run deep, and it’s undeniable that we often view men as the butchers and the barbecuers, as throughout history they have played those very roles.
“Eating animals has been a key feature of the history of human civilization,” she said. “It is a demonstration of the distinction between society and nature, because we can eat them. Men have been the dominant power in human civilization; thus, the association of eating meat is stronger for men than for women.”
While the study looked explicitly at attitudes around food, Roe said the findings had political implications as well: men are expected to dominate not only their food sources, but their environment, too.
“This has become all the more noticeable in current times of populist politics, and we only have to look at major events in the US and Europe to see how sexism, racism, and speciesism are the ground on which certain types of power are being played out,” she said.
Ultimately, the team behind Man Food hopes to use its findings to communicate with major food manufacturers, letting them know how men perceive their vegetarian and vegan offerings and working with those companies to better market their offerings to men—preventing the Seinfeldian shame spiral that has plagued them since time immemorial.