How the Meat Industry Exploits Toxic Masculinity
If you heard a flippant joke or two the day the World Health Organization announced that some processed meats are as cancerous as cigarettes, you’re not alone. While it is not all that surprising to learn that fatty and processed food is linked to unsettling health outcomes, the warning received an inordinate amount of pushback—and not only from predictable sources like the National Pork Producers Council, which boasts $24 billion in sales from pork production. The news seemed to hit a nerve across America, a country that continues to hold a top-tier rank for the most meat consumption per capita.
Among the “best Twitter reactions” to the news were deflective quips like, “Bacon causes cancer? Well I’m going to try to eat it all so no one else has to suffer. Not all heroes wear capes,” and, “Devastating that scientists say bacon causes cancer and we face the fact that we’ll have to give up science.”
Not surprisingly, among the loudest reactionaries were men.
Eating meat, after all, has long been associated with masculinity; since pretty much the dawn of advertising, commercials have explicitly linked meat-eating to desirable manliness. To name but a few of the most egregious examples from the last few years, there was the Carl’s Jr.’s ad depicting X-Men‘s Mystique morphing into a ripped manly man after consuming a bacon cheeseburger (with the tagline “Man Up”); Burger King’s “I Am Man” commercial, in which a guy sings about not settling for “chick food”; and the Taco Bell “Guys Love Bacon” campaign
Embedded into our very cultural fabric is a connection between meat and the stereotypical masculine realms of American life: sports, weight lifting, bar culture, cars, running a family. Imagine the Super Bowl without buffalo wings, or watching March Madness over salads instead of burgers and beer.
Is it any wonder, then, that a study in the Journal of Consumer Research has found that American men consume more meat than women? Or, conversely, that it’s women who make up the majority of vegan and vegetarian populations?
Which raises the question: Why are men linked to meat-eating? Is it the result of dudes just liking meat more—a relic of our hunter-gatherer past? Or could there be something more nefarious at play?
Violence In Many Forms
Let’s talk about toxic masculinity.
This concept, defined as the “socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth,” is one of the many ways the patriarchy hurts not just women, but men. And it could be hurting them when it comes to what they eat, as well.
In our culture, men are shown that they are valued if they are comfortable with and able to participate in violence and stand up for themselves in a physical way. Being “a man” in the traditional sense means distancing oneself from compassion and empathy, and these rough and tough characteristics in turn foster more violent actions against others.
A media analysis conducted by Children Now, a nonpartisan organization, found that most portrayals of men on television and in film show them ridiculing others, behaving aggressively, and solving conflict through sex. Data released by the FBI reveals that men are more likely to commit a crime, and that they make up the bulk of gun owners. Men are also disproportionately enrolled in the military and the police force.
Moreover, men are told that they should be sexually dominant toward women, pursuing them in a sport-like manner. These sexual and behavioral dynamics are at the root of rape culture in America, where one in five women report having been sexually assaulted with approximately 98% of rapes against women perpetrated by a man.
It’s not just the bodies of other people that men are told to oppress and domineer; animals, too, are seen as theirs to dispassionately dominate. Ninety-one percent of hunters are male—and of course, it’s men who are told that eating meat, even to their health detriment, is the manly thing to do.
I spoke with Claudia Lifton, regional director for the Factory Farm Awareness Coalition, about the reactions in the high school and college classrooms she visits to educate students about the factory farm industry. “Men are usually the ones to make bacon and protein jokes. There are usually about two or three in every class,” she said.
While these kneejerk reactions to questioning a meat-centered diet often incite laughter, Claudia does not see the humor:
“Apathy isn’t funny. Disregarding the suffering of living, feeling beings, or worse yet, laughing and joking about that suffering is not funny. It’s not cool. This is not an ethical side issue. This is [billions of] sentient beings suffering so horrifically that most of the people making those jokes can’t even bear to watch a three-minute video of it. It’s difficult for them to grasp the magnitude of damage caused by a comment like ‘mmm looks delicious’ after seeing the conditions in which these animals live and die.”
These defensive reactions, and the argument to keep meat in our food pyramid, goes beyond the omnivorous hunter-gatherer explanation. Corporate and cultural influence is clear in America’s popularized dietary choices. Menus vary greatly across countries and religions all over the world, in particular regions like Southeast Asia, where the traditional palate does not include nearly as much meat as in America. Many religious philosophies even teach vegetarianism, unlike the dominion-over-animals view embedded in the United States through a long Christian heritage that devalues non-human lives.
Our view of food has been shaped and gendered by a booming dieting industry that tells women to abide by a restrictive, low-calorie lifestyle and a factory farm industry that makes billions of dollars insisting that men are the strongest when they have the most muscle, the least amount of feelings, and ingest the most “manly” protein, like bacon, steak, and sausage. One study even found that vegan and vegetarian men are seen as less sexually appealing among some women, as they deviate from the traditional behaviors of men in society.
These attitudes, as the WHO report helped to reveal, can actively hurt men by keeping them tied to a food with serious health consequences. While protein is a critical nutrient in our diet, consuming an excess of it can cause liver damage and other long-term health consequences. The idealized masculine diet not only includes meat-eating, but also looks down on consuming fruit and vegetables—because apparently real American men do not worry about their immune system or fiber intake. And that’s to say nothing of the the drastic way eating meat exacerbates climate change; in fact, a recent study found that by 2050, eight million fewer people would die each year if the world went vegan.
Each time we affirm the standards of masculinity built from harming or marginalizing others, we lower our expectations for men to live a fully realized and compassionate life.
Hopefully, though, our perceptions of meat-eating and masculinity are not as static as they appear. The choice of what to eat is one of the privileges of living in an affluent country. A recent commercial from PETA attempts to combat the myth of male vegans being less masculine by dramatizing a recent finding that vegans are more sexually potent than meat-eaters. While the commercial did not make it to the Super Bowl, it’s hard not to wonder what the reaction would have been by football fans if it was aired. It certainly would have been unexpected for some.
But not all.
Changing The Conversation
David Carter, a NFL defensive lineman on the Chicago Bears who is known as the 300 Pound Vegan and is the Motivational Speaker & Diversity Specialist for Vegan Outreach, shared with me his views on the myth that eating meat is masculine:
“Before going vegan I was concerned, like most men, that being vegan would make me weak and bring my masculinity into question. What I learned after making the switch to a plant-based lifestyle was that society’s definition of manliness couldn’t be further from what I now consider masculine. Standing up for what’s right, protecting the innocent, and taking care of your body is not only manly in my eyes, it’s basic common sense. The definition of masculinity is something that should be constantly evolving. “
Samuel L. Jackson, Mos Def, Russell Simmons, Paul McCartney, Liam Hemsworth, and other male icons have ditched meat, perhaps further reflecting a soon-to-come shift in seeing meat-eating as a masculine marker. One vegan meat company, Beyond Meat, even offers a “Beast Burger” that is packaged in colors that may appeal to men, along with a photograph of the burger sizzling on a grill. The use of the masculine word “beast” might attract meat-eating men who identify with traditional masculine norms looking to switch over. A former McDonald’s CEO recently joined Beyond Meat’s team.
Still, even with the increasing availability of vegetarian and vegan options, eating meat is the dominant dietary choice in the United States; only 5% of the U.S. population identifies as vegetarian.
Of course, not all meat is created equally, and the question of the “best” diet is inevitably a complicated one, with no objectively right answer. But it’s worth questioning the ways in which the processed-meat industry taps into, and perpetuates, damaging notions of toxic masculinity built around the oppression of others.
There’s a reason a recent video that shows Ted Cruz defending his stance on denying equal rights to the LGBTQ community while eating a freshly grilled burger feels so distinctly and quintessentally American. And it’s a reason that should give us all pause.