Ah, meat — from sizzling bacon to fecal-soaked chicken thighs, meat is a core element of the typical American diet. The mass production and consumption of animal flesh is a complex subject, having roots in speciesism as well as capitalism and racism. It makes sense, then, that different groups would have vastly different attitudes towards meat consumption depending on their perspective. To make it quick: BigAg loves it, environmental activists hate it, and men think they need it in order to “be a man.”
As the global temperature rises each year and we anticipate major changes to our climate as a result, many individuals are taking time to examine the anthropogenic causes of this massive environmental destruction. One of the greatest contributing factors to climate change is factory farming, an industry in which millions of animals are systematically birthed, managed, and then killed for profit. Nearly all of our animal products originate within this industry, including eggs, cheese, and — of course — meat.
Factory farming is problematic not only for its contributing role in climate change, but also for its treatment of animals. Concentrated animal feeding operations — or CAFOS — are designed to maximize profits while minimizing resource use. In doing so, CAFOs necessitate the confinement, torture, and murder of millions of animals each year. This abuse, coupled with detrimental environmental impacts, has encouraged many to transition away from meat and, instead, towards plant-based food options.
There are a number of reasons why a person may be hesitant to leave behind their bacon and hamburgers for tofu and Impossible Burgers. Some may miss the taste of true animal flesh, lack the resources to pursue this new diet, or even fear a loss in nutrients and protein. Thus, many individuals have expressed sincere opposition against this switch, and one of its central challengers make up roughly half of the world’s population: men.
In itself, toxic masculinity is a feminist theory that calls out the unhealthy elements of socially-constructed ideas of masculinity. It embraces the idea that men feel pressure from society to “be a man” by following a series of unspoken rules and attitudes that are viewed as traditionally masculine traits.
A central theme of “being a man” is to distance oneself from characteristically feminine traits, opting for anger and strength over compassion and sensitivity. This attitude is inflated by the American meat industry to make people believe that men must eat more meat than women in order to be healthy — specifically, to build more muscle by ingesting as much protein as possible on a daily basis. After all, men are supposed to be big, strong, formidable beings who exude vigor and dominance, and meat is viewed as the best way to accomplish this goal.
The historical and social links between meat and masculinity have resulted in deep-ingrained attitudes that tell men and women both that the consumption of meat is inherently masculine — conversely, the consumption of plant-based products is inherently feminine.
Diets — such as veganism and vegetarianism — that exchange meat for other protein-packed, plant-based products have been gaining steam in recent years. Advocates for eliminating meat intake cite environmental issues and animal abuse as valid reasons why one should stop eating meat and other animal products, yet men often ignore this reasoning because many believe that meat is nutritionally necessary for a healthy male diet. However, scientists have again and again debunked the myth that adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet means forfeiting your dietary health, so why are countless men still so hesitant to ditch meat?
The answer lies within the conjunction of toxic masculinity and gender conformity. For centuries, meat has been associated with power, wealth, and masculinity — for example, during World War One, women were asked to save meat for their male counterparts who were in greater need of meat’s supposed strengthening abilities. While modern science has invalidated the idea that men must consume meat in order to be healthy, it can’t undo the centuries of socialization that tell men what behaviors contribute towards versus detract from their masculine image.
Traditional masculinity relies on very specific strategies in regards to gender, emotion, and health. Gender performance is a central aspect of proving one’s masculinity. Men are encouraged to engage in stereotypically masculine behaviors and, should they abstain, are then seen as the opposite of masculine — feminine.
Abstaining from consuming meat is seen as a feminine action for several reasons. As explained previously, the protein found in meat is associated with building muscle and strength, implying that substituting animal meat for a plant-based alternative means sacrificing your toughness — and thus your masculine energy.
Moreover, refusing to eat meat or other animal products in protest of inhumane factory farming conditions insinuates an attitude of empathy and concern for the animals in question. Empathy — the ability to understand and feel what someone else is going through — detracts from one’s masculine energy to an even greater extent than prioritizing health or personal choice over protein-intake. The kindness and compassion necessary to create empathy are stereotypically feminine traits, meaning these emotions are interpreted by many as a sign of weakness.
Therefore, vegan and vegetarian diets threaten one’s performance of the male gender, creating a hole in one’s air of masculinity as they willingly prioritize their health and the wellbeing of others over building strength and eating what tastes best — metaphorically trading strength for weakness.
In 1980, feminist and activist Carol Adams published what she dubbed a “feminist-vegetarian critical thory” regarding the relationship between gender identity and meat consumption.
Her theory claims that behind every piece of cooked meat is the “absent referent” — that is, an absence of visibility to the violence, abuse, and environmental harm that was required in order to put that meat on someone’s plate. This “absent referent” is necessary to separate the consumer from the animal and the animal from the object they are reduced to; in other words, it allows us to think of meat as an object for consumption rather than a piece of animal flesh that once belonged to the body of a thinking, breathing being.
Not only does our society view the consumption of meat as a masculine activity, she argues, but also enables it to function as a means of sexist oppression. The “absent referent” behind meat production illustrates a process of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption in order to satisfy the male gaze as it portrays animals as naturally inferior through media, language, and cultural representation. Through the objectification of animals, their bodies may be fragmented and subsequently consumed — the physical meat is separated from the sentient experience of that animal prior to its death.
You may be asking yourself, then, how does this theory fit within the frame of toxic masculinity?
Carol Adams’ theory connects with the aforementioned idea of toxic masculinity in divulging the cultural overlaps between violence, fragmentation, objectification, and consumption. Like the animals in question, women are subject to normalized violence and fragmentation of their body parts that enables their objectification. Once they are seen, like animals, as an object whose purpose is to satisfy the desires of men — and other people in general — they may be consumed without moral consequence.
The social structure of both gender oppression and animal consumption allow for an “absent referent” that enables entitlement to abuse — in particular, male entitlement to the abuse of both women and animals. When we ask men to acknowledge the existence of an “absent referent” in the consumption of animals, we are also asking for the same acknowledgement for women’s rights.
Whether this process occurs consciously or subconsciously, men are hesitant to acknowledge their role in the system of abuse because it would mean taking personal responsibility as well as forcing them to apply this newfound understanding to other social institutions that benefit them. It is easier for men to sustain their identity and their social status by refusing to acknowledge the “absent referent” and instead continuing to objectify and use animals the same way they objectify and use women.
Vegan and vegetarian diets are perceived as threatening by many men because of how they reflect compassionate attitudes towards animals, food, and the environment in addition to how they bring light to other social, economic, and political issues that most men benefit from. In a way, veganism is its own form of feminist intervention — it calls out the “absent referent” and asks individuals to challenge what they feel is normal, natural, and necessary.
Asking men to question their role in problematic systems and resist cultural norms puts them at risk for misogynistic attitudes that threaten their identity as a man. In order to act on their values and use their privilege to the advantage of others, men must navigate a series of complex and contested identities that are in contrast with the hegemonic ideals and behaviors that, up until now, have told these men how to function in American society. Men must relearn what it means to “be a man” not by society’s standards, but by their own.
Studies have shown that the more men identify with nontraditional forms of masculinity — such as compassion and sensitivity — the weaker their attachment to meat is, and the more positive their attitude towards veganism and vegetarianism. By educating themselves on political, social, and economic issues surrounding animal cruelty in CAFOs and women’s rights, men may reevaluate their moral codes and choose, for themselves, how their choices will impact others.
While it is undeniably difficult to undo a lifetime of misogynistic socialization that tells you what is and isn’t appropriate for your gender, we need to take a step back and look at these institutions for what they are — not what we’ve been told they are. We must bring to light the “absent referents” of the factory farming industry and once we determine the reverberations for our actions, question whether it is worth it. Is the abuse worth the delicious taste? The strength you gain? The perceived toughness when other people look at you?
Hegemonic masculinity has a long history of association with eating animals, a relationship that has extended into the modern day objectification of both animals and women — as explained by Carol Adams. Social pressure to conform to the male gender, coupled with the threat of acting on your values when they threaten your identity and authority, are largely to blame for the idea that it is “manly” to eat meat, and thus feminine to adopt a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
Although it can be difficult, men must acknowledge the social implications behind eating meat, question why these ideas exist in the first place, and then ask themselves whether they want to continue feeding into this problematic system versus taking a stand against it and encouraging others to do the same. We have to call into question our values and what we believe is right versus wrong. When we have ample opportunities to act on these beliefs, our actions must reflect our values — not what is easiest or most familiar.
While it may be “manly” to eat meat, it is not “manly” to be a moral, compassionate person. You, alone, may determine for yourself which is more important.
SJ Liez is a college intern with FFAC studying environmental science and public & professional writing at the University of Pittsburgh.