Ellie Macmillan-Fox is a 3rd Year History and International Relations student. She grew up taking feminist inspiration from the likes of Caitlin Moran and has a keen interest in women’s participation in domestic and global politics. As a History student, she has studied the evolution of women’s movements during the 19th and 20th Centuries. She’s also an environmentalist and film buff.
[Featured Image: A person holding a burger to the camera with a bite taken from the centre.]
What do you think of when you picture a ‘manly man’? Is he tall? Does he have big muscles? What does he eat? If you pictured him eating meat off the bone or digging into a steak, then you’re not alone. Somewhere along the line, manliness has become associated with eating meat.
Although this is something that has long been apparent, it particularly came to my attention after watching The Game Changers. This revolutionary documentary has caused quite a stir after presenting scientific research which advocates for plant-based eating. There has been a lot of dispute over the conclusions they present and perhaps some of the research should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, one thing that is indisputable is the connection between meat and masculinity within society.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the documentary’s executive producers and famous veggie advocate, talks about his experience of people gender-stereotyping meat and plant-based diets. He suggests that the association is promoted through marketing by the meat industry. At this point in the documentary they show several adverts, mainly for fast-food meat dishes, which sell their products as ‘for men’. For instance one actually narrates “you’re more of a man with a quarter-pounder in your hand”. Another they show is for Burger King’s ‘Texas Double Whopper’ which mentions settling for “chick food” and encourages consumers to “eat like a man”.
Some of these adverts may be a few years old, but these stereotypes still exist in everyday society. For example, although Nando’s is not an exclusively male restaurant, going for a ‘cheeky Nando’s’ (i.e. chicken) is seen as a part of lad culture. Also, whilst women eat burgers regularly, seeing a woman dig in to a massive burger would be considered a lot more unusual than seeing a muscular man do the same. Steak in particular is a dish associated much more with men than women.
This association of meat being manly and vegetarian/vegan diets being feminine is particularly surprising when considering the documentaries finding of a possible connection between plant-based diets and increased sexual performance. An experiment is conducted in which three men are given a high-quality meat meal one night and one that used plant-based alternatives the next. They measured the men’s…erm…genital activity throughout both nights and found that after the plant-based meal the men had stronger erections and had them for a larger proportion of the night. This was not a scientifically validated study and other factors may have had an influence. But even is there is just the slightest correlation, this would prove any generalisation about plant-based eaters lacking masculinity ridiculous and completely unfounded. Furthermore, research is presented that demonstrates there is no difference in testosterone levels between plant-based and meat diets. This means any suggestion that soya increases oestrogen levels and decreases testosterone in men, is purely conjecture.
What’s more, this stereotype may actually be killing men. Research presented in the documentary found a correlation between animal foods and cancer as well as cardiovascular disease. They also found certain plant-based foods were recommended as the best foods to reduce overall risk of death. Again, these findings should be taken with a pinch of salt. Yet, there are 7.4 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases and 167,000 people dying from them each year in the UK, in addition to 164,901 people who died from cancer in the UK between 2015 and 2017. Surely, facing these statistics we should be doing all we can to combat these diseases and reducing our intake of animal foods seems a small price to pay. Not to mention the catastrophic impact that meat and dairy production is having on the environment. With the livestock sector contributing 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, which is equal to the contribution from exhausts, changes to our diets will be unavoidable to meet the UK’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050.
So, with this meat and manliness association possibly killing men and undoubtedly killing the planet, why does it still exist? Personally, I can see no reason valid reason for it. Some may argue that meat is needed by men to make them strong. If you believe this then I urge you to watch The Game Changers documentary (available on Netflix). The whole premise of the documentary is proving that some of the world’s best athletes perform just as well, if not better, on a plant-based diet and the evidence is fairly convincing. Yet the myth that animal protein is needed for strength and energy is drilled into us from such an early age that we find this difficult to understand. But as Patrik Baboumian (one of the strongest men in the world) says in the documentary, when asked how he got as strong as an ox without eating meat he replied, “have you ever seen an ox eating meat?”. This doesn’t mean that all men (and women) should become completely plant-based immediately otherwise they’ll die, or that plant-based eaters will never get cancer or cardiovascular disease. It means that men should not feel pressured to over consume animal products at the risk of their health and the planet, for the purpose of fulfilling a gender stereotype.
‘Optimising health’, The Game Changers Movie, accessed 15th December 2019, (https://gamechangersmovie.com/benefits/optimizing-health/).
‘Heart statistics’, British Heart Foundation, accessed 15th December 2019, (https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/our-research/heart-statistics).
‘Cancer statistics for the UK’, Cancer Research, accessed 15th December 2019, (https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics-for-the-uk).
‘Changing Climate, Changing Diets’, Chatham House, accessed 15th December 2019, (https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/changing-climate-changing-diets).