Gender, toxic masculinity and veganism | The Vegan Society

Gender, toxic masculinity and veganism

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» Gender, toxic masculinity and veganism

Research Network member, Emma Hautval, analyses the intersections between veganism and gender.

Veganism has gained in popularity in the last decade. According to the 2018 IPSOS survey,1 vegan campaigns and media coverage given by bloggers and vloggers are two of the biggest influences causing people to switch to a plant-based diet.2 The results of a pilot study on veganism in the 2020s in fact showed the important role of social media in the evolution and diversification of the movement, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, which prevented physical socialisation. However, veganism has been most often associated with women rather than men.3 Prior research on gender and veganism explain that veganism is perceived as an effeminate lifestyle choice because it supposedly makes one weaker not to consume meat,45 a point evidenced in a recent article on ‘Meat and Masculinity’.6 Moreover, the decision to become vegan is mainly perceived as being driven by compassion,7 a trait deemed feminine and not compatible with a traditional – or toxic – vision of masculinity. Hence, Nath argues that “food becomes part of the way men ‘do gender’”.8 Yet, Censuswide’s most recent numbers seem to contradict this gendered association with “5% more men than women who don’t consume meat” in the UK in 2022.9

Therefore, a qualitative study was conducted last year in Scotland, exploring the experience of 21 self-identified vegans in regards to the following questions:

  • How does gender affect people’s dietary practices?
  • How do vegans negotiate the norms associated with their gender?

Interviews were conducted namely to test the hypothesis that it is easier for women but harder for men to become vegan. In addition, there was a focus on the negotiation of – and the link between – a vegan identity and a gender identity.

The influence of gender on the decision to become vegan

  • Hegemonic Masculinity10

According to Connell’s ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ theory, peer pressure is extremely rigid when it comes to enforcing a masculine behaviour in men.11 In fact, one respondent went as far as to say that “being male is an extended experiment of peer pressure”. Hence, when men become vegan, there tends to be harsher social repercussions due to the rigidity of masculine norms: among 10 male participants in this study, eight had negative reactions from other men when revealing they were vegan. There can be a greater fear of social repercussions when men become vegan, and this is why men might be more likely to support a ‘hierarchy of species’, and thus might be less likely to become vegan.12

  • ‘Linked Oppression’ theory13

As mentioned above, when men decide to become vegan, it involves relinquishing the idea of a hierarchy of species. But based on ‘Linked Oppression’ theory, it means not just relinquishing the hierarchy of species but also the hierarchy of sexes that puts men in a position of power, which might make it a double barrier for some men to become vegan.14 ‘Linked Oppression’ theory suggests that a concern for animal welfare is based on the shared exploitation of women and farm animals.1516 This theory infers that sexism and speciesism share the same “foundation” which is “the capitalistic patriarchal system” defending a hierarchy of species as well as a hierarchy of sexes.17 Hence, when considering the decision to become vegan, four respondents out of 21 found that women were more likely to acknowledge farm animals’ suffering. One male respondent said: “I think that women are much more likely to have empathy with animals who are having their menstrual cycles manipulated in order to produce food.” It was also the perception of many – and also the experience of some – that becoming vegan was easier when one had already rejected traditional gender norms, such as people part of, or close to, the LGBTQI+ community. One respondent reflected on this connection between the vegan and marginalised communities, stating: “

I’ve always understood that women and queer people, or anybody who’s marginalised in any way, understands what it is like to be victimised or targeted by a discrimination that’s based on something arbitrary.”

This perception aligns with Allcorn and Ogletree’s study on “Linked Oppression”, in which “gender transcendence” seems to correlate with the decision to abandon meat.18

Navigating gender and veganism

  • Good girl syndrome

The study also included a focus group unpacking feminine gender norms and veganism. The issue of patronisation was raised, and it resonated with a psychological concept: the ‘good girl syndrome’. Newsonen defines it as a gendered societal expectation of girls and women to keep their opinions to themselves, to never create a fuss and strive to please people around them at their own expense.19 As a result, two participants during the focus group explained how their family told them they were being ‘difficult’ when becoming vegan. Another participant even admitted that the fear of being perceived as ‘difficult’ kept her from becoming vegan for years. It sometimes even triggered a need in these women to downplay their veganism during social outings. One participant stated: “So, I actually think I am now less assertive about what I want to do in food situations than I used to be before I was vegan.” This goes to show that going against the norm can still be a concern for women, even when they have already taken the step to become vegan. This attitude can be considered as a barrier for women to become vegan and echoes the enforced “inferior status” given to them in a society which inherited a patriarchal,2021 but also a hegemonic, vision of masculinity22 which follows them even in their vegan lifestyle.

  • Overcoming toxic masculinity?

Despite peer pressure, the male participants never expressed the need to reassert their strength and virility after becoming vegan, in contrast to other studies.2324 They were all able to see past typical masculine characteristics when becoming vegan. Some of them were very happy to confess their sensitivity and compassion. One of them declared that along with a change of dietary practices, there was also a gradual change in his social circle: “I personally have felt a much more positive attachment to my gender ever since I had an increasing number of queer and especially trans friends. So I started to engage my emotions in a much more healthy and constructive way.” This demonstrates how hegemonic masculinity goes hand in hand with heteronormativity, as argued by Connell and Messerschmidt,25 but might also imply a link between one’s vegan and gender identity. The rise of post-materialist values demonstrates namely that there is more than one way to be masculine, and that a non-normative masculine identity can fall in with a vegan lifestyle.

Why is it important?

The participants in this study on gender and veganism all perceived social pressures to conform to gender norms as barriers to becoming vegan, no matter the gender identity. Yet, they all reached the point of questioning these norms. This goes some way towards confirming a link between gender norms and dietary norms: questioning a set of norms can trigger the questioning of other norms. Gender being only one of many factors at play when becoming vegan, it is important adopt an intersectional standpoint and to take into account other crucial factors such as ethnicity, cultural background or socio-economic status when studying the decision to become vegan. For instance, 20 out of 21 participants had access to higher education, which is a key factor when it comes to breaking away from societal norms2627 and embracing an alternative lifestyle such as veganism.28 However, it was also found that critical thinking of society sometimes might come from the same sources that promote these norms: family, peers, mass media, and social media. This signifies a societal shift in post-materialist values29 that are increasingly incorporated within mainstream culture and generate an increasing acceptance of alternative choices. This begs the question of how these societal factors might influence future relations between humans and animals. Will there one day be a world in which toxic masculinity – but also gender overall – plays no role in the apprehension of veganism? A first step for future research on gender and veganism would be to expand on the intersectional standpoint by striving to gather a more ethnically diverse - thus more representative - sample, for all the people who expressed interest in this specific study were from a White British or White Other background. Further research on the topic should focus on LGBTIQA+ masculinities, but also explore a broader range of gender identities.

Comment from The Vegan Society Staff LGBTIQA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi+, Trans, Intersex, Queer, Ace/Aro+) Resource Group:

This work sets out to interrogate how masculinity and gender intersect with veganism.  The vital next step in this work is to clarify, which masculinities, which gender norms?

Aph Ko and Syl Ko in “Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters”1 use the lens of 'animality' to demonstrate that toxic masculinity - the animalisation of LGBTIQA+ people and People of Marginalised Gender (MaGe) - and white racism - the animalisation of Black, Brown, Indigenous People of Colour - and speciesism itself, share the same roots:  Under white pseudo-supremacy, being a white cisgender heterosexual (cis-het) human man is the ‘ideal’ and 'norm'. If you deviate from that norm, you are 'inferior', an ‘object’ that can be exploited. This is specifically toxic white pseudo-supremacist cis-het masculinity.

We must be very explicit that there are healthy masculinities too.  Black, Brown, Indigenous LGBTIQA+ People of Colour have always been at the forefront of our liberation movements.  When you live in the multiple pile-up of racism, sexism and anti-LGBTIQA+ hate, it can become very clear that 'the system' punishes anyone who questions systemic exploitation - including the use and abuse of non-human animals for human purposes.

Black, Brown, Indigenous Trans and Queer Masculinities of Colour have always challenged the toxic white cis-het masculinity which demands the exploitation of non-human animals.  These healthy masculinities are part of consistent anti-oppression. This frame for liberation for all is explored in 'Veganism in an Oppressive World' edited by Julia Feliz, a community-led project by Vegans of Colour2.

References

  1. "Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters", 2017, by Aph Ko & Syl Ko, 978-1-59056-555-1
  2. "Veganism in an Oppressive World, A Vegans of Colour Community Project", 2017, edited by Julia Feliz Brueck, ISBN 978-0-9989946-1-1

References

  1. Ipsos MORI (2018). Global Views on Food, What are the world’s food habits? (Accessed 25 March 2022)
  2. Ibid.
  3. Adams C. The Sexual Politics of Meat (Twentieth Anniversary Edition) New York: Continuum; 2010: 58.
  4. Greenebaum J., & Dexter B. Vegan Men and Hybrid Masculinity. Journal of Gender Studies 2018; 27: 637–648.
  5. Johnson J.A. Hegans: An Examination of the Emerging Male Vegan. Theses, Dissertations, and Other Capstone Projects. Paper 124; 2011; 10.
  6. Marinova D., Bryant C. & Bogueva D. Meat and Masculinity: Why some Men just can’t stomach plant-based food. (accessed 7 February 2022)
  7. Modlinska K, Adamczyk D., Maison D. & Pisula W. Gender differences in attitudes to Vegans/Vegetarians and Their Food Preferences, and their implications for promoting sustainable dietary patterns – A systematic review. Open Access Journal 2020; 12: 1–17.
  8. Nath J. Gendered fare? Journal of Sociology 2011; 47:261–278.
  9. Johnson G.R. UK diet trends 2022. (Accessed 30 June 2021)
  10. Connell R. Gender and Power. Sydney: Allen and Unwin; 1987.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Rothgerber H. Real Men Don’t Eat (Vegetable) Quiche: Masculinity and the Justification of Meat Consumption. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 2011; 14: 363–375.
  13. Wyckoff J. Linking sexism and speciesism. Hypatia 2014; 29: 721–737.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid: 725.
  16. Adams C. The Sexual Politics of Meat (Twentieth Anniversary Edition) New York: Continuum; 2010: 173.
  17. Allcorn A. & Ogletree S.M. Linked Oppression: Connecting animal and gender attitudes. Feminism and Psychology 2018; 28: 457–469.
  18. Ibid: 465.
  19. Newsonen S. 5 Ways to Escape ‘Good-Girl Syndrome’. Psychology Today. (Accessed 26 July 2021)
  20. Adams C. The Sexual Politics of Meat (Twentieth Anniversary Edition) New York: Continuum; 2010: 102.
  21. Messerschmidt J.W. The Salience of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’. Men and Masculinities 2019; 22: 85–91.
  22. Connell R. Gender and Power. Sydney: Allen and Unwin; 1987.
  23. Greenebaum J., & Dexter B. Vegan Men and Hybrid Masculinity. Journal of Gender Studies 2018; 27: 637–648.
  24. Fidolini V. Eating like a man: Food, masculinities and self-care behaviour. Food, Culture & Society 2021: 1–14.
  25. Connell R.W. & Messerschmidt, J.W. Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender and Society 2005; 19: 829–859.
  26. Bourdieu P. Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field. Sociological Theory 1994; 12: 1–18.
  27. Wacquant L. Towards a Reflexive Sociology: A Workshop with Pierre Bourdieu. Sociological Theory 1989; 7: 26–63.  
  28. Gemar A. Cultural capital and emerging culture: the case of meditation, yoga, and vegetarianism in the UK. Leisure/Loisir 2020; 44: 1–26.
  29. Inglehart R. & Norris P. Trump and the populist authoritarian parties: the silent revolution in reverse. Perspectives on Politics 2017; 15: 443–454.
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