I am a vegetarian. With that phrase, I’ve already likely driven away half of the readers, and it’s not even true. I’m actually a pescatarian for now, although I intend to make the full transition next year. For those who are vegetarian, it’s difficult to find good food in the dining halls sometimes, but UConn dining services are taking steps to rectify this. I am impressed by their increasing accommodations. Much more difficult, though, are the threats to my identity that come with being a vegetarian male.
Of course, I’ve never been actually threatened by a militant carnivore or anything. It is much more subtle than that. Attacks instead come in the form of norms and expectations. Snide comments from friends, catchy phrases online, the portrayal of food and men across decades of media. It is all of these that create a sort of identity crisis in many current and would-be vegetarians.
The phrase “soyboy” has become a joke by now, but its judgmental and false origins in the culture war against plant-based diets still permeate through our society. Consider how meat is fetishized to the point where some advertisements deliberately conflate meat and sex with men. Or, how millenials, in an attempt to discredit them as babies or sissies, are often laughed at for trying vegetarianism or eating avocado and soy. Or, how studies show we implicitly link a burger and fries with “masculine” and a salad with “feminine.” Meat and masculinity are inseparably linked, and any deviation from this is sure to be met with indignation.
There have even been many jokes at my expense for being vegetarian. They are good-hearted and harmless, for sure, and I have never taken them as a personal attack against my status as a man. However, the jokes do come from a social expectation that guys should eat meat. Even if they are just pointing out the ridiculousness of such norms, it is still an admittance that these norms are present.
It would be facile to claim that vegetarianism is not considered emasculating by society. I would argue that the reason vegetarianism is derided in general is rooted in misogyny and rampant masculinity. Regardless, this is a huge problem for more than just the vegetarian community. The assault against vegetarianism actively dissuades both men and women from trying it themselves or being at all conscious about their diets.
Men are implicitly told not to be vegetarian because meat is masculine. In this way, even reducing meat consumption (e.g. the Mediterranean diet) is discouraged. Women are also affected, though. Despite being more empowered than ever, the path women must step on to be accepted into traditionally manly circles is still too narrow. In these scenarios, not eating meat can leave one open to doubt, discrimination, or ridicule. Vegetarianism is overwhelmingly female, so of course the woman would be eating salad. This is not right, yet it still exists as an impediment. These issues are magnified when the person is young and decisions like vegetarianism are dismissed as a phase.
In effect, the culture around diet in general leads many to consider plant-based diets to be feminine. This not only results in contempt toward vegetarians, but it also works against the spread of vegetarianism. All of this despite the fact that vegetarianism has many measurable benefits and few drawbacks aside from taste. And, most importantly, it’s just a choice in food! No one is considered lesser for not preferring candy or milk or seafood, and yet many people believe you may as well hand in your man card when you refuse a steak. This attitude towards vegetarianism is just another example of masculinity and gender norms putting up arbitrary walls, and it needs to stop if the diet and its benefits are ever to be accepted and spread.
Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.