The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Mark Hawthorne
April 20, 2006 1:49pm
Mark Hawthorne (with Frankie)
Do Real Men Eat Tofu?
by Mark Hawthorne, Rohnert Park, California
Let’s begin with an informal survey. By a show of hands, how many male vegetarians do we have out there? Great, thank you. Now, will all the female vegetarians please raise their hands? Wow, interesting. It looks like the women outnumber the men by about three to one. Actually, this disparity is not terribly surprising; polls commissioned by Vegetarian Times and The Vegetarian Resource Group indicate that women make up the majority of vegetarians. Why is that, gentlemen? Do the women know something that we don’t? Well, the short answer is yes, they do. But there is a more complicated answer, and it’s one we need to address if we are to have any hope of bequeathing to our male heirs the legacy of peace and compassion that vegetarianism offers.
Why is this even an issue, you ask? Well, there are at least two things wrong with the status quo. The first is that many single, female vegetarians are frankly frustrated by the dearth of male vegetarians, since for these women “vegetarian” is another way of saying “compatible.” For them, vegetarianism is not simply a plant-based diet but an ethical decision tantamount to a relationship-maker or -breaker—a moral imperative with which a potential mate must be in accord.
But the more profound issue is that by rejecting the humane choice of vegetarianism, men are undermining the struggle to liberate animals from their exploitation as a source of food. They could be a compelling voice in the movement, inspiring still more men to give up meat; instead, they are allowing habit, cultural conditioning, and other influences to hold them back. Granted, not everyone who avoids meat, male or female, does so out of compassion for animals; concern for the environment is also a strong incentive for many people, and women are especially likely to adopt vegetarianism as way to maintain good health and a proper body-mass index. Many men, meanwhile, use an erroneous health-based argument to continue eating animals.
We can thank Western society for perpetuating the false premise that health and masculinity require a steady diet of meat protein. While this belief is certainly reinforced in advertising—macho-themed ads tell us that beef is what’s for dinner and steakhouse commercials feature cowboys cooking meat over a campfire, for example—such marketing would have little influence if it did not resonate with an audience already complicit in the myth that meat gives men strength and vitality. So established is the primacy of animal protein as a nutritional tenet that many men in Europe and North America regard meat eating as fundamental to maintaining physical fitness, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, and they are not inclined to give it up. Never mind that people throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America have thrived for millennia on diets in which grains and legumes are the foundation, and meat, though prized, is much less common. Moreover, custom has taught Western males that fruits, nuts and vegetables are for women and any man who sustains himself on such foods risks being labeled a “fruit,” a “nut” or a “vegetable”—effeminate, foolish, or lazy.
Although cultural influences conspire to keep men eating meat, consider the people we commonly mention when citing history’s celebrated vegetarians. Do we typically suggest Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna Kingsford, Susan B. Anthony, or even Mary Shelley, who made the creature in her novel Frankenstein a vegetarian? No, we immediately think of renowned male vegetarians like Mahatma Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Schweitzer and, now, the Dalai Lama. In fact, before the term “vegetarian” was coined in 1847, Europeans who eschewed meat were often called “Pythagoreans” after Pythagoras, the male mathematician of ancient Greece. Men clearly have a long association with vegetarianism, yet women are its standard bearers today, endowing the lifestyle with meanings both manifold and unified. True, there are a number of high-profile men committed to the vegetarian and animal-advocacy movements—Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States, Gene Bauston of Farm Sanctuary, and Bruce Friedrich of PETA come to mind, among many others—and they do truly remarkable work, but such men still represent the smaller percentage of vegetarians by gender.
In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams quotes Jean Mayer, the Harvard nutritionist, who theorized that the act of consuming meat helps the modern man connect with his masculinity. Locked away as they are in office buildings, sedentary men feel a return to power when eating animal flesh. “Of course I eat meat,” the man will say. “It’s only natural. I’m a carnivore, after all.” At this point the vegetarian might offer an inventory of the characteristics common in natural carnivores (who possess sharp teeth and claws for grasping and shredding, for example, and short, smooth intestinal tracts for rapid digestion and elimination of flesh) versus those shared by herbivores (who have flat molars for grinding and long, winding intestinal tracts to absorb plant nutrients). Such a list, which clearly points to humans as natural herbivores, often only irritates the meat eater, who may cut short the conversation with a few simple words: “Well, I like eating meat” (less-polite words may follow).
The meat eater might even feel the need to further explain his dietary choice by offering one of the many religious or pseudo-scientific justifications. “God put animals here for us to eat,” is a popular excuse, as is “The world would be overrun with animals if we didn’t eat them.” Faced with a vegetarian, the meat eater assumes a defensive position, and I venture that he feels guilty at some level for the animals he consumes. But it’s more than that. He is threatened by the notion of becoming vegetarian, for to lose his “meat” is to be emasculated. He may look askance at other men who have given up meat, regarding them with a disdain usually reserved for hippies and peace activists.
Confronted by such a response, vegetarians must wonder what the hindrance is. Why can’t the mass of otherwise intelligent men see the sense in not only giving up meat, but in taking up the crusade to end the oppression of animals? Is there an anomaly in the Y chromosome that makes the average guy feel he’s weak if he recognizes the cruelty of factory farms, acknowledges the damage agribusiness does to the environment, enjoys the health benefits of a plant-based diet and actually “goes veggie”? A man afraid to embrace aspects of himself that are nurturing and sensitive (his “feminine side”) is practically an archetype—that’s another issue—but any inference that someone is less than a man if he abstains from animal products is simply ridiculous. If anything, it makes him a more courageous human being, for he is accepting his responsibility in the ongoing cycle of exploitation and then rejecting the norm by breaking old habits to benefit a greater good.
Bringing Western men to the vegetarian table in significant numbers will mean overcoming obstacles. First, men must be able to make a deep connection with one or more of the three primary benefits vegetarianism offers: improved health, a cleaner planet, and reduced animal suffering. While women apparently make this connection more readily and adjust their lives accordingly, men are more apt to require additional information or a direct experience to move them, such as visiting a sanctuary for farmed animals. I thus propose a national campaign to teach men about the harmful effects of animal products and advocate the vegetarian lifestyle. Backed by an annual budget of even $1 billion—a small fraction of what the food industry spends to promote meat, egg, and dairy products—such a campaign could bring about enormous changes for men and have a devastating impact on animal agriculture. Best of all, the entire promotion would be very easily funded by a painless sin tax on meat.
Moreover, it is paramount that we make it socially acceptable for men to flourish on a plant-based diet. That humans can live perfectly well without animal flesh is evinced in both medical research and actual practice, yet people (especially men) continue to believe that eating meat is necessary for their physical and often for their emotional well being. Various cultural sources, from co-workers to popular media, advise men that meat consumption is essential to masculinity, and that being vegetarian makes them “wimps.” The National Beef Council, naturally, couldn’t be happier with this myth and is adept at perpetuating it. Effectively opposing this means we must not only educate men about the many advantages of a meatless diet but persuade them that there is nothing weak about compassion. Such a message is downright countercultural, to be sure, and would conflict with the meat-eating dogma that men have been fed for countless generations—but it is crucial.
In the end, narrowing the herbivore gender gap and creating lasting change means that proponents of vegetarianism must convince a skeptical public that, yes, real men do eat tofu.