A shift to eating more plants and fewer animals is on the agenda for many people and institutions. Research has long shown the impact of industrial animal agriculture on the planet, and zoologist Joseph Poore, the lead author of a study on food’s environmental impacts, has said that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth”. This is why the menu for delegates at the COP26 climate conference has been criticised for its reliance on meat and dairy.
But researchers are warning that eating meat isn’t just a dietary preference: it is wrapped up with gender. The most common demographic of vegans are women aged between 18 and 34 and twice as many women as men are vegan.
Partially, this is because masculinity is tied up with eating meat. This is evident in the “soy boy” stereotype – a pejorative term used to insult left-wing and vegan men by questioning their masculinity. These ideas, rooted in a misconception that eating soy will increase oestrogen, prevent some men from seriously considering veganism.
On social media, male vegan influencers are trying to counteract stereotypes by showing how veganism can enhance masculinity. For the last three years, I have explored this online boom, comparing the online lives of vegan influencers with vegan men in the real world, and asking whether going vegan really does threaten men’s masculinity.
If you open Instagram and search #VeganMen, your screen will be flooded with photos of men attesting to the benefits of veganism. Analysing popular accounts of these influencers, multiple narrative patterns around masculinity arise. They capture traditional ideas of masculinity with topless, muscular selfies or huge plates of food, usually centring around replica meats.
In the captions, men talk about how veganism has transformed their lives, while – importantly – not affecting their masculinity. For accounts with large followings, this isn’t just a form of outreach, but an attempt to sell veganism for financial, cultural and aesthetic gain in sponsored ads, followers, likes and comments. Three themes came up repeatedly:
- Veganism enhances masculinity;
- Men should become vegan “saviours”;
- As well as building muscle, veganism also makes men morally purer.
On social media, veganism is presented as an aspirational lifestyle. But talking to vegans from all walks of life, and of different ages, influencer veganism couldn’t be further from the truth.
Meat, masculinity and social change
In my research into vegan masculinity, I undertook seven targeted interviews with vegan men based across Britain aged between 20 and 65. All of these men felt that the images of vegan men on social media were a far cry from their own experiences. Going vegan had, instead, forced them to face stereotypes around masculinity and question them.
While vegan influencers promoting a kind of hypermasculinity might seem like a win for veganism, it can be unappealing to men who might feel that they aren’t “manly” enough. When the only vegan men with big audiences are those reproducing these aesthetics, this can make normal vegan men feel as if they are failing to “pull off” veganism. In fact, when men give up meat, they expect, as some of the men I spoke to did, to be mocked by their peers.
Matthew, in his mid-30s, told me: “I don’t fit what people think a vegan is. I play football, I play rugby, I go to the gym.” Similarly, Charlie, in his late 20s, said that his veganism is about his body as a man: “I’m not just doing this for environmental factors or animal rights, but also to do with how my body feels.”
For Rhys, in his 20s, veganism undoes traditional ideas of gender: “I’m not ‘alpha male’ so I have enjoyed not being associated with that kind of masculinity. That whole thing of ‘real men eat meat’ is so ludicrous. It’s nice to be outside of that.”
Going even further, Matthew told me that not only does being a vegan man challenge traditional gender norms but it is also “a form of feminist intervention. It’s about challenging the status quo, disrupting social norms.” Similarly, Simon, in his 60s, saw veganism as a compassionate, feminist diet, that he believed could connect him with women in his family because it showed a caring side to him.
This is a far cry from the hyper-masculine images that vegan influencers post online. Veganism enables men to question outdated ideas of gender, and to undo notions of masculinity as entangled with what they eat or how they look.
If the future of the planet requires us to change our diets, understanding how food is entangled with gender norms is important. While vegan influencers might be shaping public opinion of what a vegan looks like, veganism needs to be seen as an option for all types of men.
Suggested further reading
Catherine Oliver (2021) Mock meat, masculinity, and redemption narratives: Vegan men’s negotiations and performances of gender and eating, Social Movement Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2021.1989293
Morris, C, Kaljonen, M, Hadley Kershaw, E. (2021) Governing plant-centred eating at the urban scale in the UK: The Sustainable Food Cities network and the reframing of dietary biopower. Geographical Journal https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12388
Wilton, R., DeVerteuil, G. and Evans, J. (2014), ‘No more of this macho bullshit’: drug treatment, place and the reworking of masculinity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12023