Is vegetarianism gendered? Part 1

What I’d like to ask about today, briefly, is if vegetarianism is gendered. It just seems like I meet more female vegetarians than male vegetarians, and that when girls brag about eating a nice juicy steak there is always this shadow of masculinity lingering around, either in the way their voice changes when they say “juicy steak”, or in the decor of the places where such juicy steaks are consumed, etc.

Full disclosure: I have been a vegetarian for a year now, for a litany of reasons: the main two being ethical reasons (thank you Jacques Derrida, Rav Kook, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, PETA, etc.) and for practical reasons related to my religious dietary restrictions. In previous years, I have been a raw food vegan (2-3 months, I don’t remember), vegan (1 month), but this recent vegetarianism has been the longest to last. As for my role as a gendered consumer of vegetarian products and vegetarian culture, I am not sure where I fall. I mean, I wear polos and bro shorts on the weekdays, flannel and long skirts on the weekend. I was raised in female spaces and culture, and for feminist reasons identify with women as my “class,” but I am ambivalent about it at the same time.

So, basically, all I have at the start of this post is a question based on cultural cues that I’ve picked up for the years. What I’d like to do now is, through Googling, find a few clues to whether there is actually a cultural gender barrier in the vegetarian-omnivore divide, or whether I am just hallucinating.

So, the first thing I did, naturally, was Google “sociological images men meat” – since if anyone was up on this question, I’d figure Sociological Images would be up on it. I found this post, which skillfully dissects a Campbell’s Soup advertisement that says: “For Men Only:  ‘He-Man’ is the word for these Hearty Soups, but Ladies, you can like ’em too!” oh, and “Beef! Beef! Beef!” Dr. Gwen Sharp explains:

“Writing about the British working class during the late 1800s in his book Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz argues, “…wives and children were systematically undernourished because of a culturally conventionalized stress upon adequate food for the ‘breadwinner’” (p. 130). Men’s privileged access to meat actually spurred the consumption of sugar: “…while the laboring husband got the meat, the wife and children got the sucrose…” (p. 145). Sugar provided a relatively cheap source of calories for women and children’s diets to make up for the fact that they got less of other foods.”

MANLY MAN EATS STEAK. REST OF MANLY MAN'S POINTS GO TO BEER OR JERKY. NOT ESTROGEN-LADEN TOFU.*

A reader of this post submitted the following image of a Weight Watchers advertisement that tells men they can “EAT LIKE A MAN. NOT LIKE A RABBIT” through the Weight Watchers Diet, and from the picture, one could venture to guess that a real man eats a grilled steak with a few sides of potatoes and vegetables. I’m assuming the rabbit orders a salad or something. Anyways, this means other people have also picked up on it through advertisements, which is one piece of evidence that there is some sort of gendering at play.

Next, I will Google “vegetarianism by gender.” Let’s see what I get. Brb. Hmmm… Wikipedia… section on the Vegetarianism entry under “Gender”… aha! A study says 68% of vegetarians are women. 32% of vegetarianism are men. This links me back to the article I avoided in my Google search, the first one that came up called “The gender gap: if you’re a vegetarian, odds are you’re a woman. Why? – includes related articles.” I avoided it because I saw it was a several page article, which set off my tl;dr alarm (sorry LadyG!), but now that I am reading it, it is quite interesting… So basically, in summary, here are the observations the article makes:

  • Among adults, women are more likely to be vegetarians since the majority of vegetarians do so for health reasons, and women do things for health reasons more often than men.  Iiii’d also venture to argue that they’re used to adopting “diets” a lot more than men, I’m not gonna google it now, but I’m sure women go on diets in much larger numbers, aaaand that “health reasons” more often than not is linked to “cosmetic reasons” for women in perhaps slightly larger numbers than for men.” Again these are not corroborated yet, but these are my hypotheses.
  • Another important factor is women’s higher concern for animal suffering, supported by the statistics that say that around 75-80% of people active in the animal rights movement are women. This linked me to a book I have been meaning to read since I became interested in the topic (a month ago) called “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” by Carol Adams, which makes the following connection: “For Adams, as well as Bauman, whose animal rights group tries to show the connections between the oppression of animals and women, vegetarianism is firmly rooted in feminism. In our patriarchal society, women are still on the underside of power: “We know what it’s like to be powerless,” says Adams. Because of that, she says, “we can see a relationship between our powerlessness and others’ powerlessness,” including animals.” I think this is quite great, and probably is related to the reasons for a lot of conscious feminists to undertake vegetarianism, but is it a guiding factor for the majority of women?
  • Another interesting angle that Adams brings up is the perspective of a power struggle, similar perhaps to my previous post on Conversa women, in which vegetarianism is a way for women to assert themselves through a traditionally gendered practice, like cooking. “Indeed, becoming vegetarian is a literal act of liberation for some women who see getting away from the hot, greasy preparation of meat as a kind of freedom.Once they are liberated from cooking meat, these women can often influence what their husbands and sons eat.”

Anyways, there are more and more things that this article gives as evidence to the gender camp, so I don’t want to just be copy and pasting all day, but I’d check it out if I were you for more interesting evidence, including a study in which people rated the “femininity” and “masculinity” of certain dishes and what not.

Maybe two Google searches are not conclusive, but I hope they help start a conversation on how our consumption and, in particular, our health and ethics-based consumption is affected by gender.

*PS: To all of my vegetarian friends, tofu actually does have high estrogen content. Consider yourself warned.

Oh! Before I forget. Next week, I’d like to continue on this theme, but I’d like to find out more about male vegetarians. If you or someone you know is a male vegetarian, please let me know if I can interview you for a brief, anonymous survey that I’d like to put together about vegetarianism and masculinity and use in my next post. If you’d like to do that, please email arewefeminists@gmail.com and we can exchange recipes or something and chat a bit about why you’re a vegetarian and how that’s worked out. Thanks!

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20 thoughts on “Is vegetarianism gendered? Part 1

  1. vicuña says:

    flannel, really? as a vicuña I have mixed feelings about this–being of a notably fashion-conscious species I find it borderline offensive, but as long as the fabric comes from sheep and not vicuña, i guess that’s okay.

    anyway, i’d imagine that the explanations regarding psychology would tend to provide a large part of the answer, and the cultural associations of meat and masculinity would suffice for the remainder. as for the taking power in the home, I’m a bit skeptical–I can’t really see that as empowering; also, there is a culture of men making meat on their own, so how much does a woman’s vegetarianism matter if her husband goes tailgating and grills every weekend?

    p.s. i love how your end request for male vegetarians sounds like a self-help ad. not sure if hat was intentional but brava. and can we please get over the ethical arguments for vegetarianism, really, Peter Singer is a terrible role model. and PETA is even worse.

    mouawf

    • mumblerant says:

      oh i’m not at all sure it’s time to dismiss ethical argument wrt vegetarianism. you’ll at least have to be more specific as to what kinds of argument you have in mind when you say ‘ethical’.

      • vicuña says:

        the argument I’m referring to is that of peter singer, who approaches the issue from a utilitarian perspective. as such, he argues that the only things that matter are pleasure and pain, and that all sentient beings’ pleasure and pain are equivalent. this however leads to the issue of treating people and animals as equivalent, and if you are not willing to except an equation of the two then it seems challenging to follow the view. alternatively, you could accept this equality, but then there is no particular reason to save starving humans over the scavengers that will devour their corpses. also, it completely deals away with the concept of humanity or the notion that human beings are in some way different and have responsibilities to each other qua humans. now, if you are willing to accept the premise that humans and animals are equivalent, you can follow the Singer path, but I think that most people actually don’t think this way and wouldn’t agree with that ethical system which they use to justify vegetarianism.

  2. Emmy says:

    OK, OK, I’ll give you the flannel part, vicuña, BUT:

    1.) ” as for the taking power in the home, I’m a bit skeptical–I can’t really see that as empowering; also, there is a culture of men making meat on their own, so how much does a woman’s vegetarianism matter if her husband goes tailgating and grills every weekend?”

    You’ve agreed to the validity of at least the psychological and cultural claims. Allow me to give a made-up case in which these, when connected, could present empowerment:

    Mrs. Sowenso, long-suffering victim of the patriarchy “‘can see a relationship between our powerlessness and others’ powerlessness,’ including animals.” She’s quite had it with watching Mr. Sowenso mercilessly gnaw away at a turkey leg night after night with no regard to how the poor genetically-doomed bird was tortured in a factory farm while it couldn’t even stand under its own weight. But what can she do? “Fred” loves the stuff and will continue eating it despite all of the “animal rights” fliers Mrs. Sowenso has left lying around the living room. She also resents how she has been treated in relationship to meat outside her home. Two examples come to mind: #1 Some sleezebag in the line at the butcher shop telling her he wants an extra helping of the “breast and thighs” last week with a wink wink nudge nudge. Guy at the counter smirks. #2 On a dinner date with Mr. Sowenso, the waiter asks the lady if she will be having the salad tonight with the low-fat vinagrette – the gentleman is, naturally, asked if he’ll be enjoying the Surf n’ Turf tonight.
    Mrs. Sowenso, on the way to get stuff for dinner tonight decides: screw this – “I’m not going to the butcher store anymore, and I’m not going to allow Mr. Sowenso to rip apart at dead animals in my dining room. Tonight I’m making Tofu Scramble.” Mr. Sowenso comes home and is horrified at the soy product on his plate in place of the juicy red pound of flesh he was expecting. Mrs. Sowenso tells him to try it and if he doesn’t like it there’s PBJ in the fridge, eventually gets the whole household to adopt “Meatless Monday” or whatever, and thus gets a bit of control over her interaction with meat consumption. Isn’t this empowering?

    As for the tailgating, from how you describe that, it is a male space. That of course is a different ballgame altogether from the “empowerment within women’s space” that I was trying to talk about.

    2.) Ethical argument: I am no utilitarian, and certainly no Peter Singer fan.
    My argument, I think, comes from the perspective that even though I am a human, and thus my fellow humans and I have a different ethical status from that of other animals, this does not cancel all types of ethical responsibilities to animals. Certainly, humans come first to me, but this does not mean I can just happily kick a rabbit around within inches of its life cause I’m not doing it to a human. Lately, one of the sources dealing with this distinction that has been on my mind is the halakhic commandment of Shiluach Ha-Kan, in which one must send a mother bird away from the nest if one is going to take eggs, which can be interpreted as a recognition of a lesser, but still commanding ethical status for animals. From the comments some of the Rishonim have made on this, it looks like our recognition of their status as ethical subjects has implications for our own ethical status. Based mostly on this type of line of reasoning, my ethical reasons for vegetarianism delve more into (de)ontological concerns, not so much utilitarian ones. Certainly, the excessive pain inflicted on the animal in factory farming today is important to me, but it is not the only thing that is wrong with the state of meat-eating today.

  3. vicuña says:

    i wouldn’t object to those as instances of empowerment, my contention is that those instances do not constitute a larger notion of empowerment. while having control within the home does present Sowenso with an expansion of power in that sphere, there is a rather easy transfer of that which she has power over elsewhere–meatless monday is on one level empowering, but i would argue that it is insufficient for empowerment if the husband just has a barbeque with his buddies and watches monday night football with them. it’s kind of like passing environmental regulation in one country and then having some polluting company move to a place without regulation. the spheres (countries) are separate yet inseparable (pollution still happens) with relation to the issue.

    agreed, i believe that there is a notion of ethical responsibility to animals, but where we draw the line is what i would debate. we vicuñas (ever the peace-loving species) would never kick a rabbit within inches of its life for no reason, but surely that is not the position up for debate. if the matter is eating rabbits or treating them reasonably well before slaughter then i think that we should do so, and the Rishonim would presumably agree on this (I’m sure they all ate meat and followed the Bible’s ideas in terms of the acceptability of eating meat as well as the ethics of animal treatment).

    • Emmy says:

      1.) Isn’t that like saying local elections don’t matter? I think small sites of empowerment in one sphere can eventually spill over into affecting the other sphere. In the case of the Conversa women, for example, their particular type of religion eventually became the dominant type of religion that even the men in that community practiced (by consulting female authorities). This didn’t happen all at once, but started with a few religious equivalents of “Meatless Monday.”

      2.) I completely agree with eating meat if it’s not kicked around within inches of its life. The thing is, and the main reason for my vegetarianism is that animals in most slaughterhouses are treated with the equivalent amount of cruelty – whether it’s being genetically and hormonally treated so that they can barely stand under their own weight in order to be “plump and juicy”, or being forced to sit in their own excrement with no room to even spread their wings (and chickens actually do go crazy from this), or fish being dismembered while still alive, it’s just awful. Even in kosher slaughterhouses, animals are treated horribly far beyond ethical limits. If it was a matter of taking some animal I or someone I knew had personally raised and treated fairly to get shechted quickly and properly by someone I knew, who wouldn’t suspend it from a hook on its throat while it’s still alive, I would be much less opposed to meat consumption. I’m pretty sure that the Rishonim bought their meat from a shochet in their own community, not from some factory in Iowa.

      • chortlevork says:

        The comment i’m about to make strays fairly far from the issue of gender in dietary ethics, but it’s something I feel strongly about. The Netherlands recently banned any kind of slaughter that does not stun the animal first, effectively banning kosher slaughter. This raises a serious question about what animal protection measures are supposed to be all about. I don’t know what Dutch policies are on the barnyard side–genetic treatment, chickens that are too heavy to walk or move, living in their own shit, etc etc, but this is obviously de rigeur in the U.S., as is stunning pre-slaughter.

        I want to be careful here because I am categorically against appeals to nature, but I feel like, in some sense, the awful treatment of living animals intended for slaughter is totally consistent with stunning them before they are killed. It’s a form of human power over the process that distorts the normal, healthy course of an animal’s life. Am I totally off base here?

  4. chortlevork says:

    A couple thoughts.

    1. I’ve long wondered about what the male norm of grilling meat–far stronger than that of eating meat–has to do with the old priest-sacrificer religious life. Maybe the fact that i’m wondering about it is really the only interesting thing going on. Also it should be mentioned that in my house, my mom grills all the meat. I’m getting pretty good at it, but my father never does.

    2. I knew a guy who often referred to a mutual male friend as a “vagitarian.” In other words, Emmy, I don’t think you’re hallucinating. I’m just not 100 percent sure if it matters to feminism.

    3. Peter Singer is an idiot.

    • chortlevork says:

      Wait, my anecdote proves that it obviously matters. Nvm.

      • Emmy says:

        Interesting! I hadn’t thought of the priest-sacrificer connection. It would certainly be interesting to look at that history.

        There’s all sorts of stuff in Jewish law about women having limited access to the sacrifice and having set times in which they must participate.

        In Ancient Greek practice, it always seemed like the guys were the ones building the huge pyres of burning meat, and the women were the ones pouring the wine.

        …and that’s all I have.

    • LadyG says:

      1. I don’t know anything about this really — mumblerant is the local expert on sacrifice — but I’d be really excited to hear about anything anyone can think of/find.

      2. UGH. And completely unsurprising. I’m right on board with Emmy. Can anyone think of an equally insulting retort involving testicles?

      3. Peter Singer hurts the cause.

      • chortlevork says:

        So, to be honest, the whole meat grilling thing is kind of fanciful. I mean the chances that there’s a solid historical connection are miniscule. I just think it’s cool in a macro-historical way.

      • mumblerant says:

        “Can anyone think of an equally insulting retort involving testicles?”

        i am reminded of the über-male spanish practice of eating the roasted balls of the bull you have just defeated in combat

  5. Emmy says:

    chortlevork, wordpress is not letting me respond to your comment in the thread anymore, so I’m starting a new one.

    It seems that the normal, healthy course of many types of animal life in nature, is to be eventually consumed by a predator of sorts, but not in the way most places do it, so yes, I think I agree with you if what you’re saying is that torture and stunning is in fact a distortion. I am not sure how they are linked, but I’d be very interested in hearing more about how you think they are linked.

    As for the Netherlands… bleh.

    • chortlevork says:

      I will think more about this. However, as a last resort, we can simply agree that animal farming is cruel and banning kosher slaughter is stupid and intolerant.

      • Christina says:

        I, too, will think more about this, but I’m afraid I can’t agree with the last part. We don’t swing chickens around our heads anymore; we swing money. Something being kosher does not automatically mean it is ethical by secular standards nor does it automatically give it an exemption from secular standards, and secular government must make decisions about privileging ethics vs religious freedom. More complicated I think than you’re making it out to be.

  6. chortlevork says:

    I was imagining an agreement between myself and Emmy, which is why I sounded so confident. Your objection offers some juicy meaty questions about the government and different ethical standards…unfortunately I really should go back to work now, so I will have to address those at another time.

    • Emmy says:

      Christina, I can’t reply to your post in-thread, so I’ll reply in chortlevork’s new one. The Dutch government is the one being simplistic, adopting the principle that “just because something is kosher means that it is _not_ ethical by secular standards”. By outright banning kosher slaughter they are preventing kosher slaughter from happening in a humane way.

      Also, plenty of people still swing chickens around. While I’m not a huge fan and don’t see why it’s necessary I’d venture to argue it’s a more humane slaughter than what’s done in your typical “humane” Dutch factory farm.

      • vicuña says:

        emmy is right about the chickens, in addition to fulfilling ritual obligations, swinging chickens around is indeed great fun (especially for those species among us who lack opposable thumbs)

        also, chortlevork, while your comment #3 is not an argument, it does make me happy.

        and regarding elections, the argument is not that local elections are irrelevant; rather they cannot override federal rulings or have sway in other localities–think of prostitution laws in Nevada or pot laws in California.

      • mumblerant says:

        i think the designation ‘humane’ is a red herring in these arguments. i mean, it’s obviously either tautological or nonsensical, right?

        to be more specific, let us consider the relationship between pain and slaughter. the dutch government is adhering to a logic of ‘humanity’ wherein it is ethically best to suppress the dying animal’s experience of pain–in fact, to suppress its consciousness altogether in its final living moments. this logic shares a presumption with singer’s ethic: that PAIN is the ultimate evil. so even within a context of mass slaughter you can minimize your ethical culpability by eliminating pain. without that presumption, the dutch government has no rhetorical privilege for its position.

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