Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
I know I’m not alone in my frustration at the repetitive and, not to mention, tedious insistence that a meal without meat falls somewhat short of being a real meal. For a long time, it has both baffled and concerned me that this all too familiar drone disproportionately comes from men.
Our planet is in an incredibly precarious position: we are in a state of climate emergency and desperately running out of time to limit the potentially irreversible impacts of our actions. We need to change our consumption and we need to change it fast.
Animal products are currently responsible for nearly a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions; additionally, the clearing of land for cattle grazing and animal feed is the single greatest contributor to tropical deforestation.
In 2019, a UN Special Report into the threats of climate change made explicit the importance of embracing sustainable diets and drastically reducing global meat consumption. In recent years, we have witnessed a significant increase in the exposure and promotion of plant-based diets and meat-alternatives from food companies, climate activists and nutritionists. With 14% of the UK now following meat-free diets of one form or another, vegan and vegetarian options are now more widely available than ever before.
Yet, despite the increasing popularity of plant-based diets, there is a striking gender disparity in the uptake of meat-free products and diets – with women currently accounting for 63% of vegans in the UK. There is a stark eco-gender divide in the consumption of sustainable foods and other consumer products; evidenced by sustainable retailers, Plastic Freedom and Plastic Free Shop, both noting that 90% of their customers were women.
This well-documented gender divide in sustainable consumption results from the naïve, and quite frankly toxic, cognitive associations of climate consciousness with femininity, and meat with masculinity. Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, explicitly linked meat with manliness. Eating meat is supposedly emblematic of dominance, vigour, and man’s position at the top of the food chain: above animals and women, both of which are perceived as capable of satiating the appetites of men.
Advertising unashamedly plays into the idea of men as natural meat-eaters, digging their teeth into burgers, buckets of chicken and succulent steaks. These marketing strategies are potentially the most powerful sustaining mechanism of such beliefs, and essentially perpetuate the supposed manliness of meat. The recent launch of Subway’s plant-based T.L.C. Sub employed this very same association through its presentation of a meat-loving man and a plant-loving woman and, in doing so, marketed their plant-based product as in some way more ‘feminine’ than the real meat, to be eaten by real men.
This may seem somewhat trivial, just yet another example of the noxious power of advertising, but the dominance of this notion has tangible implications on efforts to reduce meat consumption. Feminising plant-based products and diets deters men from embracing, or advocating, vegetarian or vegan diets. Fearing emasculation and the disparaging soy boy label, a recent study found that men were embarrassed to eat vegetarian or vegan food in social settings – even if they wanted to reduce their meat consumption.
The gendering of meat as masculine obscures the necessary dialogue about the drastic need to curb our meat consumption, whilst simultaneously placing the responsibility for sustainable consumption onto women. Despite the exponential growth in the number of people following vegetarian or vegan diets, and the increasing number of meat-free alternatives available to us, meat consumption is not decreasing. For as long as men continue to feel bound to this outdated trope of carnivorous masculinity, there is no chance of a radical reduction in meat-consumption.