The Reflection of Masculinity through Vegetarianism in the United States

Hannah Cooperider, Joyce Goodluck, Christina Vu

ANP 201H – Spring 2018



A study released in the Journal of Consumer Research analyzed 23 languages with gender pronouns and discovered that the majority of them connected meat to the male pronouns (Rozin et al, 2012). Does this point to an innate association between meat and maleness? Is this a universal association? Are there really gender-appropriate foods?

Across the span of history and among the majority of cultures, meat is viewed to be an acceptable and nutritive food. Many societies are traditionally patriarchal, and in some cultures, particular cuts of meat are reserved for males (Rozin et al, 2012). As a universal commonality, certain characteristics, such as physical strength and greater muscle mass, are typically more attributed to males than females. Meat is often seen to be a food source that induces these characteristics in males despite the fact that it is consumed by both sexes.

In a study that asked participants to rate the level of maleness and femaleness of twenty-three foods, the two foods that received the first and second rankings on the male rank list — medium-rare steak and hamburger  — received the twelfth and thirteenth rankings on the female rank list (Rozin et al, 2012). In another study, participants were provided with a paragraph description of a person’s favorite foods and were then asked to rate the person on masculinity using a scale of one to eight.  There were eight forms of the paragraph, which were identical aside from “the gender of the person described and the sentence discussing his or her favorite foods” (Rozin et al, 2012). The people who consumed beef diets (M = 5.99, SD = 1.99) were judged to be more masculine than those who consumed vegetable diets (M = 4.96, SD = 2.14) (Rozin et al, 2012). Another study of similar structure was conducted and yielded comparable results. Participants in this study were also asked to rate a person’s masculinity based on a description of foods regularly consumed by that person (Ruby et al, 2011; 449). The results of this study indicated that those consuming vegetarian diets are perceived to be less masculine than those consuming omnivorous diets (Ruby et al, 2011; 449). Such studies indicate a clear association between meat, maleness, and masculinity. However, what is the reasoning behind such an association? If meat is not part of one’s diet, will a male individual’s masculinity be perceived to be any different one whose diet does consist of meat?

While meat may be a standard dietary staple in numerous cultures, it is not necessarily included in the diet of every individual. Vegetarianism is a lifestyle practiced by both males and females all across the world, yet according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 59% of vegetarians in the United States are females while 41% are males as of March 2018. This mini-ethnography explores vegetarianism and its association to masculinity, with particular emphasis on American society. The demographic group that serves as the research participants in this study are male vegetarians, all of whom are American undergraduate college students between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one. Male participants offer their personal thoughts on masculinity with pertinence to self-image, as well as societal stereotypes regarding meat consumption and vegetarianism. The main objectives of our research includes determining if an innate association between meat and masculinity exists, whether there is the potential existence and power of the stereotype supporting this association, and what being a male vegetarian entails in regards to self-evaluation and societal responses.


What is Vegetarianism?

Vegetarianism is a food practice that emphasizes the consumption of plant-based foods and abstention from the consumption of meat. There are multiple types of vegetarians, all of whom restrict meat from their diets but may or may not restrict animal products such as eggs, dairy, and/or other animal-derived products (Tonstad et al, 2009). Veganism falls under the spectrum of vegetarianism. Roughly five-percent of the total United States population is vegetarian (PETA, 2011).

Classifications of Vegetarianism – Source: Supplement Hound (

For the majority of Americans, meat plays a significant role in their typical diet. According to the 2003 – 2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the average American total meat intake is about 128 grams per day, with the average intake being 153.8 grams per day for males and 103.2 grams per day for females (Daniel et al, 2011). This data includes statistics for male and female Americans ranging from age two to age seventy. Around 58% of the average person’s meat intake is accounted for by red meat, making it the most highly consumed type of meat, with poultry and fish accounting for 32% and 10% of the remainder of the total meat intake (Daniel et al, 2011).


Research Methodology

Semi- structured interviews were conducted individually with four male vegetarians between the ages of nineteen and twenty one. Participants were asked a variety of questions regarding different aspects of their personal experience with vegetarianism, including why they decided to transition into a vegetarian lifestyle, their definition of masculinity, how the practice influences their personal view of their identity and masculinity, how their friends and family have responded to their decision to become a vegetarian, what it is like to be a male vegetarian overall in terms of acceptance, and what kind of advice they would offer to a friend interested in transitioning into vegetarianism. Participants were also asked to respond to pro-vegetarianism and pro-meat consumption advertisements.

In addition, the men we interviewed all happened to be college liberals, and as of 2017, the large majority of the population following a vegetarian diet is of a liberal background (“Vegan Demographics 2017 – USA, and the world”). It is important to acknowledge that this political point of view and the level of gender studies might influence the way our participants view the existence and influence of the association between meat and masculinity.


What is Masculinity?

As for why they made the choice to practice vegetarianism, the four participants had different reasons, including having a dislike of the taste of meat, wanting to support environmentalism, and desiring to better their diet to improve their health. One of the participants mentioned that he made his decision after watching a documentary about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment titled “Cowspiracy.” Of the four participants, all stated that the decision to become a vegetarian was made completely willingly with no influence or force from family members or religious practices.

Upon being asked what their personal definition of masculinity is, the participants’ responses varied. Explicitly “being born a male”, a very objective statement, was one of the participant’s definition, equating gender and sex. Another’s definition was “knowing yourself”, which is more on the subjective side. This participant also mentioned that being masculine “does not necessarily mean you’re really buff or anything…That’s just […] Hollywood’s portrayal of it.” A third participant acknowledged that common definitions includes the stereotypical traits associated with men, such as being “dominant and assertive”, having “facial hair”, and being “muscular,” but did not seem to feel personally connected to this generalization.

Concerning the role of vegetarianism in shaping their identity, some of the participants stated that it plays a significant role while others felt that it constitutes a very small component, saying that it is “not too major of a part.” Despite this difference regarding their overall identity as individuals, none of them stated that it impacts their perceptions of themselves as males. One participant stated, “I don’t feel like I am less masculine by being vegan. I don’t think masculinity is determined by what you eat.” A common response among the participants to this question regarding self-evaluation was that they did not believe that one’s diet determines their level of masculinity and that not eating meat did not make them any more or less of a man than a male who does. Two of the participants felt that there is more to masculinity than just one’s diet, such as “being a gentleman” and “being comfortable with who you are.”

While surprise is a common initial reaction that the participants have received from their friends and families upon learning about their decision to become vegetarian, the overall responses were fairly positive as a whole. One participant mentioned that his family was very open-minded to his decision to become a vegan; both of his parents followed in his footsteps and began practicing veganism as well. Another participants stated that his parents approached his decision with “acceptance, positivity, and excitement.” A different participant mentioned that people would often be very willing to make a vegetarian meal to accommodate him as a guest. Two participants also mentioned having been teased by friends for being a vegetarian or made fun of for ordering a salad as opposed to a meat dish, but never in a hostile way. Overall, our participants explained that their friends and families were very open to the idea of vegetarianism and, aside from jokingly teasing, did not make any attempts to change the minds of the participants regarding their decision.

In regards to overall acceptance from the public, people who the participants are not as close to, the participants discussed a few different reactions, as well as how they may respond in certain situations. One participant’s response to this question was that sometimes people question him. When this happens, he says, “I try to answer their questions, but leave it open to where they think about their own eating habits and lifestyle habits and how they impact the environment.” In contrast, a different participant explains: “I play along with the joke that being vegetarian is not very manly because I am comfortable with who I am…” Upon receiving slightly unfavorable responses on occasion, the participants stated that they “brush it off” and “don’t let what other people think influence them.”

Although our participants expressed how the stereotype did not influence their own beliefs, something interesting we noticed was when we asked what type of suggestions they would give to a friend if they were wanting to become a vegetarian. Some of our participants did not give any differentiation, saying things such as, “Just do it, I feel like we make a big deal of it in our heads, but it’s just the initial accepting that you want to do it;” “It’s really not as hard as it seems;” “It’s all about self-discipline.” All of these suggestions focused much less on the external factors, and spoke much more about the internal battles that one could face when trying something new.

However, some participants gave varied suggestions based on gender, and these all brought up the significance of the gender stereotype. For female friends, one participant said, “they don’t have that whole masculinity thing weighing down on their shoulders. I would say ‘You’ll feel great and it’s fun to cook.’” As for the males, one participant said, “more persuasion [needs] to go into the male agenda, because it’s a full lifestyle change for a lot of men because they’re so used to it. It’s ingrained [into them]  at a pretty young age that that’s the normal thing to do.” He added that, “I’d probably have to say that ‘It’s a challenge, but…then screw all what those other people tell you…at the end of the day, you don’t have to impress people through your diet.’”

Although our participants expressed how the stereotype did not influence their own beliefs about masculinity as related to their own sense of self, it is interesting to note how the gender stereotype would influence the type of advice they would give to a female versus a male friend who wants to become vegetarian. The varied suggestions based on gender shows that while the stereotype does not seem to be significant at an individual level, it is still significant enough at the societal level to make our participants feel like it needs to be brought up to their male friends.



Pro-Vegetarian Ad (B) – Source: PETA (

While numerous types of advertisements for both meat consumption and vegetarianism are made available, many of them seem to have been designed to display similar messages to the public. Some pro-vegetarian advertisements  encourage women to become vegetarians by promoting waist-slimming and provoking guilt via animal cruelty arguments. Opposing this, meat ads are often directed towards a male audience, using the sexualization of females and animals while promoting strength and power to males themselves.

Pro-Vegetarianism Ad (A) – Source: Nutrition Unplugged (

Upon showing the participants the pro-vegetarian advertisements, they showed signs of agreement and chuckled at most of them. They found most of the ads to be humorous, and agreed with some of the points that the ads were trying to get across. In response to an ad that depicted an overweight individual and the quote “Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian”, one of the participants chuckled and said that what the ad was depicting is “definitely true…because a big part of obesity is meat consumption.” He liked that the advertisement was aiming to

Pro-Vegetarianism Ad (C) – Source: Masculinities 101 (

make a point about potential health benefits of vegetarianism. In response to an advertisement that had the caption: “Eating Meat is a Sin: Go Vegetarian”, the same participant commented: “True. Killing is a sin.” Another advertisement depicted a chicken sandwich with an X over it and the caption: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach unless he eats meat, then it’s through his vagina!” This advertisement was one that two of the participants found to be funny, with one stating that it seemed like the advertisement was “kind of bashing guys who eat meat” and that it was targeted toward “guys who are less traditional.”

As for the pro-meat consumption advertisements, the amount of emotion in the participants’ reactions upon seeing them was comparable to the amount when they were shown the pro-vegetarianism advertisements. These advertisements did not invoke as much laughter from the participants. Rather, their responses acknowledged

Pro-Meat Consumption Ad (A) – Source: PinImg (

the existence of the stereotype that exists about males being heavy consumers of meat, stating that the advertisements took on a “very traditional view” that “portrayed the stereotypical masculine ad” and seemed to be targeted toward “a male audience.” One of the advertisements depicted a soldier holding a pan of canned cooked meat, i

Pro-Meat Consumption Ad (B) – Source: Buscar Fondos (×960/imagen-de-tu-comida-se-va-a-poner-mas-buena)

n which one of the participants commented: “They’re trying to convince you that ‘real’ men, like soldiers, eat packaged meat, which is kind of BS.” The responses from the participants demonstrated that while they are able to acknowledge the existence of a stereotype, they themselves do not believe that it is true.

Overall, most of the participants’ comments on the advertisements addressed the actual message that the makers of the advertisement

aimed to pass onto their intended audience, such as the implication of a vegetarian diet aiding in weight loss and the idea that men should eat meat. Rather than responding with strong emotions, the participants primarily found the advertisements to be simply humorous. Such nonchalant responses from all of the participants demonstrates the lack of concern for the overall idea that vegetarianism is portrayed as feminine and meat

consumption is portrayed as masculine in the United States. Light-hearted and indifferent reactions show that their personal practice of vegetarianism is not something that

Pro-Meat Consumption Ad (C) – Source: Posters for the People (

they have a strong emotional attachment to; it is simply a dietary practice that they follow which they do not mind seeing advertisements poke fun at.









Reflexivity & Expectations

We are three non-vegetarian females between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one. Our positionality influenced our framing of this research on the topic of male vegetarianism and masculinity. Prior to conducting interviews with male vegetarians,  we believed that there was an association between masculinity and meat consumption; therefore, we anticipated a more extreme set of experiences and views toward this topic from our participants than what ended up being provided. We expected that the participants would have experienced negative societal responses in regards to their vegetarian diet, as well as have very impassioned reactions to the advertisements that we showed them. However, the interviews we conducted did not yield what we had originally anticipated. Instead, our participants generally received positive societal responses and they did not show any strong emotional response to the advertisements.

In 1966, many scholars, focusing on the hunting-gathering subsistence strategy, attended the “Man the Hunter” conference, in which the idea of hunting was marked as a crucial factor in human society. Studies of human evolution have often focused on the role of men in hunting, creating a few misconceptions: hunting is exclusively a male activity; hunting is the main supplier for sustenance (Sterling, 2014). There was an absence of recognition and investigation into the role of women in the success of a society, both in and out of hunting, which has contributed to the myth that they held little to no power in their community.

Challenging the Traditional View of Hunting – Source: Black Dog Runner (

Modern Analogy of Gender Roles in Hunting and Gathering – Source: Big Game Hunt (

Anthropology was a largely a male-dominated field until recently, and this contributed to a lot of the misconceptions that have influenced the perception of the traditional hunting-gathering societies. It is important to understand that many of these anthropologists were often following the males in the society, leaving the understanding of the women’s roles at a very surface level. Research often looks to biological explanations as to why women do not participate in the hunting processes: such as “reproduction,” “child care,” and targeting more “reliable” foods to support their children. (Marlowe, 2007; 171). This stems from the assumption that women must put all of their energy into the care of their maternal responsibilities, and the use of this claim in research has led to more support than it deserves, as it underestimates the capabilities of women’s biology and simply ignores the incredible variance in structure that hunting-gathering societies have.

Societal structure can be influenced by a plethora of factors, however temperature and seasonality both are large contributors. A study showed a correlation between both increased temperature as well as decreased seasonality with a decrease in sexual division of labor, revealing a continuum of division of labor, rather than a complete separation in all societies (Marlowe, 2007; 184). Additionally, a three-year study of the Agta Negrito people of the Philippines reported that the participation of women in the hunting process had no adverse effects on their fertility or childcare, disproving the common claim that the women are simply unable to hunt due to their reproductive responsibilities (Goodman et al, 1985).

The Overall Sexual Division of Foraging Labor Score for Warm-Climate and Cold-Climate Subsamples – Source: (Marlowe, 2007; 185)

The Overall Sexual Division of Foraging Labor Score as a Function of Habitat Net Primary Production (NPP) – Source: (Marlowe, 2007; 184)

However, this is not to say that hunting has not been dominated by man. Statistically, men do contribute more to large-animal hunting, while women focused more on the small animals or fishing (Marlowe, 2007; 182). Nonetheless, focusing on hunting itself has been the issue. Limiting the scope of subsistence to meat erases the majority of the diet of many of these communities. While women may have had a smaller role in hunting, their role in gathering was incredibly vital. Unfortunately, it has been overshadowed by the influence of the Western gender hierarchy of men above women. While strides are being made to develop the women’s side of this history, the foundations of these gendered myths have not yet been broken down, and its influence can still be seen.

2017 Political Orientations and Religious Affiliations of Vegans in US – Source: Vegan Bits (

The assumptions that have been dragged through time from the biased anthropological research can be more closely connected to that of conservative beliefs. Speaking to individuals who are currently experiencing a society and college environment that tend to be more open and progressive, it is possible we received different responses than had we had the opportunity to speak to a larger variation of participants: non-vegetarian men, men from older generations or with different political views, or even females. However, the analysis of our data leads us to believe, that at least within this sub-culture of college liberals, while there seems to be an understanding of a stereotype in our society revolving around meat and masculinity, it lacks substance and does not hold power over these individuals’ perception of their own masculinity.



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