The popularity of plant-based diets may be on the rise, but they are still overwhelmingly taken up by women. In order to find out why, I asked two very different experts: Cro-Mags frontman John Joseph, and radical feminist Carol J. Adams.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.
In the West, plant-based eating has never been more popular. From the United Nations and the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee advocating that more people adopt a plant-based diet to its increasing mainstream accessibility, vegetables are clearly in vogue. Yet despite this, recent statistics reveal that only 3.2 percent (7.3 million Americans) follow a vegetarian diet. Nearly 60 percent are female; just over 40 percent are male. Roughly half a percent, (1 million), follow a vegan diet—79 percent of whom are female.
As with most everything else in life, politics add as much piquant flavor to food as any ingredient—and this is extremely apparent when looking at plant-based diets. While a "V" on a label or menu now commonly means "vegetarian" or "vegan," isn't there also an unspoken assumption that it stands for "vagina"? You don't have to be a feminist rocket scientist to suspect that gender plays a big role in the divide between the sexes when it comes to ditching meat.
Two seemingly disparate authorities on the topic agree: John Joseph, frontman of the legendary hardcore punk band Cro-Mags, Ironman triathlete, and author of Meat is for Pussies; and Carol J. Adams, radical feminist theorist and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. Both argue that the conflation of masculinity and meat is a critical factor in men's dietary choices.
"For years, dudes have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to health," Joseph says. "There's the stereotype that meat is macho, it's protein, and real men eat meat. But because of these foods, these same 'real men' are suffering from all kinds of diseases, heart attacks, and erectile dysfunction where their fucking dicks don't work."
'Eating meat doesn't make you brave,' says John Joseph. 'It makes you a coward.'
Joseph admits that Meat Is for Pussies was not warmly received by feminists. "But it helped saved countless animals' lives," he says. "I have dudes in prison, fighters, hooligans going vegan ...this is a demographic that's never going to be reached by some of these other folks. But you're gonna get hung up on a word? Men are stubborn, so it makes sense that they need someone that talks their language," he says.
"Eating meat doesn't make you brave; it makes you a coward. That's why I called my book Meat Is for Pussies. That's what's gonna get through to these guys."
While Joseph seeks to appeal to an untapped group of vegetable-leery men, Adams has a very different approach. But they seemingly agree that received notions about the macho of meat are problematic, to say the least.
"The sexual politics of meat assumes men need to eat meat in order to be masculine and virile," says Adams. "Yet it's become evident that people can be entirely healthy and happy without eating meat or animal products. So now we have a dominant cultural drive to embarrass, shame, and harass men who divert from these politics by embracing veganism," she continues.
To the extent that masculinity is more or less terminally problematic, it's not surprising that it's also an obstacle to veganism.
Adams would know, having analyzed the issue far before vegan options became common on restaurant menus. Having recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, The Sexual Politics of Meat explores the relationship between misogyny and meat, and is widely considered required reading for feminists and animal rights proponents alike.
"One way the gender binary is enforced is through the expectation of what heterosexual men eat, by questioning them when they eat food associated with women (like tofu). Just as a slab of tofu stands in for veganism, eating meat for men stands in for consuming women. One of the problems with meat-eating is the fragmentation of the animal, in which people eat a leg or a thigh or a breast; they aren't relating to the entire animal. As I say in The Sexual Politics of Meat, objectification and fragmentation lead to consumption. Refusing meat in our culture is never simply about just refusing a product," she says. "It's about refusing everything it represents."
To the extent that masculinity is more or less terminally problematic, it's not surprising that it's also an obstacle to veganism. In light of that, how do we better facilitate veganism as a viable choice for people, particularly men?
Interestingly, both Joseph and Adams offer nearly identical solutions that would enable more people to switch to a plant-based diet: We need to shift how we talk about veganism, particularly in terms of food. We also need to adopt an ethic of compassion and care.
"Vegan, to men, is like a five-letter curse word. So if you want more men to adopt a vegan diet, don't tell them they're eating vegan food," says Joseph. "Nobody wants to be force-fed information or judged or told what to do. You make a great dinner for three or four people, they love the food, then they tell others. And so on and so on."
'At this moment, the word 'pussy' means both 'coward' or 'cowardly,' and is slang for women's genitals,' says Adams. 'So woman equals coward.'
Adams says, "When you have the chance to serve people vegan food, do it—but don't call attention to it. Let someone eat a great vegan meal and not know it's vegan. Then they learn. This gives them, now and then, consciousness—which gives them a place to judge and make sense of their own dissonance."
Joseph believes that a greater sense of compassion is a natural outcome of going vegan. "When you stop eating meat and stop putting bad shit in your body, you start caring about your health. You become more compassionate; there's so much positivity and kindness that comes with that," says Joseph.
Similarly, Adams says, "Part of the education about veganism is choosing this because you care about your body, the animals, the environment. All that is very positive. Anything that contributes care and compassion in culture is a good thing."
She acknowledges obstacles to this, however—including Joseph's own use of the word "pussy." "At this moment, the word 'pussy' means both 'coward' or 'cowardly,' and is slang for women's genitals. So woman equals coward," she asserts.
"In order to shift to a compassionate ethic, we need to establish caring as a mode of living. We need to make people feel safer caring. Compassion is very female, feminine," she says. "It's not safe for us to be compassionate. We are called 'baby,' told to 'grow up,' we are feminized. How can we reclaim the ethic, which is female-identified, while putting down women?"
Regardless of your dietary preferences, this topic presents a lot to chew on. But the prospect of eating delicious, healthy food and becoming more positive and caring? That's something you'd likely be hard pressed to find anyone but the beef industry opposing.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on April 14, 2015.