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Is Veganism Gendered - and Does It Matter?

Eleanor looks at the statistics around veganism and gender to reveal that women are in fact more likely to adopt the lifestyle than men. She discusses how gender politics, societal attitudes and marketing influence people when choosing whether or not to go vegan.


Image Credit: Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash.


Veganism - one of the fasted growing movements in the modern day, and although the exact number of those engaging with it is impossible to determine, recent surveys have shown a rapid growth, alongside a decrease in meat consumption (meat eating has fallen by 17% in the United Kingdom over the past decade). We now live in an age of mainstream veganism, such as the number of high profile vegans, vegan cafe and restaurant chains, supermarket plant based ranges, and Veganuary attracting 700,000 official sign ups in 2023.


Whether the motivation is health, environmental, or animal rights, more and more people are turning their back on animal products, and a once fringe movement has become part of everyday life for millions of people.

However, what does seem to be at odds with veganism’s new found and thriving place in our society, is the disparity between men and women making this lifestyle change. It has been established by multiple sources, and in multiple countries, including Australia, Sweden, and the United States, that women are much more likely to be vegan than men. For example, in the UK, the Vegan Society found that in 2016, there were twice as many women as men who were vegan, and in the US, 79% of vegans or vegetarians identify as women. It must be noted however that this data only seems to look at male identifying and female identifying vegans, and therefore data on non-binary, trans and other marginalised genders is hard to obtain. This article, therefore will seek to look more on the relationship between men and veganism and how this reflects society's perception of gender more generally.

 

Clearly there are multiple factors at play here, gender politics, psychology and the marketing of veganism all play their part in influencing the demographic of those practising veganism. But to what extent is veganism dictated by gender, and does it really matter?


Masculinity and meat

 

It has become apparent that there is a significant link between masculinity and meat consumption. Arguably this is because the relationship between food and gender has always existed. For example, the cultural ideology of masculinity is contingent with the hunter-prey paradigm, where men hunted animals, and women primarily  took on gatherer role.

 

But modern day gender roles, and their construction and implementation through marketing and cultural norms,  have also had a profound impact on how meat consumption, or lack thereof, has created certain stereotypes and demographics in society.


The stereotype of a strong, masculine man goes hand in hand with meat consumption. The antithesis of this, a man who does not eat meat, is seen as ‘feminine’, ‘weak’, and even ‘gay’ (the phrase “vegan today, gay tomorrow” was mentioned by male participants across focus groups in a 2023 study). Look no further than the pejorative term ‘soy boy’, referring to men perceived to be lacking in masculine characteristics. This term originated from the questionable belief that the over consumption of soya products would reduce both physical strength and libido, two things held in high esteem by traditional masculinity. The influence of gender politics and social conditioning surrounding veganism therefore cannot be ignored.


In addition, as important it is to look at male relationships with food, the dietary habits of women are equally fundamental in understanding why this gender gap exists.


In the same way that eating meat has been connected to male stereotypes, the animal rights movement and the feminist movement have a historical connection. In fact, the consumption of plants in place of meat has served as an act of rebellion against the patriarchal system by highlighting the exploitation of both women and animals. As author and animal rights activist Carol J Adams stated: All oppressions are interconnected: no one creature will be free until all are free". She goes on to emphasise the similarities between cultural images of sexual violence against women and images of objectification, exploitation, and the consumption of animals.


When examined in more detail, it is not unusual that this connection between veganism, feminism, and more widely, other marginalised communities exists, arguably because those that have experienced marginalisation and victimisation develop what can be referred to as a ‘linked oppression’ with animals.

 

It’s difficult to dispute then that food is essential in the expression of identity, communication, and social interaction and perhaps is the best explanation to why meat is so connected with masculinity, gender, power, and respect.  And although many more routes to veganism exist now and are arguably more accessible than ever, it seems clear that the exclusion of meat acts as a precursor to masculinity.


Gendered marketing


   Image Credit: Madalyn Cox on Unsplash.


Another major influence on the lifestyle of different genders is the commercialisation, and marketing of both vegan, and non vegan, products.


As we have seen, meat is typically associated with masculinity, and this extends to advertising. One of the most relevant illustrations of this is a 2012 McDonald's advert, broadcast in China that used the slogan: “100% manly man. 100% pure beef”. This displays the worldwide social construction of meat eating implemented through the mainstream media. The constructed concept of ‘dieting’ is also extremely gendered. Where meat is associated with hyper masculinity, the consumption of plants is often associated with femininity, and diet culture (salads and health food trends are much more likely to be directed towards women than men). This shows that mainstream media has created a division between male and female tastes, and by extension, their perception of certain foods and lifestyles.

 

In recent years, there has been developing research into whether masculine marketing can lead to more men choosing to adopt a plant based diet. Alma Scholz, author, and researcher at the University of Bamberg conducted a 2023 study into whether men's opinions of dietary choices can be influenced by changing the marketing of certain foods. She assessed if this could be achieved by altering descriptions of plant based foods to align with those traditionally associated with ‘masculine’ foods. The findings showed that although men's preferences for vegan dishes themselves did not change, their perception of the dishes did change: instead of being perceived as feminine, the participants were more likely to give these dishes a ‘neutral’ rating.


It does need to be said however, that this only seems to serve as a short term intervention. But as Scholst stated, if further shifts to marketing can create long term interventions, this may create more significant shifts, resulting in an increase in men’s positive attitudes towards vegan foods. Perhaps, this could serve as a solution to the gender divide, however, unless general societal attitudes towards veganism change, then it is not likely that men's attitudes alone will evolve.

 

This is not simply a task of engaging more men in the movement, but people of all backgrounds, including age, race, sexual identity, and class. Ensuring that everyone has access to local, sustainably sourced, and crucially, affordable produce, along with educational resources around veganism and plant based diets, is essential to creating a movement that no one feels excluded from.

 

Does it matter?

 

Perhaps the main question raised by these findings is not why is there such a gap between male and female vegans?, but does it matter? Arguably yes. Whether it's ingrained gender politics that have developed through male psychology, mainstream social norms, or how certain foods are marketed, men have become excluded from a lifestyle fundamental to both environmental justice and animal rights. It is so important that men are part of these conservations and movements, as only through collective and inclusive action can the benefit of veganism be valued by everyone.

 

Therefore, it is essential that we see a shift in social attitudes so that men, or anyone else for that matter, do not feel excluded from veganism and vegetarianism.

 

About the Author: Eleanor Meehan is a Criminology graduate from Lancaster University. She has a keen interest in the relationship between climate justice and social justice.

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