For vegans and vegetarians, adherence to a plant-based diet can sometimes draw the ire of friends, family or random strangers while eating for nourishment. The strawman of vegans frequently and strongly interjecting their diet into all facets of conversation is an easy target to poke fun at, whether it’s something the person has actually experienced or not. It’s fun and easy to make jokes about vegans because reducing animal cruelty and environmental impact in one’s diet is just ridiculous and deserves ridicule.
Passionate hatred for plant-based diets and the people who practice them is common and accepted because it is rooted in toxic masculinity and a culture of violence. A huge caveat and disclaimer about this assertion is this does not mean all people who eat meat are bad people or that all vegans are inherently better people because of their decision.
It does not mean you must be vegan to accurately consider yourself a feminist nor does it mean all vegans are completely innocent of and separate from toxic masculinity and a culture of violence. The statement only means the disdain some people who consume meat have for vegans and vegetarians is rooted in and consistent with toxic masculinity and how it also surfaces in other areas of society, such as rape culture and homophobia.
When someone identifies as living a plant-based lifestyle, the common assumption is they are weak, scrawny and over-emotional. While this may be true for some of these individuals, the two ideas are not synonymous. There are bodybuilders, athletes and actors who have built their physiques on vegan diets and don’t fit these preconceived stereotypes at all. This disrupts the narrative of a person needing to eat a sizable amount of animal protein to appear strong or, in the case of male bodybuilders and athletes, “manly”.
In 2014, 79 percent of vegans and 59 percent of vegetarians identified as female. Whether one wants to admit it or not, the idea of the plant-based diet has taken on a feminine identity. Common reasons people remove meat from their diet, such as compassion for animals and the planet, are also considered to be typically feminine. Women are generally raised and expected to be compassionate and deliberate when interacting with another person’s emotions. While men are generally more rewarded for being competitive, proud and tough, all values consistent with a culture which promotes the consumption of meat. For men, the decision to remove meat from one’s diet is often met with the stigma of not being a “real man,” incorrectly identifying meat consumption as a vital part of masculinity. Anti-veganism may be rooted in toxic masculinity, but the key word is toxic. Traditional masculine roles and appearances are not inherently at odds with a successful vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
Anne DeLessio-Parson, a sociology instructor at Pennsylvania State University, explored the relationship between gender and the consumption of meat in South American cultures in a scholarly article published in 2017. The research she conducted led her to transition into a vegan diet. When she appeared on Fox News to explain the research, host Jesse Watters proceeded to eat steak in front of DeLessio-Parson. Watters’ stunt was an exhibition of toxic masculinity to invalidate DeLessio-Parson’s research because of her identity as both a woman and a plant-based advocate. DeLessio-Parson’s appearance on the show was likely not instigated by the producers because Fox News considered her work newsworthy, but rather to set up a target for Watters to belittle DeLessio-Parson on-screen. This charade intentionally sought to make a vegan woman in academia uncomfortable for the purposes of comedy without any respect for her work or her dignity.
This is not a call to end all vegan jokes, as vegans and vegetarians also possess senses of humor and the ability to self-critique. But the unhealthy expectations of men and how they impact society has a strong connection with the widespread consumption of meat and the expectation for all to partake in the practice to appear normal. You don’t have to join your vegan friend’s lifestyle. Just give them the same respect you reserve for yourself and others. Engage in discourse, educate yourself and others and remain open-minded about plant-based diets and leave the fragile masculinity charade at the door.