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Redefining Masculinity: Why we need a new Concept of what ‘Being a Man’ means

Misunderstood masculinity might very well be the biggest roadblock to saving the world from some of the most pressing problems of our times.

Here’s why.

Essay: Redefining Masculinity - Ari Liloan Illustration for Antagonist - 2021

March 2, 2021

Words — Eric Mirbach
Illustration — Ari Liloan
Additional Research – Romina Gishto

It’s always held a surprising element for me that veganism, though often called ‘extreme’, doesn’t attract more men. For a lot of women, going vegan comes with a bit of a backlash (or so I’ve heard from the women around me). It doesn’t fit the way society looks at women — it’s too decisive, it doesn’t suit the peacemaker role women have always been expected to assume. A total and radical refusal of a commonly shared way of life? How extreme! Which makes me wonder: Why aren’t more men attracted to veganism?

“Isn’t it the epitome of masculinity to swim against the current? Isn’t protecting others from harm, stepping up and taking responsibility for your own actions exactly what ‘real men’ would be drawn to?”

What does it say about our view of masculinity that they obviously are not? What does it say about our society that most people are unwilling or unable to connect masculinity with the virtues it takes to adopt a vegan way of life; namely, choosing non-violence over repression while in a position of power?

Familial Conditioning to “Be a Man”

“Growing up, boys are often told to do certain things ‘like men’,” writes author Joshua Katcher in an article titled “Eat like a Man” on his blog The Discerning Brute. “This phenomenon, an essential aspect of gender-assigning for boys, can basically be summarized as a call to shut down any feelings, toughen up, hide or mask any sort of sensitivity, and reveal no signs of weakness.” Katcher, who also wrote Fashion Animals, the book on the use of animals throughout the history of fashion,  goes on: “Stoicism–that invaluable Greek paragon of virtue, could be one of the most sought-after states of existence for the American Man. Unaffected, unreadable–perpetually poker-faced and methodically effective.” This early conditioning, of course, is directly linked to the way we see food. It is our parents who feed us, it is with our family that we eat during the most formative years of our young lives. Thus, our food is charged with emotion and (if we’re lucky), synonymous to a feeling of home, belonging and security. It is, in any case, linked to what is expected of us just as much.

“I remember the day I told my grandmother I would become a vegetarian. How she looked at me, full of sorrow, telling me I needed to continue eating meat if I wanted to ‘become strong’. As much as I loved her, I think we had very different ideas of what ‘strong’ means.”

Sex and Power

Heavy manual labor has been associated with male muscle power since industrialization, but is declining more and more in the digital age. Yet, the stereotype that muscles are a crucial feature of the male body remains, found sociology professor Tanja Paulitz in a recent study. [1]

“We are looking at a historical phenomenon,” says James McWilliams in Santino Panico’s film From the Ground Up. “One of the biggest and easiest ways for a man in particular, to assert his authority was to domesticate animals… by controlling them, you’ve asserted your manhood,” states Carol J. Adams, author of the book The Sexual Politics of Meat. She notes that meat eating has grown into an inalienable right, but a male-defined one and that it “has implicit male identification. If men are the ones who have the right to eat meat, to not eat meat is to give up your male privilege.”

In 2012, the Journal of Consumer Research published a paper called Is Meat Male? in which the authors observe that “meat seems associated with strength and power, two features generally attributed to males. In a traditionally male-dominated world, meat has generally been considered to be a particularly appropriate food for males, one that promotes manliness. It is also commonly understood that physical strength, an attribute more characteristic of males, requires optimal nutrition, and meat is often seen as the most nutritive and strength (i.e., muscle) inducing of foods.”

So the thinking goes, meat equals power (through controlling and subordinating others), which equals sexual identity and prowess (linking to the male sex and classic male attributes). So far, so ugh.

In Fashion Animals, Katcher describes a phenomenon he calls “contagious magic”, an underlying thought process that can be “traced back to early societies where hunters believed that a lion skin must hold part of the skill and the strength of the lion.” Through reducing animals “to symbols with two-dimensional characteristics aimed at supplementing or transforming the wearer into a chimera: part human being, part beast, we’re trying to project generalized animal characteristics like strength, speed, flight, exoticness, otherness, fertility, naturalness, or pureness onto us,” writes Katcher. What holds true in the realm of fashion is easily transferable to the promise we believe animal-derived foods hold: “If we want to be strong as an ox, we should eat the ox’s muscles,” Katcher writes on The Discerning Brute. “Men eat power. They eat the things that they hope to be: Muscle. In other words, being ‘tough as an ox’, ‘strong as a gorilla’ or referred to as ‘stallion’ connotes brute strength and virility. Yet those animals are eating plants.”

Meanwhile, scientific research has shown that vegan men have higher levels of testosterone than meat eaters, consuming soy milk can reduce risk of prostate cancer up to 70% percent (!) and the most potent source of phytoestrogen (which is utilized to scare men away from eating tofu even though it absolutely not the same thing as actual estrogen) is beer. Or another one: The consumption of dairy milk and cheese damages testicles! Sigh.

Archaic Reflexes, deeply ingrained

Back to Carol J. Adams and The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she writes: “For men, the pressures are to be big, strong, heavy. Veganism taps into the conformities that women are already feeling pressured to meet–being slender, healthier, losing weight–while the things men have to conform to pushes them away from veganism.” She goes on calling those gendered stereotypes “repressive” and then points out that they’re “just not worth arguing with, because confrontation is at their core: you challenge men and they think ‘I’m going to show you that you cannot change me’. These are cultural messages that precede veganism by a long way.” So we are up against archaic thinking patterns, engrained so deep in our systems that they feel like a reflex. Unfortunately, this reflex has very real victims — not only the animals we misuse and eat, but ourselves, as well.

And yet, “meat remains for many men a stable, if arbitrary, hook on which to hang their gender identity,” says Dr. Richard Twine, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University. With the privileges of white males being questioned more and more, it seems that falling back on excessive consumption of animal products is the (deeply engrained) go-to reaction.

“The consumption of meat is so clearly aligned with white, heterosexual masculinity as to be, at this point, inseparable from it,” says Professor Laura Wright, lecturer at Western Carolina University and author of The Vegan Studies Project. And as long as men are confronted with this outdated stereotype on the regular, and shamed for behaving differently, we’ll have a hard time overcoming it.

From Men’s Health articles titled Vegetables are for Girls to men not daring to order vegetarian at restaurants, afraid they’ll be shamed by their male friends (as found in a study conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton), we are having a hard time separating devouring animal flesh and secretions from the idea of manhood. The same study found that when men’s masculinity was threatened, the availability of meat in a dish lowered their anxiety. “What we have discovered is that many men are interested in eating less meat, they just need social permission to do so,” says lead researcher Dr. Emma Roe. This is textbook gender stigma and it goes deep! [2]

The Protein Myth

What are we afraid of? And why isn’t it more obvious that adhering to these reflexes that are meant to showcase masculine strength is actually a clear sign of male fragility? An even more important question is this: How are we to challenge this deep, guttural understanding of what masculinity should be that defies all logic but still has most men in its grip?

It seems like we’re having trouble updating our idea of what masculinity should look like in these modern times. One way to approach this is to not bother with the update, but instead live according to a broader understanding of what a male should look like and to fulfill (or even better) exceed those expectations — but on a vegan diet.

“There’s a flourishing subculture of meat-free bodybuilders,” writes author Kenny Torrella in an article for The Independent. “Of course vegans can be just as strong and fast as omnivores — maybe more so. Kendrick Farris, a vegan, was the only American weightlifter to qualify for the 2016 Olympics; track and field legend Carl Lewis was an outspoken vegan; and a new documentary by James Cameron, Gamechangers, spotlights vegan Patrik Baboumian, crowned Germany’s strongest man,” among others.

Joshua Katcher highlights more outstanding athletes in his piece: “Some of them have never eaten meat in their entire lives, like Nimai Delgado, an IFBB-Pro Bodybuilder who is on the cover of Muscle & Fitness May 2018 issue. Another vegan who is getting a lot of attention is Jeremy Reijnders, who was named CrossFit 2018 Fittest Man of the Netherlands” — in a subculture that, how Katcher puts it, “wholeheartedly embraces the Paleo and Whole 30 diet fads, both of which not only disparage plant-based diets, but ridicule them outright in much of their literature.”

Talk about going against the current.

A new Masculinity

The list of astonishing sportsmen and muscular role models goes on and on and now that even the godfather of bodybuilding Arnold Schwarzenegger has told his fans to “cut down on meat”, the hard-to-kill myth that you need animal protein to thrive could soon be down for the count.

But wouldn’t it be even better to decouple meat and masculinity once and for all? Aren’t we possibly reinforcing the outdated concept that physical strength determines masculinity, wholeheartedly ignoring all the other ways strength shows itself?

“We can reject toxic masculinity through showing that masculine strength comes in various forms. We can decide to not let our gender determine what we eat.
I’m not willing to be pressured into a form of masculinity that justifies harm instead of condemning it.”

I want to do my part to redefine the way we look at men, masculine strength and what a ‘real man’ is. Or maybe we take it even further. In the words of Carol J. Adams: “Why do we have to redefine masculinity? Why don’t we release masculinity? It’s not whether we bring a diet forward, it’s whether we put behind us ways of configuring humans that are so limited and clearly untrue.”

For me personally, I have a very good idea of who I want to be as a man. I want to be decisive, I want to always align my actions with my beliefs, and I’m willing to accept full responsibility for them. I swim against the current when my beliefs and my morals are contradictory to mainstream society. And yes, I want to do my part to protect others from harm whenever possible. I want to step up and accept responsibility for my own wellbeing as much as for the wellbeing of others. I’m drawn to the idea of an ethically-sound, opinionated, caring and–yes!–strong man. In body and mind.

When I think of my grandmother, I wish she would have been around to witness me grow into one. I’m sure that today, she would agree.

It’s not the meat.



[1] “Food cultures and gender. An empirical study of masculinity and meat consumption”, TU Darmstadt, Germany
[2] Kersteller, Deborah; Schmalz, Dorothy: Girly girls and manly Men: Children’s Stigma Consciousness of Gender in Sports and Physical Activities, 2006

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