Why is veganism only pushed towards women?

Words by Isabelle Sacks

Can I eat steak and still be a feminist?

I am somewhat hesitant to come out publicly and put this on record, but I am in fact, a carnivore. I won’t spend time trying and failing to justify why I feel the need to voraciously consume animal products, but I think it’s important that everyone knows that off the bat. 

I’ve contended with the big three arguments for veganism – health, environmental concerns, and the ethical treatment of animals – but I was asked a question recently that totally stumped me. 

“How can you claim to be a feminist and not be a vegan?” 

In classic me fashion, I’ve only come up with an answer many hours later when I’m all alone (we all know the feeling). Moreover, as with any issue involving complex gender politics, the answer is a little messy.

Food has always been political, whether it is Marie Antoinette’s mythical cake as symbolic of extreme wealth inequality; discourses on MSG standing in for conversations about racism and xenophobia; or avocado toast highlighting generational conflicts.

Veganism is no different. The choice to abstain from consuming animal products brings up debates about a whole host of issues, including white privilege, food deserts, environmental concerns, public health and, of course, feminism.

While just one per cent of Australians are vegan, 12 per cent of Australians now have all or mostly vegetarian diets, and that number is growing every year.

Looking at countries that do have data on the gender of vegans, there tends to be a significant gap that emerges. In the UK, 63 per cent of vegans are females. In the US it’s 76 per cent. We don’t have great statistics about this in Australia, but it’s safe to assume that we aren’t immune from this phenomenon, which for the sake of this article, we’ll call the vegan gender gap.

Meat and masculinity

Unsurprisingly, most of the discussion on the vegan gender gap focuses on men, and why they won’t go vegan. There has been extensive scholarly research into male attitudes around veganism and how meat-eating interacts with ideas about masculinity and dominance.

A 2018 study found that the concepts of “strength” and “power” may be the mediating link between meat and masculinity. While men in most western societies today aren’t likely to be out tackling game to feed their families as they did in the hunter-gatherer times, they are still likely to associate meat-eating with manhood.

Men’s hesitancy towards veganism has also been linked to the concept of “precarious masculinity” – the idea that men are constantly worrying they will lose their manly status, and therefore feel the need to prove it at every opportunity. This could potentially be a major stumbling block for aspiring male vegans, who must run the gauntlet of forfeiting the red-blooded carnivore stereotype in favour of “soy boy” status.

Where veganism and feminism overlap

I’ve been thinking about why my friend considered it anti-feminist to be a meat-eater. While there is no obvious direct link in my mind (I don’t think I’m hindering gender equality by having mince in my bolognese), there is actually a long history of animal rights activists and feminists sharing common ground.

The main argument in favour of feminist veganism is that of linked oppression. This is the idea that the same hierarchical system that oppresses women, people of colour, people with disabilities and other oppressed human groups, is also used in oppressing and using animals. Therefore, as long as we have a society that supports the exploitation of animals, that hierarchical system will continue to hurt humans. This is essentially taking the concept of intersectional feminism, and extending it to other species. 

This is also intertwined with the way that female animals are particularly oppressed on the basis of sex. We consume animal products which must come from female bodies (i.e. milk and eggs), and when those bodies lose productiveness, they are butchered and treated as any other meat. This can be understood as a type of male domination of female bodies. 

But couldn’t this be just another way we ask women to be smaller?

Beginning in the late 19th century, a steady stream of dietary advice, corporate advertising and magazine articles created a division between male and female tastes that categorised meat as a “male food”.

Because of the complex relationship between gender and food, I think we should be more sensitive to the ways that advocating vegetarian or vegan diets as a feminist ideal relates to the existing social norms surrounding women’s eating.

Some people cannot eat a vegan or vegetarian diet for a multitude of health reasons, including those who are recovering from eating disorders. And even for those women who do not struggle with disordered eating habits, it is the norm in our society to treat meat as a “male” food and link it to weight gain and bulking.

Women are socialised to monitor their food intake much more closely than men, to feel guilty about “overeating” or eating the “wrong” foods. I’d argue that the pressure placed on women to use fewer resources and make ourselves smaller (literally and in terms of carbon footprint) could perpetuate harmful gender norms about the ways in which women are allowed to take up space.

While I am absolutely not suggesting that we all go out and eat a rack of lamb in the name of women’s rights, I think we all need to be aware of the ways that gender politics interact with our ideas about eating. I do believe that veganism is the most ethical choice, even if I’m not quite ready to put down the steak knife, but I’d also like to think that there is room for feminists of all dietary persuasions.

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