As the climate emergency looms larger in the collective psyche, many of us are questioning our eating habits. The drive towards a more sustainable food culture is present in all areas of the food supply chain, despite reticence from big business, and the number of people following vegetarian and vegan diets is on the rise. However, the idea of a plant-based diet for many is fraught with anxiety, perplexion or downright derision.
What does it mean to be a vegetarian or vegan? It is all a matter of perspective. Those of the plant-based brigade are regularly portrayed in the media as nutjobs, weak in stature due to a perceived lack of protein in their diet and weak in mental capacity too (maybe it’s a lack of those fishy Omega 3s). If you choose to obtain your milk from anywhere but a cow’s tit you are viewed as a self-entitled millennial whose privilege, and concomitant ignorance, imbues in you a sense of righteous indignation that means you choose a smashed avo over a bacon butty. The vegetarians and vegans among us are puny, weak-willed libs who, taking issue with any form of structural enterprise, threaten the solid (meaty) foundations on which our society is built.
I am no herbivore, but I cannot help think how rampant such anti-vegetarianism and anti-veganism truly is. A visit to a restaurant with plant-based friends always comes served with the same patronising questions – ‘’Don’t you miss meat?’’, ‘’Is that going to fill you up?’’, and my favourite: ‘’So what led you to become a vegetarian/vegan?’’. The last question is always posited in a quietly condescending tone – the decision to abandon animal-based products is viewed by those who consume them as a reconsideration of values, a moral judgment, an identity change. It leads to the creation of a gastronomic Self and Other, a cultural divide between what is normal and what is seen as alien. Presented with meat substitutes such as tofu or seitan, many meat-eaters sneer, rebuking unknown ingredients that do not conform to their cultural prejudices. In short, vegetarians and vegans stand in direct opposition to meat, a force viewed by many in the West as intrinsic to dietary satisfaction.
But why do many of us cling so tightly to our fillet steaks and our pork chops? Why do we laugh when presented with the option of a Christmas nut roast as opposed to a burnished turkey and all the trimmings? I believe the problem to be sexism. At its core, the rebuttal of plant-based diets is the consequence of the conflation of meat and masculinity, and the attribution of femininity to vegetarianism and veganism. Since time immemorial, meat has been culturally ingrained within the masculine sphere, a line of thought that harks back to the male, Fred-Flintstone-esque role of the Stone-Age hunter-gatherer. Men eat meat to become strong and virile, to prove to those around them that they have worth and that they can provide sustenance. Women, on the other hand, firmly entrenched in their role as homemaker, do not need the protein a woolly mammoth T-bone provides and must settle for salad.
As centuries have gone by, and the power of the patriarchy has increased, so has the gendered significance of meat. The great leaders throughout history have all placed meat in the foreground of their feasts as a symbol of wealth, power and all-round male virility. The larger the joint of meat, the bigger the penis of the man whose money bought it. The meat was and still is a spectacle, a true display of masculine prowess.
And whilst the majority of us nowadays do not bite into a turkey leg the way Henry VIII did, many of us Brits are still beholden to the concept of the Sunday dinner and all that entails. Much has changed since the end of the Second World War, and liberation movements have unshackled many women from the stove, but it is still women who do the majority of the cooking in households across the western world. The Sunday roast, in its cooking phase, is more than likely the domain of the matriarchal figure of the household. Why is it then that so many middle-aged men, entirely oblivious to the culinary demands of roasting a joint of beef, feel obliged, with due ceremony, to carve the joint at the table? Dishing out the spuds? Mum can do that. Serving the carrots? Let Auntie get them. Meat, even today, reflects an obsession with the upholding of masculine ‘values’ that are seen as superior to feminine ones.
A diet that contradicts meat then becomes a diet that contradicts masculinity. As soon as this happens, the individual is seen to succumb to feminine weakness. In a culture that masculinises, and thereby valorises, meat-eating, those who do not partake in such cultural activities find themselves ostracised. Many view meat as crucial to social integration, to becoming a part of the body politic. Indeed, eating meat is seen as patriotic. Across the Western world, any consideration of a ‘national’ dish usually boils down to a few meaty options. To not give in to the pressure to eat such ‘national’ staples as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or a Friday fish supper is considered, at best sanctimonious, and at worst, unpatriotic. Those who condemn plant-based diets constantly refer back to the holier-than-thou discourse of vegetarians and vegans, a group they believe is criticising their essence. Staunch, unmoving patriotism rubs up against the self-conscious plant-based individual. Whoever does not eat meat is seen as a critic of tradition, heritage and even unwavering loyalty to the state.
Any form of ethical, compassionate thinking in this system is feminised. Thus, the growing number of plant-based followers, who are largely female, stab at the heart of the patriarchal modus operandi – after all, the dismissal of vegetarians and vegans is not unlike the myriad other ways throughout history men have sought to interfere with what women do with their bodies. Indeed, the fact that the majority of vegetarians and vegans are female comes as no surprise when you analyse the pressure placed upon men and women to eat different things. Women are brainwashed via the media into believing they must have the bodies of Barbie dolls – salad and vegetables are presented as the sole means of achieving such a figure. Men, who must protect these pretty but feeble women, must bulk up on protein so that they may remain buff and ready for any Action Man-like eventuality. Do you ever see a woman tucking into a juicy steak in a film, or a man delicately pouring over a chicken caesar in an advertisement? I think not.
I am tired of the meat-splaining. I am sick of straight white men telling me to eat meat because other options are gastronomic fluff. I’ve had enough of big food corporations and advertising giants pigeon-holing my identity according to what I eat. As I said earlier, I am no vegetarian or vegan, but I know the situation has to change. Our planet is dying, and a reassessment of the number of animal products we consume is a massive step in the right direction. Sure, it is not going to save the world overnight if we all swap out chipolatas for a few Linda McCartneys, but a more self-aware attitude towards the food we eat ought to be the priority for those wishing to effectuate real change.
Eating mindfully is the first step to putting in place monumental change, that is, change that not only overturns the climate catastrophe but also the monoliths of big business whose greed and manipulation have induced such an emergency. For once we attack the anti-vegetarian diatribe, we also attack the patriarchial noose hanging around the necks of all of us who dare to think differently about food. Like nothing else, food is a supreme cultural signifier, and we must not allow ourselves to give in to negative patterns of thought governed by social institutions whose sole aim is to promulgate a chauvinistic agenda entirely opposed to the Other. By no means am I telling you to give up animal products – I am simply asking you to reevaluate how you perceive those who have given them up. What influences the way you eat? Why do you buy the products you buy? We must pay credence to our veggie and vegan friends, for they dare to think outside a monochromatic foodie box. Plant-based food is not exclusively female, it is not alien and it certainly does not pose a threat to the fabric of society. At least, not a society that aims to change itself for the better in finding solutions to its most pressing problems.
Recommended Read: The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams
In this book, Adams argues that the power of the patriarchy and the use of animals in the food sector are intimately linked by way of both animals and women being used as ‘absent referents’. That is to say, how in the eating of meat, there exists a process of ‘objectification, fragmentation, and consumption’ that enables the oppression of animals so that ‘animals are rendered being-less through technology, language, and cultural representation’. This, Adams argues, mirrors how women are treated in society.