Peter Kirby-Harris wonders if women get questioned about their choice to be a vegetarian the way he gets questioned as a man.
I do not mind people asking me why I am a vegetarian. More often than not I happy to answer their questions providing they are thoughtful ones. I even put up with ‘don’t you ever miss meat’ without bringing up the science of digestion. But what I am concerned with is the volume of questioning as well as the need for such questions, no matter how nicely it is asked. Much of this has led me to the idea that being a male vegetarian carries with it a different set of identity issues from female vegetarians, for which this piece attempts to set out the case.
I have a number of arguments that I use on a highly random rotation when asked the question about my non-meat eating life choice.
- I never liked meat that much in the first place.
- I’ve been much healthier since I made the switch.
- I feel vindicated given the spike in the price of meat.
- I currently enjoy a much more varied and interesting diet.
- Multiple environmental reasons (they change with the seasons).
- The idea of eating an animal is highly unappealing.
- The smell – was always off-putting (except Bacon for some reason).
- Ethical reasons, which would often result in me going off on one.
- The human digestive system was not designed to deal with modern meat intakes.
- Turn the question on them – why do you choose to eat meat?
- Meaty breath is very unattractive.
None of these, however, offer the definitive answer as to why certain people (myself included) opt for vegetarianism. And here’s the kicker—there is no definitive reason for vegetarianism. Every veggie is different. Some may have similar motives, especially the animal rights argument, but the priority of this position depends on the personal choice of those who are making it. And the asking of the question often provides an insight to me of the person asking the question. A recent comment by an antipodean (Australia/NZ) was that ‘I don’t look like a vegetarian,’ meaning that vegetarian is a stepping stone to a particular lifestyle or fashion sense and that we all feel part of a global veggie community that exists above the level of the nation-state.
As a (relatively) young man, people consider me to be an unusual choice for a vegetarian. They are more surprised when I tell them the length of time I have been vegetarian which is now just over eight years. I know several other vegetarians but only two of these are male. The stats in the UK suggest that non-religious vegetarians are mostly women so what does this tell us about men and their diet? Men in the UK have lower life expectancy, they smoke more (mostly in old age), drink more (expect for the 20’s demographic which is roughly equal), have more risk of heart disease, cancer, cholesterol and blood pressure than women do. A fairly grim picture which raises the question as to why men are opting to take so many health risks. These were not the reasons why I choose to give up meat and the diet that surrounds it (nearly everything comes with potatoes or pasta, veggie choices tend to come with rice or salad, strange huh?) but have come to feel vindicated about my decision. I have noticed men my own age begin to show the signs of heavy meat uptake, slow, sluggish, bloated, pot-bellied, and while I’m not in perfect shape I am active and healthy. But the main challenge is and probably always be is how do you persuade men to eat less or no meat without having to deal with the issue of meat and manliness going hand in hand.
A change of approach is to ask the question in reverse. What makes you a carnivore? Common answers range from the jovial – because ‘animals are tasty’, to the mundane – it’s what I’ve always done’, ‘most places serve more meat than veggie choices’, ‘lack of choices in shops’, ‘where do you get protein from’ (personal favourite) – but rarely does someone admit ‘I don’t mind eating an animal for food’. This might be why we call pig pork, sheep is lamb, cow is beef, deer is venison, calf is veal (but surprisingly birds are the same name, perhaps due to being non-mammals). Does this suggest we have the ability to distinguish between animals we see in farms and fields and the meat that people eat? Do men approach this differently or dismissively?
So, you will not get a straight answer from me about my vegetarianism—-because I don’t have one. What you will get is a cross-section of my current thought process about my eating habits at this moment. But was that really the question you wanted to ask? I would appreciate a personalised question – perhaps you could ask me, what would you eat at a barbecue, or does it annoy you when an airline runs out of veggie options (every meat eater will have heard this when travelling) and you are left with the cheese and crackers. Yes, vegetarianism has many downsides. Yes, vegetarianism has some health problems that need to be addressed—particularly iron deficiencies. But being a man is compatible with being vegetarian and doesn’t make me any less masculine despite what some people may think.
I am glad I choose this diet. And yes I regard it as a superior to meat eating—or otherwise I wouldn’t do it! Once carnivores realise that vegetarian is considered a step-up for those who choose it, then perhaps rather than dumb-founded confusion we might be able to have a productive conversation about dietary choices, health, well-being and leading the good life. I have no problem sitting down to dinner with people who eat meat. I recently got to witness the successful demolition of the aptly named ‘Devastator’ burger on a night out. Not once did I raise the issue of the amount of food that would need to be digested, as the carnivore involved realised the stupidity of his decision when he finished stuffing the last piece into his mouth. He almost had to be carried out of the restaurant.
The depth of questions I have received about why we choose to eat (or not eat) different things has been an overall positive experience for me. I try not to be too sarcastic and engage people in an informed discussion about how our dietary choices can impact our overall well-being in both the present and the future. I also know enough vegetarians and we discuss this amongst ourselves (amongst half of my social circle). But what I would like to know is how often women get asked as to why they are vegetarians? Is this only a man thing? Or do women get curious questions? Is there such a thing as male or female exclusive reason for vegetarianism? I would like to know.
Photo by joshua heller / flickr