Connor Ferguson explains why masculinity isn’t the sole realm of carnivores.
I’ve been a vegetarian for almost five months. As a man, I’m in the minority. By some estimates, around 70% of vegetarians in the U.S. are women. We have certain expectations about how—and what—men and women are supposed to eat. Fast food commercials tell us it’s badass when a woman lays into a triple-stacked hamburger with reckless abandon. By the same token, people will make quite a few assumptions about a guy who politely orders a salad. The prevailing message from all sides is clear—men are supposed to eat meat, and you can’t be a real man if you subsist only on things that came out of the ground.
I didn’t decide to become a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I don’t think that there’s fundamentally anything wrong with killing another animal and eating it. I also happen to think that meat is damn tasty. What I have a problem with is the way that meat is produced. Not only are many animals treated abominably over the course of their lifetimes, but factory farming practices are wreaking havoc on the biosphere. Their practices severely impact our health through the abuse of prophylactic antibiotics and wasteful methods of dealing with animal… well, waste. The choice to become a vegetarian for me is akin to choosing not to buy T-shirts that are made in sweatshops or choosing not to patronize a store that treats its employees unfairly. You can douse as many fur coats with red paint as you want, but voting with your dollar is still an effective and empowering way to make a statement.
In our society, vegetarianism is unquestionably perceived as anything but masculine. Eating meat—even meat as far removed from its origin as the ground hamburger you find at the supermarket butcher counter—will always resonate with overtones of violence and killing, concepts that have been considered firmly masculine throughout history. Abstaining from meat is rejecting something basic about being a man, or so seems to be the perception.
But why should there be a stigma attached to men who are vegetarians? There’s nothing manlier than educating yourself about an important topic, and then making a statement and standing by your principles. Besides, a canoe trip down a river flushed with toxic runoff from slaughterhouses and factory farms doesn’t make you a man. And new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria certainly don’t turn getting sick into some kind of ultra-masculine endurance sport.
There are other societal factors at play as well when choosing to become a vegetarian. As someone who has enjoyed good food and cooking all my life, cutting out an entire subset of available flavors and textures is tough. And whether you’re a man or a woman, having different dietary restrictions from everyone else at the table can feel isolating.
Just like dealing with the potential judgment for being a male vegetarian, combating this feeling of isolation is about getting in the right state of mind and sometimes finding good substitutes. No, I’m not talking about faux meat; I still haven’t been able to get behind seitan and tempeh and all the rest. But since becoming a vegetarian, I’ve developed an interest in cocktails. Studying mixed drinks brings me a similar pleasure as reading recipes for dishes that feature meat. A perfectly mixed cocktail is something almost everyone can enjoy together, no matter what their dietary restrictions. And there’s nothing like the clink of an ice cube gently melting in a tumbler of oaky bourbon to make anyone feel like a man.
Ultimately, someone’s diet shouldn’t have anything to do with their gender. Everybody eats, and the most important thing is to eat what you enjoy and enjoy what you eat. That’s why I’m not a preachy vegetarian. My decision is personal, and if you’d rather not give up your cheeseburgers, then more power to you. A real man lives his life according to the principles he believes in, regardless of what’s on his plate.