Whether it’s Fred Flintstone cooking up his monstrous dinosaur steak with the boys or the now infamous Ms.Turkey seductively eating a burger in a Carl’s Jr. commercial, the cultural link between eating meat and masculinity has long been prevalent. Last summer, sitting back in a lawn chair at a family barbeque, I couldn’t help but observe this same behavior in my own seemingly progressive family. The women roll out the salads while the men are huddled around the grill. However, upon further inspection, half of the patties sizzling on the grill were veggie meat. So, I wondered: how much of this link between meat consumption and manhood is a cultural construct, and how much of it is a product of our primal brains?
Evolutionarily, human societies were most egalitarian when we were in hunter-gatherer tribes: it’s agriculture that instated the patriarchy. Women would provide most of the tribe’s food by gathering, while men would go out and hunt for the meat. There was equality because both roles were of equal value in survival. Once agriculture took root, however, there was a premium put on the strength required to farm, which anthropologists believe imbalanced the power scale toward men. In the fossil records during the Neolithic period (the time of hunting and gathering), men and women’s diets were largely the same and so our bodies were of a similar size, but by the bronze age, women were eating less meat and thus their bodies became smaller. There is something to be said for the fact that for the vast majority of human history, it was the man’s role to hunt, so there have to be repercussions of this lurking around in the masculine brain. However, we are not living in neolithic times, and we know the consequences of the meat industry today. It’s a leading contributor to climate change.
While one can acknowledge this inborn desire for meat, possibly increased in men, that doesn’t mean we have to act on it. In the time when our brain and bodies were evolving their relationship to meat, there was little risk of depleting an animal population, and there was little risk of draining the land of its resources or of polluting the environment. It was all about subsistence; we hunted for enough meat to survive. While those same biological mechanisms are in place to consume as much as we can in fear that the next successful hunt may not be for a while, we can overcome this drive with the knowledge that our diets now have far reaching implications on the world around us. Among the many reasons people decide to go vegetarian or vegan is in a regard for the environment.
Meat is an inefficient affair that dominates the food industry as well as the planet. It only accounts for 18% of the calories in our diet but takes up 83% of our farmland and produces 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. All of this space taken up by livestock encroaches on wild animals’ natural habitat, which is the biggest reason for the mass extinction of species the world is facing. Scientists tout decreasing meat and dairy consumption as the single most impactful lifestyle change one can make for the environment. The chief reason many become vegetarian is rooted in compassion for the planet. Oliver McFadden (12) is a vegetarian for “strictly environmental reasons.”
McFadden says that “the traditional characteristics of masculinity kind of go against the ideals of vegetarianism.” In our culture, it’s evident that the manly ideals of being fierce and strong-willed clash with the ideal of compassion present in vegetarianism. At its moral root, vegetarianism is about caring: for the environment, for animals, for our bodies. There are these connotations with masculinity that prize an aggressive mentality of disregard; but this isn’t a fixed trait. As conversations about gender have been pushed to the forefront, one idea stands out. That is that everyone exists on a spectrum of masculinity and femininity and that the traits of men and women are fluid and aren’t exclusive to one or the other. So, anyone that identifies as masculine is capable of increasing their awareness of the impact that eating meat has. It’s not unmanly to forgo meat: the planet is far more important.