Plants simply aren’t butch enough for men, per a recent study from the University of Southampton in the U.K. According to the press release from the Royal Geographical Society, the study revealed that even men who don’t like meat, experience digestive issues with meat or have been asked to reduce its consumption for other health reasons, struggle to choose the vegetarian or vegan option when in public with other men.
Oddly, this isn’t the first time men have chosen to endure digestive turmoil for the sake of upholding their masculinity. A 2015 study found that while more men reported enjoying spicy food than women, the results from the taste test revealed the opposite to be true. “In the study, the researchers conclude that women are more likely to seek sensation from spicy food, while men are more likely to see other extrinsic rewards like praise and admiration. The authors write, ‘It is possible that the cultural association of consuming spicy foods with strength and machismo has created a learned social reward for men,’” The Cut reported in 2015.
But back to the issue of the ostensible femininity of vegetables. Emma Roe, of the University of Southampton and lead author of the study on vegetables and the fragility of the male psyche, tells me that one reason constructs of masculinity deter men from ordering vegetarian food is because it challenges cultural norms that have been established over thousands of years. “Eating animals has been a key feature of the history of human civilization. Eating meat shows human mastery over wild nature, by actually eating it. It underlines the distinction between human civilized society and nature.”
That said, according to Roe, we’ve reached a stage in human history where the relationship with nature is undergoing change, and with that, comes the development of something she refers to as “eco-masculinity.” “That is, men who embrace the need to care for nature and with that eat less or no meat, walk/cycle rather than drive and give money for nature conservation,” says Roe. Or in the parlance of the alt-right: Soy Boys.
Roe admits, however, this change isn’t going to happen overnight. “For men reducing their meat consumption, they may find themselves in social situations with other men, or even their granny, where they feel social pressure to eat meat,” says Roe.
This pressure is a familiar one for businessman Rodrigo Rodriguez, who turned vegan after the age of 60 — an especially gutsy move in the traditionally macho environs of his native Mexico. But Rodriguez says he doesn’t take it personally when his friends comment on his diet. “They’re just being defensive about their own diet. It’s a normal reaction,” he says. “You know how it goes — as soon some new trend is developing, there’s always resistance.”
This resistance also generally begins to falter as men get older and more health conscious. Roe tells me that while they had young men and older men who were reducing their meat consumption in their study, there was definitely more concern about meat eating and its relation to health with men over 40. “Of those men with health concerns, [greater health consciousness] was given as a reason for reducing meat consumption or actually realizing their body struggled on eating so much meat,” says Roe.
To that end, a recent survey conducted by Bupa Health Clinics found that, along with ditching alcohol, signing up for sporting events or going for a full health check, nearly a quarter of respondents reacted to their midlife crisis by going vegan. In other words, it takes a mortality check for men to reconsider their dedication to machismo.
Alternatively, Roe says that men like being given the rational argument for lowering their meat consumption. “There’s a good set of statistics to explain to friends and family about why we need to reduce meat consumption on the planet,” says Roe. “Others enjoyed experimenting with new ingredients and formats — if you take the meat out of a ‘meat and two veg’ or burger meal, you might miss it, but if you try something like a Sri Lankan curry or a smoky bean chilli, you’ve got a whole new set of flavors and textures going on.”
Finally, Roe suggests that men who want to break free from their meat-heavy identity could try seeking out vegetarian men’s groups to hang out with and share recipes and meals together. “There are lots of men out there who are being vegetarian and still very manly; eating animals isn’t the only way to show your manliness,” says Roe.