The number of people switching to a plant-based diet is growing rapidly. But there is still a gender divide. It seems women are far more interested in adopting a vegan diet than men. The Vegan Society published a survey showing that, in the UK, 63% of vegans are female while 37% are men. Meanwhile, in the US, 79% of people who identify as vegan are female and only 21% are men. So what’s holding men back from going vegan?
Diet and Masculinity
It is very difficult to separate food from its cultural annotations, as well as look past stereotypes of people who follow certain diets. Meat is associated with strength, virility, and manliness. So many people think that giving up meat will make them weak and malnourished. This is especially true in the bodybuilding community, where the myth is promoted that vegans can’t possibly get enough protein. This opinion is actually widely held.
Since many men attach a lot of importance to being strong, bulking up, and growing muscles, protein becomes the focus. And if you believe that the best or main source of protein is meat, then giving it up can seem out of the question. Dr Richard Twine, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University, says “Meat remains for many men a stable, if arbitrary, hook on which to hang their gender identity.” He adds that caring about animals can also make men resistant to veganism:
Men who are invested in inflexible models of masculinity as opposed to seeing gender identity as socially constructed and changeable, tend to have more problem with the idea of compassion to other animals, as historically that has been antithetical to dominant models of masculinity.
Many people adopt a vegan diet for environmental reasons. However, it seems men are reluctant to go green because it feels emasculating. Researchers from Utah State University and the University of Notre Dame have confirmed in experiments that society’s “green-feminine stereotype may motivate men to avoid green behaviors in order to preserve a macho image.”
Concern for animals and the environment takes a certain level of altruism, compassion, and sensitivity that many men may want to distance themselves from in order to preserve their gender identity. Men don’t want to be seen as soft, mushy, and emotional. A lot of this is culturally constructed, as Twine has argued. However, psychological differences between men and women could also shed some light on why men make up a minority of vegans.
Are Women Naturally More Compassionate Than Men?
A large body of research shows that women tend to be more agreeable than men. Agreeableness is a personality trait associated with warmth, nurturing, compassion, and kindness. Most studies have also found that our genetics is more influential than our upbringing in how our personality is shaped. So it seems as if women could naturally be more compassionate than men and, therefore, more likely to care about the ethical issues that motivate people to choose a vegan diet.
However, the situation is a bit more nuanced than that. Emma Seppala, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, underscores:
Rather than suggesting that [bonding and nurturing] tendencies might have made women more compassionate than men, I would argue that they would simply have altered the expression of compassion.
One reason we might think that women are more compassionate than men is that we think of compassion in only one way: nurturance, kindness, softness, gentleness, and emotional warmth. We think of compassion in mostly feminized terms. It may be that, in women, we are conditioned to think of compassion as involving caring and nurturing but that, in men, it takes on a fiercer more protective appearance. From my work with veterans and active-duty personnel, I have seen deep expressions of compassion that do not have nurturing and maternal features. Think of the many heroic acts that happen daily in which people throw themselves into dangerous situations to help others. These are fierce, courageous and even aggressive forms of compassion.
Of course, we all engage in nurturing or protective expressions of compassion at different times. Seppala says, nonetheless, that men tend to express compassion in their own way. These differences might help to explain why more men aren’t following a vegan diet. On the other hand, we can’t ignore the fact that cultural factors also play a big role. Men don’t have to let notions of masculinity affect their concern for animals and dietary choices. As Twine notes:
Vegan men are more likely to espouse a view of gender identity as changeable and refuse the notion equating meat with muscularity and masculinity.
Besides, some of the strongest men on the planet are vegans, such as bodybuilder Torre Washington and strongman Patrik Baboumian. Men are starting to realise that it’s easy to be healthy and strong as a vegan. Also, if you want to be a confident and secure man, then you shouldn’t let your concern for animals threaten your masculinity.