We like to think that, as rational humans, we make choices based on objective standards. But behavioral psychology repeatedly demonstrates otherwise. When it comes to race, gender, and class — and even height and hair color — research shows that we make value judgments based on arbitrary assessments. Not surprisingly, the same holds true when it comes to food.
A recent study, led by University of Southampton researchers Emma Roe and Paul Hurley, explored the intersection of masculinity and meat eating. Focusing on three groups of men — "'green'-minded men, exercising men, and men who receive emergency food aid" — it found that, according to Roe, while "many men are interested in eating less meat," they have a hard time doing so without "social permission." This was true for all categories.
The authors frame this finding in environmental terms. With animal agriculture accounting for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and with 83 percent of agricultural land dedicated to raising and feeding livestock, they conclude that unraveling "this strong cultural association between men and meat" may be critical to the prospects of global sustainability.
Not everyone is buying the men and meat connection. Baylen Linnekin, author of Biting the Hand that Feeds Us, questions what he calls a "masculinity and meat consumption trope." Highlighting studies that seem designed more to generate headlines than advance our knowledge of food choice (including a study that connects veganism to "white masculinity"), Linnekin, who questions Roe and Hurley's methodology, notes that, "I don't know too many eaters who need an attaboy before they feel comfortable exercising their dietary choices openly." He concludes with a simple directive: "Eat whatever the hell you want."
Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, has a different take on the study. "Yes," she writes in an email exchange, "this study reminds us that masculinity is always being constructed by cues from other men. There is homosocial bonding in sharing expectations about what men eat." But she finds it ironic that "meat — supposedly symbolic of strength and virility — is being eaten because men are too afraid to change in front of other men." She hopes to see follow studies look into "how quickly meat eaters become defensive and the attacks they make on vegans" in the first place.
Another paper, published in the journal Appetite, examines the compelling link among not only meat and gender, but class status as well. Part of the research the team behind is conducted involved offering participants a "beast burger" presented as either meat-based or vegetarian. The highest demand for the meat option came "from those who rated themselves lower in socioeconomic status." Meat, to the extent that it's associated with power, becomes "substitutable for the status they lack."
Whereas Roe and Hurley point to the ecological consequences of eating animal products, the Appetite study suggests that gender- and class-based biases toward eating animals have detrimental health consequences, particularly for men who see themselves as coming from a lower socioeconomic status. Eating whatever the hell you want not only comes with sociological baggage, but also hidden prejudices that may be making us sick.
And that meaning may run deeper than the research under discussion perhaps appreciates. A 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences draws on "chemical signatures" left on human bones from thousands of years ago to posit a connection between meat and the rise of patriarchy.
During the Neolithic period, starting about 10,000 years ago and coinciding with the rise of agriculture, bone analyses indicate that men and women ate the same diets, making them "more or less of equal standing," according to Kate Pechenkina, a Queens College–City University of New York professor and the study's lead author. But by the Bronze Age, female diets were reduced to wheat and barley while men kept up a steady consumption of animal products. During the time of this dietary transition, women's bones deteriorated alongside their status, as they were buried with less treasure marking their social significance. Although only a hypothesis on the origins of patriarchal authority, it's one that has a long scholarly lineage.
Whatever the origins of the maleness of meat myth, too much evidence suggests that the connection between men and animal products is not only real, but has detrimental consequences for human and ecological health. Eating whatever you want has an empowering ring to it, but we're better off trying to understand the origins of those desires in the first place.
This story originally appeared as Does male social anxiety deter vegetarianism? on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.