I am a vegan. This means I don’t eat animals or any food that’s obtained from animals. It also means I don’t use any items made with animal products or items tested on animals, as much as possible. I say that because it is an ongoing process of learning what exactly contains animal products. I was quite surprised to learn that many beers and wines contain stomach acids obtained from animals to assist the fermentation process and that black tattoo ink uses animal bone char (For a great vegan tattoo shop check out Scapegoat Tattoo in Portland, Oregon).
Now I haven’t always been a vegan. For most of my life, minus the last 3 years, I followed the Standard American Diet. As I have said elsewhere, though, our complicity cannot prevent our current ability to critique. In order to change ourselves, we will, by definition, have to contradict our former actions. What I want to discuss here is not veganism specifically, but rather the pressures that keep many of us from even entertaining the idea, as it’s a process I went through myself. We’ve all heard it before…
“Real Men Eat Meat”
What men eat is strongly connected with ideas of manhood. The power of masculinity is so strong, the choices, if we can even call them that, that we make about food many times are made based more on the worry of “not being a man” over other concerns such as taste, health or ethics. This restriction, this pressure, this narrow box put upon us by the cultural demands of masculinity restricts our individual freedom, reducing our ability to choose.
Its important to realize how strong this pressure is. You may be shaking your head, saying, “no, you are completely free to eat how you wish. There is no law against it one way or the other. Nobody is physically forcing you to eat meat.” When we speak and think like this, we miss how strong family, culture, gender, and society pressure actually is. When fathers forbid their sons from even trying a meat-less hot dog at a family bar-b-que, when commercials market products based on ideas of manliness, or when reasons given for not wanting a particular thing is that it’s ‘chic food,’ we don’t have freedom of choice, rather we have a tyranny of manhood. This Burger King commercial is a good example:
It has all the aspects mentioned above as is made even worse by the fact that it is a remake of the song, I am Woman, by Helen Reddy from 1972, which focuses on women empowerment and became an anthem of the women’s movement.
Eating animals has become another way for achieving this narrow standard of masculinity, the making of men by requiring constant swagger, shows of aggression, and “manning up.” Putting animals on our plates becomes another way to wear that “Tough Guise,” the constant performance of manhood driven by the never-ending fear of being thought less than a man. In the current set-up of masculinity, being a man is not something you are, but is always in danger of being taken away. This is not a positive identity, but an identity defined by anxiety.
If the standard for which food men consume is based on the amount of violence that went into getting it onto the plate (“The bloodier the better.”), what does that tell us about the notion of manhood we are being given? It certainly makes comments related to rape and sexual violence such as, “he treated me like a piece of meat,” have even more significance. A manhood that requires continual displays of violence, aggression, and dominance, as we see in the eating of animals, is one that contributes to an epidemic of seeing women as things, sexual violence, and rape. It’s not the food itself; it’s the motivations behind it. All too often eating animals and sex are linked, like in this commercial from Carl’s Jr.
A preoccupation with food and its relation to manhood shows how tenuous, how fragile, the current idea of masculinity really is. Having a plate of food without some kind of dead animal on it is enough to call one’s manhood into question. When we take a step back, the insanity of it becomes extremely visible. Once we break out of the restrictive, pre-given standards of masculinity, only then can we begin to have the discussion about what we should or should not be eating and why. As it currently stands the all-encompassing pull of manhood prevents us from freely choosing, and it’s not just the animals that are harmed.