Manhood and Meat
As a vegan, there’s hardly a family get-together that doesn’t involve one of the men in my family looking at my plate, bowing his chest and asking, “Where’s the meat?!” Us vegans have a reputation for being overzealous, so I’m overcautious about how much I talk about my beliefs on the matter.
One thing I’ve noticed in the past several years of abstention from meat, however, is that masculinity is particularly fragile around veganism, especially when the vegan is male. That brings me to the thing that inspired this piece: a senior editor of The Gospel Coalition, Brett McCracken, cited as evidence for complementarianism the fact that men are inclined to eat meat and women inclined to eat lighter foods like bread and vegetables. He tells the story of a dinner he and his wife shared at a Vancouver restaurant in which the bathroom doors, rather than having the typical “male” and “female” signs—or even a “universal” sign—read “meat” and “bread.”
“Is food gendered?” he asks rhetorically. “What does it mean that everyone in that Vancouver restaurant knew which bathroom to use, simply by the ‘meat’ or ‘bread’ signs on the door?”
His point is that men and women are different and complementary, like steak and bread—a point I’m not interested in debating at the moment. Instead, I want to answer the question of why everyone in that Vancouver restaurant knew which bathroom to use.
I have news for you: there is nothing about the pairing of X and Y chromosomes that makes us inclined to eat dead animals.
According to both Jewish and Christian theology, humans were created by God to eat plants, exclusively. In fact, it was centuries before God conceded and permitted Noah and his descendents to eat animals, with the caveat (or curse) that doing so would cause a devastating rupture in the divinely-ordered relationship between humans and the animals they ate. Furthermore, the correlation between the consumption of animal products and heart disease and cancer (the two leading causes of death in the US) is well-documented. So, on both a religious and a scientific level (aside from the moral level), neither gender should eat meat at all.
So, why are men so obsessed with meat? The same reason we think blue is for boys and pink is for girls—because we are indoctrinated with cultural ideas about what makes a “real” man and a “real” woman. Regardless of your position on gender distinctions, we should all be cautious to invoke social norms as evidence for biological or biblical principles.
The idea that men eat heavy foods like meat and women eat light foods like vegetables is nothing more than Western social custom. The reason men think they need meat is because they are raised believing that men who do not eat meat are effeminate. Women are raised to think they need to eat “light” in order to keep their sex appeal—to stay thin and attractive. Both of these ideas are damaging to the emotional and physical well-being of men and women.
Advertisers exploit these insecurities in order to make a profit. You only need to open your eyes and let in all of the advertising to see that the marketeers of meat are feeding you two devastating lies: 1) Real men eat meat and, more dangerously, 2) Real men are perpetually horny. To steal an example from Laura Brehaut’s excellent piece for the National Post on this subject, just look at this infamous ad for Burger King’s 7-inch burger:
From a young age, boys in our culture are taught to associate meat with sex. Eating meat is as essential to “manhood” as having a penis. These are not ideas you will find in nature or scripture, but you will find them in Western culture.
There are other deep-seated problems with McCracken’s claims worth mentioning: one being that to use Western cultural ideas about meat to make universal claims about “manhood” denies the manhood of men in other cultures that, either by necessity or custom, do not consume meat. Furthermore, it denies the womanhood of women in cultures who are raised on the stuff. A second point is that perhaps the Vancouver restaurant was playing on other problematic motifs of our society: that the term “meat” is a common euphemism for a penis and “buns” is often used as a reference to a woman’s butt. Perhaps the designers of the restaurant knew that everyone’s mind is in the gutter.
Words and symbols are tricky games. They conjure up all sorts of connotations for different people. We need to be aware of how our culture exploits our insecurities, the way it uses words and symbols to evoke our fears of being inadequate and compels us to act in destructive ways in order to feel whole and accepted by our peers.
To be sure, there is a conversation to be had on gender and theology—a conversation that ought not be stifled by either party. But I don’t have to eat a steak for dinner every day and die of colon cancer to be a man. I’m perfectly secure in my masculinity with my quinoa and avocados.
is the author of The Separation of Church and Estate: Capitalism and the Christian Conscience and co-host of Podcastica Patristica, a podcast about early Christian history and theology.