The Plight of the Soy Boys and the Sexual Politics of Meat

By Toyah Höher | Culture | March 25, 2024

Cover Illustration: A man eating a burger 2018. Sander Dalhuisen / Unsplash

In this opinion piece, Culture Reporter Toyah Höher explores the interplay between gender and diet, as well as the social implications of associating meat-eating with masculinity. 

Throughout history, those in power have eaten meat, and those who obtained and distributed the valuable commodity of meat acquired power. For most cultures, these tasks fell primarily onto men. “The more important meat was in their life, the greater the relative dominance of men,” writes Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat, her book exploring the interplay between gender dynamics and diet. 

The United Nations, World Health Organization and countless studies like this one agree that a dietary shift towards plants is necessary for the future of the planet and can proceed without sacrificing human health. For this shift to be equitable, lasting cultural associations between meat, masculinity and virility warrant dismantling. It should go without saying that misconstruing gender expression with dietary habits is regressive and counterproductive to these aims.

Meat has represented status, class, strength, and the superiority of the traditionally (cis-)masculine for centuries. Adams attributes its lasting role as a symbol of male dominance to this historical truth and argues that meat has historically elevated male power and reinforced female submissiveness. Cultural mythologies continue to perpetuate the notion that real men need meat, that meat gives ox-like strength (recall, perhaps, that cows are herbivores). Meanwhile, vegetables and plant foods are associated, even among pre-school children, with the concept of “Woman the Gatherer.” In fact, the gendered divison in hunting and gathering is challenged by recent research.

The (male-coded) prestige afforded to meat as opposed to (female-coded) plant foods extends through language: the Cambridge Dictionary offers a definition of meat as “important, valuable, or interesting ideas or information.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines meat as “the essence, substance, or gist”– recall the expression: “the meat of the matter.” To vegetate, on the other hand, connotes passivity and dullness, whereas being a vegetable is colloquially understood as suffering from severe brain damage. 

Access to meat, and the corresponding protein, has historically been unequally divided along a hierarchy of “race, class, and sex,” Adams writes. UK dietary surveys from 1863 found that adult women were the worst-fed members of poor households, with the major difference to men’s diets being the amount of meat consumed. The idea that meat was to be preserved for soldiers continued this trend throughout the 20th century, to the nutritional disadvantage of women and children. Adams recounts the writings of a 19th century doctor: while white “brain-workers” needed the superior nutrition provided by meat, laborers and the “savage lower” classes could persist on “coarser” foods, such as carbohydrates.

Science has debunked the myth that human beings need to eat meat to be healthy again and again (and again and again…). Why, then, does this idea still persist, especially in connection to masculinity?

Meat is still largely associated with traditionally masculine identities, with veganism being considered as more effeminate. Women are more likely to eat vegetables, fruits, and grains over meat, and the majority of vegetarians and vegans (for example in the UK, USA, Germany and the Netherlands) are women. “Greater conformity to traditional gender roles” has been found to predict “more frequent consumption of [meat] and lower openness to vegetarianism among men,” with men who identify as more masculine being more resistant to reducing meat intake. Rather than taking the risk of being associated with the feminine attributes of vegetarianism, this study found that many men prefer risking the health issues associated with red meat. Men have been found to eat more meat when they feel their masculinity has been threatened, using social conceptions of meat consumption to help restore it.

Men who decide to eschew meat, Adams confirms, are themselves “deemed effeminate, as not eating meat announces lacking masculinity.” Enter the Soy Boy, an archetype of a feminized man popularized in alt-right internet culture. The term demonstrates the conflation of diet and gender conformity and the social ostracization often faced by men with plant-based lifestyles. According to Urban Dictionary, “the average soy boy is a feminist, nonathletic, has never been in a fight,” and “will probably marry the first girl that has sex with him.” Soy has long been pseudo-scientifically and falsely claimed to, among other things, cause breast growth in men due to an increase in estrogen production.

Such misconceptions fuel the presumption that vegetarian and vegan men challenge an essential aspect of masculinity. They are, still, seen as significantly less masculine than meat-eaters. Why? It might relate to their refusal to support the meat industry signaling empathy towards animals, which is a stereotypically feminine trait and could thereby be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Both men and women tend to penalize men for deviating from these stereotypes.

Eating habits are, to this day, strongly linked to gender expression, and fueled by outdated (not to mention binary) stereotypes. By attaching shame and weakness to dietary choices, especially those veering away from meat, traditional notions of masculinity perpetuate harmful clichés to the detriment of people of all genders. Food and gender are incredibly emotionally laden issues, and societal changes in the practice of either already face mountains of resistance. Picking apart the knot formed by their association is, undoubtedly, a sensitive and difficult exercise. Yet it is past time to do so.

Toyah Höher is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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