“Since I am not a rabbit, no, I will not be eating salad,” remarked Ron Swanson, the loveable, rugged individualist from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Sure, Swanson is a caricature. But aspects of his comically masculine eating habits are based closely on reality. While eating at O’Donovan Hall recently, I heard a guy remark to his friend that he does not eat from the vegetarian line because “I have a dick.”
To be clear, I do not take any offense from playful banter about manliness. I went to an all-boys high school and have been guilty of similar behavior in the past. At the very least, I had made similar connections between food and gender for most of my life. In high school, I would not have been caught dead eating a salad. My father’s cooking style came from my grandfather, a former army officer, who prioritized Spam fried rice and lamb chops. Jokes about wimpy, noncarnivorous men aside, the pernicious masculinity underlining men’s diets seriously damages their health, while also encouraging unethical choices.
I became a vegetarian several months ago because of environmental, health and ethical reasons. While I would take great satisfaction in being that vegetarian who tells others to eat less meat, I think it is better to observe and attest to why men like myself might have a naive view of our own habits. It does not take a Ph.D. in gender studies to see how men are typically socialized to believe they should strive for physical strength and hide their emotions. Men are expected to ask each other if they lift, not if they cry at the ending of “The Notebook.”
Advertisements play right into these gender roles by associating eating meat with strength and masculinity. Their work ultimately causes men to fill in roles of unhealthy and unethical consumers. Commercials for restaurants like Arby’s use deep-voiced narrators uttering slogans like “We have the meats!” in order to promote consumption. The meat industry giant Hillshire Farms features advertisements with men chanting “Go Meat!” as if they were at a sporting event. Carl’s Jr. has a comical ad associating eating a burger with symbols of American masculinity, including — but not limited to — beautiful women in bikinis, cowboys, aircraft carriers and ridiculous patriotism, all in a 30-second ad for a burger paired with potato chips and sausage. Even diet plans for men, like those from Nutrisystem, advertise with quotes like “Real, delicious guy food — burgers, pasta and pizza!”
Research supports the premise that we have been socialized to believe some dietary choices are masculine and others feminine. Using methods like implicit association tests, a growing body of research demonstrates that people associate — both consciously and unconsciously — unhealthy foods with masculinity and healthy foods with femininity. Men are more likely to jump on unhealthy convenient foods including meat products. Given these results, it is no wonder American men eat 60 pounds more pork and beef per year than do women, while women make up around 60 percent of the vegetarian population and around 80 percent of the vegan population.
Our rate of meat consumption exacerbates several problems, many of which concern the ethics of the meat industry. Purchasing from major providers like Hormel Foods supports companies that have created a water pollution situation similar to Flint, Mich., and in Fresno School in California. But in addition to the pollution of water from chemical runoff and the pollution of the air from methane, large providers like Hormel or Tysons also frequently and cruelly kill animals in factory conditions dangerous for both animals and people as shown by the Christian Science Monitory in 2015.
Ethical concerns aside, there are significant health reasons to go vegetarian as well. Not only did the World Health Organization recently link eating processed meat to cancer, meat consumption has also long been linked to heart disease and kidney problems. As comedian Louis C.K. said while talking about the number one threat to men, “Our hearts just go, ‘Dude I can’t do this anymore. I told you three strokes ago this isn’t smart.’ ”
None of this should be taken as an argument that every man should be a vegan, but I do believe everyone needs to be aware of the detrimental effects of socialized masculinity. Whether it be at the sports bar or at the supermarket, we ought to have a more conscious understanding of how our implicit desires for foods associated with masculinity can lead us to being unhealthy consumers.
Bryan Yuen is a sophomore in the College.
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