Unwrapping The Man-Box
by author and lecturer Dr.Alex Lockwood.
Why creating a vegan world hangs on
getting men to talk to each other more!
Let’s imagine gender is like a game of pass the parcel. The mystery package has been wrapped up with many layers - by your parents, family, school, the media, advertising, the government - and is passed around different versions of yourself through your life. Each time the music stops (adolescence, turning 18, midlife, retirement) you might take another layer off the wrapping.
But the wrappings all look pretty similar: if you’re a woman, they might be pages from magazines such as Vogue or TV Times or Grazia or pages taken out of Wuthering Heights. If you’re a man, it’s pages from The Sun, Men’s Health, Top Gear, Woodworker’s Weekly and the latest Robert Ludlum. Sneakily, while you’re passing the parcel around, society keeps adding layers. They may be more modern versions, updated images. But the wrappings are the same. And because it’s a pleasurable game to handle a familiar package - the image of what kind of person you are and where you fit in - you’re not worried that you never get inside. So what if you never get to see what the wrappings conceal? You fit in. You look (enough) like the images on the paper. More to the point, you want to look like them. Why unwrap the recognisable for a dangerous mystery inside?
For men in Western societies, this game is so diversionary we die from it. In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45, and three quarters of all deaths by suicide are male. Men have higher cancer mortality rates in all forms of cancer that affect both men and women, and much of this is to do with men’s under-use of healthcare services, particularly screening services. These figures are also because men are overwhelmingly reliant on one other person - often a female partner - for all of their emotional support, whereas women generally gain emotional support from a range of sources. That’s because the wrapping tells us men it’s better to be stronger, silent, individual, and not ask for help. Is it too flippant to say that the cause of all of these life-threatening and life-taking issues are to do with these directions on the male gender parcel? It’s been shown many times in robust research that men’s attempts to live up to gendered ideals of masculinity - of what the Samaritans have called a ‘gold standard’ of male experience which prizes power, control and invincibility - is a major factor in why men keep their emotions bottled up, or refuse to attend a cancer screening (it’s not the only reason). Gender differentials of NHS use diminish when men retire; they don’t suddenly lose their machismo… or perhaps, once their workplace identities disappear, they do…) But what is clear is that society - and particularly patriarchal societies, which most are - do not recognise or value male vulnerability, only allow some forms of male collective sharing, and almost never allow for male surrender. As Ally Fogg wrote in the Guardian in February, last year the Centre for Men’s Health at Leeds Beckett University - the only unit of its type in Britain and a major research department on male-specific cancers - was closed due to funding cuts.
Take a closer look at that wrapping paper around the
parcel labelled ‘man’ and you’ll see that a lot of it will be pictures of ‘meat’ and typically processed animal products such as burgers, bacon, sausages, and steak. Part of the “power, control and invincibility” that men try to practice comes at the expense of those who are most easily controlled and overpowered: animals. Food has become gendered, as Emma Black at the University of Southampton recently showed in research identifying certain foods as ‘masculine’ (with steak, bacon and beer scoring in the 90s out of 100) while others are ‘feminine’ (chocolate, salad). As the Cornell University academic Jeffery Sobel wrote in Food and Foodways back in 2005, “men and women ‘do gender’ by consuming gender appropriate foods. Meat, especially red meat is an archetypical masculine food. Men often emphasize meat, and women often minimize meat, in displaying gender as individuals.”
Plenty of men still engage in direct animal-exploitative behaviours: angling, hunting, betting on animal sports. But the majority of the abuse of animals comes through our food systems. There are almost no women working on the kill floors of slaughterhouses worldwide. (This isn’t to say there are no women hunters.) But of course, the majority of the exploitation takes place where men, pleasurably and safely wrapped up in images of what it means to be a man, continue to dominate the bodies of other animals through the heavy consumption of ‘meat’ products. Globally men eat around 57% more meat than women. Most vegans are women - in the UK, as we know, it’s about two-thirds of vegans who identify as women, and the in US it’s more like four to one. And Veganuary, the campaign to get people to choose vegan in January, attracts around 82-88% women every year, and only 10-15% men.
The reasons for these gender differences are as simple as we’ve laid out already. As Brian Luke wrote in his 2007 book Brutal, men continue to benefit from the institutions of animal exploitations in ways that women do not. Those ‘ways’ are all wrapped up in what men see as the benefits of ‘meat’ consumption in providing them with a social identity which is, using Melanie Joy’s formation, Normal, Natural, and Necessary. It’s normal and natural and necessary for men to consume ‘meat’ (and as Jared Piazza at Lancaster University later added: Nice). Eating ‘meat’ and other animal products gendered as masculine allow men to
‘do gender’ and not only in front of women but also to strengthen allowed social group attachments with other men (the BBQ being the symptomatic image of male food sharing).
Even vegan men, say sociologists Jessica Greenbaum and Brandon Dexter, don’t refute masculinity; they don’t totally unwrap the parcel. They don’t reject associations with femininity either, and so engage in a hybrid form of masculinity, modifying masculine associations - eating plant-based burgers, talking of “vegan gains” in the gym - and so fall short of challenging gender inequalities, which are then inequalities that are transferred onto the suffering bodies of animals. What I’ve learnt by spending the two years interviewing 40 vegan men, and then sharing that work at vegan festivals, debates and workshops up and down the country, is that there are many ways in which food and gender are tied up together, and particularly the
associations between masculinity, family, identity and meat.
But, of course, there are many vegan men, and the 40 that I interviewed had found a number of strategies to overcome the obstacles in the way of living aligned with their values. I found three key lessons to pass on to other men (and to those who want to have conversations with men about their food choices):
1: Forget all or nothing: men have been socialised into
seeing our social roles as competitive and based on win/lose scenarios. When you’re trying to change a habit, such as giving up animal products, this can be counter-productive (e.g. having been vegan for five weeks and
this as an excuse to give up on veganism totally because you’ve ‘failed’). When men shifted this mindset to one focused on the process of change as an adventure and experiment, then ‘failure’ was seen as part of the journey to a better way of taking care of oneself (albeit wrapped up in the ways that veganism is sold to men as a way to improve their health and virility: the Hegan).
2: So What? Or rather, so what if we’ve always done it this way before? For many of the men I spoke to, forms of re-education, including learning about feminism, were important in helping them shift away from the socialisation of ‘meat’ meaning power, virility and important for masculinity, towards a sense of empowerment around choice. As Margaret Thomas has shown, “choosing
veganism, not veganism itself, is associated with lower levels of masculinity” which suggests that shifting
mindsets around what we’re ‘allowed’ is perhaps more important than we recognise.
3: Think of Others. We’re social creatures and are more likely to change if our social group approves, or we get help. So ‘think of others’ is in two parts: who can help you (e.g. find role models, social groups, and watch films and documentaries) and then who will you help … many of the men I interviewed found the intrinsic motivation to change when they had children, wanting to be the best, healthiest fathers they could be.
There are many lessons we can take from the Samaritans’ work looking at men and suicide and the vegan activists’ attempts to persuade men away from their quasi-suicidal practices of consuming high levels of ‘meat’ (red meat is a known carcinogen and linked with high levels of cardiac disease; plant-based diets are shown to reduce mortality rates, especially in men; and animal agriculture is suicide-for-the-planet in everything but name). If we can get men talking to other men, finding emotional support and networks that are more broadly connected, and if we can help men understand that masculinity is a construction - no more than the wrapping on a parcel, not the gift inside - then we will also help the animals who men, mostly, exploit. Living in these times of mass industrialisation and climate change, driven by patriarchal standards of separation and domination, these are critical interventions to make.
About the Author
Dr. Alex Lockwood is a Newcastle based author and lecturer, who travels internationally to speak on issues including our relationship with animals, food justice and running!