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Veganism: Good for the Planet, Bad for Your Macho Image

New research finds vegans are viewed as less masculine than meat-eaters.
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Warm tofu with garlic sauce. Not a manly dish. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Warm tofu with garlic sauce. Not a manly dish. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Thanksgiving is a tough day for vegans. Explaining to your baffled relatives exactly why you're passing on the turkey can result in some awkward interactions and uncomfortable stares.

Then again, men who choose not to consume any animal products have a serious image problem every day of the year. According to newly published research, they are widely perceived as less masculine than meat-eaters.

In a sign of shifting gender stereotypes, Earlham College psychologist Margaret Thomas reports that "vegetarianism is no longer associated with lower levels of masculinity." But in the journal Appetite, she presents evidence that veganism is still looked at as less than macho behavior.

Wouldn't you rather be known for your tempeh than your temper?

Prompted by previous studies showing "inconsistent patterns in the association between vegetarianism and masculinity," Thomas conducted a series of studies to tease out precisely when, and why, people connect diet to manliness. The first, conducted on Amazon's Mechanical Turk website, featured 131 adults.

Participants read one of two versions of a vignette describing either a man (Jacob) or a woman (Jessica). These were identical except that, in one version, the person is described as following "a varied vegetarian diet," while in the other, he or she enjoys "a broad range" of foods, including meats.

Afterwards, participants assessed the person in terms of 12 qualities, including health-consciousness, independence, and—most vitally for this study—masculinity and femininity.

Thomas found that, at least in this relatively young sample (the average age of participants was 32), people did not associate vegetarianism with lower levels of masculinity. Perhaps, she writes, vegetarianism is now sufficiently mainstream to not trigger a strong reaction. In addition, "vegetarian items include higher-fat dairy and eggs," she notes, "and higher-fat food items are associated with elevated levels of masculinity."

Thomas then conducted a similarly structured study featuring 133 adults. In this one, Jacob or Jessica was described as eating a vegan diet rather than a vegetarian one.

Thomas found a man described as a vegan was perceived as less masculine than an otherwise identical meat-eating male. (This was also true of the woman, but only to a marginal extent.)

In a final study, featuring 143 adults, Jessica or Jacob was described as either having freely chosen a vegan diet, or as being forced into one due to "digestive issues." Those portrayed as being "vegan by necessity were rated higher in masculinity than (those who were) vegans by choice."

This suggests it isn't the food itself that leads people to see male vegans as less manly, but rather what the choice to go on such a diet says about a person.

This tracks with research published earlier this year, which found unhealthy food is associated with masculinity. Choosing a vegan diet strongly suggests you are health conscious, and that may lead many to think of such people in less-manly terms.

So, male vegans, be prepared for some wisecracks over the holiday dinner table. But if you get discouraged, keep in mind that veganism is good for the planet—and that hyper-masculinity is associated with many questionable qualities, including anger.

Wouldn't you rather be known for your tempeh than your temper?


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.