Rethinking Masculinity and Food

Several years ago, there was a study done at Northwestern University where it was found that men on average tend to choose foods to eat that they perceive to be masculine. Choices men made during the study were, among others, gravy, ribeye steaks and other more hearty dishes. Women on the other hand often chose large salads and dishes made with red wine sauce.

The fact that there has been gender-bias in foods should come as no surprise to us. Our culture and language has promoted this. We look to men to be strong and virile. And when we want to speak of strong and virile, we use expressions related to heavier foods, like "Where's the beef?" or we say we're going to "beef up." But when we talk about the opposite, we use vegetable terminology. We call somebody a "couch potato" (very unmanly although probably not unlike a good number of men) or we'll talk about "vegging out."

In Meathooked by Marta Zaraska, the author tells us about a 2006 commercial, perhaps you've even seen it, where there are two guys checking out at the grocery store. One has a cart full of green vegetables, some radishes and some tofu. The other guy has a cart full of meat. The guy with the tofu and veggies is shown to be looking uncomfortable around the meat guy. That is until his eyes land on an ad for a Hummer. In the next scene, tofu man is buying a Hummer and the words "Restore the Balance" pops up on the TV screen. In other words, tofu man is not seen as having any masculinity until he restores the balance by going out and buying a Hummer.

This has happened because we are essentially haunted by our pasts. Henrik Ibsen talked about this in one of his rather famous plays, Ghosts, and it's worth repeating here what is said. Here's an excerpt: "But I'm inclined to think that we're all ghosts...it's not only the things that we've inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of old ideas and old dead beliefs and things of that sort. They're not actually alive in us, but they're rooted there all the same, and we can't rid ourselves of them. I've only to pick up a newspaper, and read it, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. I should think there must be ghosts all over the country -- as countless as grains of sand. And we are, all of us, so painfully afraid of the light."

The truth of the matter is that we have very old ideas about things like masculinity and food that have been handed down to us through the ages. Men were the seen as the ones who did the most physically demanding work in the past (whether that's really true or not I don't know). Therefore, men needed bigger, heartier meals filled with lots of protein. In hunter-gather societies, men hunted while women gathered. And because hunting involved tracking and fighting with wild animals, the meat that came from the hunt was seen as being a result of the big, strong men who fearlessly went out to bring the game home.

So, we're haunted by our past. Times have changed. Today, work done by men can be more mentally draining than it is physically challenging. Today, the hunt for food can involve nothing more than driving to the grocery store. So, given that these changes have occurred, is there really still a need to think of foods as either masculine or feminine?

But besides that, are the foods that get thought of as masculine really the best foods for growing muscular, tough, virile, strong and fearless men? If so, then Popeye must have had it all wrong. Those of us who grew up in the fifties remember Popeye. Popeye lived on spinach and he was considered to be extremely muscular. That was the message of his cartoons.

Of course, cartoons are one thing. But what about real life? Well, no human is ever going to grow to be as strong or as big as a gorilla. And what do gorillas eat? Plants, that's what.

But here's the other thing. Eating a whole foods, plant-based diet has been shown time and time again to prevent heart disease, cancer and more. So, if we can prevent major diseases through a WFPB diet, then wouldn't that be the manly thing to do. After all, it's not manly to be sick and to be in the hospital dependent on others for your life and being unable to work and provide for your family. There's  nothing manly about that. So, shouldn't we men try to eat the foods that might prevent that from happening?

So, maybe it's time to rethink masculinity when it comes to food. We should think in terms of the foods that will keep us healthy. Let's not lose our masculinity by becoming weak and sick as a result of eating too many of the wrong foods too often. Let's man up and be real men instead.