A recent study uncovered significant gender stereotypes and societal perceptions associated with vegetarian and vegan diets. The study, which comprised both a quantitative survey and qualitative focus groups, reveals that men on vegan diets are often perceived as lacking in masculinity and that both men and women experience various social challenges due to their dietary choices. The findings have been published in the journal Sex Roles.
Vegetarianism is a dietary practice that typically excludes meat, poultry, and fish. Vegetarians do not consume these animal flesh products but may include other animal-derived products in their diet. Veganism, on the other hand, is more than just a diet; it’s often considered a lifestyle choice that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, whether for food, clothing, or any other purpose. In terms of diet, this means vegans avoid all animal products.
The term “veg*n” has arisen as a shorthand notation used to refer to both vegetarians and vegans. This term is helpful in contexts where the distinction between vegetarianism and veganism isn’t necessary for the discussion or where the information applies to both groups.
With eating being a social activity, the choices we make about our diet do not exist in a vacuum but are influenced by societal norms and expectations. The study aimed to explore how being vegan or vegetarian is perceived in society, particularly in the context of gender stereotypes and romantic relationships.
“We were interested in this topic because many theoretical works link meat to masculinity, and we were interested in seeing how much a person’s perception, especially of men, really depends on what kind of diet they are on. We wanted to translate theoretical considerations into quantitative and qualitative observations on the perception of men on a vegan/vegetarian diet in society,” said study author Dominika Adamczyk, a researcher at the University of Warsaw.
In the first part of the study, researchers engaged 1,048 Polish residents through an online survey. The sample was representative of the Polish population in terms of sex, age, education, and place of residence. This included a small percentage of participants who identified as vegetarian (3.4%) or vegan (1.3%).
Participants in the study were asked a series of questions to gauge their attitudes towards people on vegetarian and vegan diets. The survey explored perceptions of empathy, sensitivity, physical strength, and the capability for hard work in relation to these diets. Additionally, participants were asked to imagine their romantic partner switching to a vegetarian diet and to describe their reactions to this hypothetical scenario.
A significant portion of the participants believed that a vegetarian diet was unsuitable for men, associating meat-eating with masculinity. Furthermore, the study found that more men than women believed that meat dishes taste better and are healthier. This reflects a broader societal belief that links meat consumption with traditional male characteristics.
In terms of romantic relationships, women were generally more accepting of a partner adopting a vegetarian diet, while men viewed such changes more negatively, potentially fearing changes in their own diets and lifestyle.
The second part of the study took a qualitative approach, involving 36 participants in six focus groups. These groups were segregated by gender and diet type, including vegetarians for ethical reasons, vegetarians for health reasons, and vegans. The participants, all of whom were over 18 and had been following their diet for more than six months, discussed their experiences and perceptions related to their diet.
This part of the study illuminated the personal experiences of vegetarians and vegans, revealing common stereotypes and social challenges. Participants reported being perceived as trendy or fashionable for their diet choices, sometimes dismissed as merely following a modern fad rather than making a conscious ethical or health choice. This view extends to an association with urban hipsters and left-wing political ideologies, suggesting that a veg*n diet is often seen as part of a broader lifestyle or political statement.
A more specific set of stereotypes was identified by male participants. They felt that male veg*ns are often viewed as physically weak, less masculine, or even gay. Interestingly, some women participants believed there was a degree of truth to these stereotypes. This indicates that female veg*ns are sometimes influenced by broader societal stereotypes that equate meat-eating with masculinity.
“What surprised us most was that negative thinking about male vegans (that they are unmanly and weak) is also present among female vegans,” Adamczyk said. “The female vegans themselves were surprised that they have such stereotypical thinking, after all, on a rational level they know that a vegan diet is not related to a person’s masculinity. I think this observation further underscores how strong the connection between meat eating and masculinity is.”
The attitudes of friends and family towards individuals following a veg*n diet was also noted as another social challenge. Participants frequently encountered a lack of understanding and acceptance from their social circles. This ranged from concerns about their health and well-being to outright ridicule or attempts to trick them into eating meat.
Contrary to what might be expected, the participants did not report significant challenges in forming or maintaining romantic relationships due to their diet. Instead, an interesting pattern emerged: while women often initiated a veg*n diet independently, men typically became veg*n influenced by their female partners.
In relationships where one partner was veg*n, it was common for the other partner to gradually adapt their diet, often for practical reasons such as convenience in meal preparation. Men in the study typically reported that their female partners were instrumental in their decision to adopt a veg*n diet, whether through direct influence or by providing information that led them to reconsider their eating habits.
“The main finding of our study is that eating meat is part of how masculinity is performed,” Adamczyk said. “The perceptions of vegan and vegetarian men are associated with negative stereotypes about their lack of masculinity, and vegan men themselves experience exclusion as a result.”
“In a situation where it is men who are mainly affected by a fear of failing to conform to traditional gender roles and for whom this can be a barrier to switching to vegetarianism, it is worth being aware of one’s own beliefs that influence both the perceptions of those on the diets in question and one’s own food choices.”
The study, “Gender, Masculinity, and the Perception of Vegetarians and Vegans: A Mixed-Methods Investigation“, was authored by Dominika Adamczyk, Klaudia Modlińska, Dominika Maison, and Wojciech Pisula.