Let Him Eat Tofu

5 years ago

He did it.  He’s doing it.  My husband Mark, my beloved pepperoni pizza and Coca-Cola chicken loving man, has decided to eschew meat and animal products.  That’s right, he’s gone there, to the green side . . . he’s gone vegan.

Wait a minute . .  Did I just write that?   At this time last year, I wouldn’t have believed that I would someday go vegan, never mind Mark.  But, about four weeks ago, we watched Forks Over Knives, which includes research and commentary on the ill health effects of consuming not just meat, but also dairy products.  After the film, he proceeded to dump out the rest of our dairy milk and stated he was done with it.  He’s now trying all kinds of non-dairy milk and has found a particular fondness for hazelnut milk (which I honestly do not share).  He uses soy non-dairy creamer in his coffee and has even tried Daiya non-dairy cheese on pizza from our local vegan-friendly pizza parlor (we love you Pearl St. Pizza!).  He’s been eating beans in his burritos, free of cheese and sour cream, and a veggie delite sub from Subway, no cheese.  The true test?  Mark’s favorite dill pickle flavored sunflower seeds have some kind of milk product in the flavored powder.  When he discovered this, he ordered a new BBQ flavored, dairy-free brand.  If you knew how much my man loves his sunflower seeds (he used to order them by the case), you’d be hugely impressed.  I am.

While Mark and I both now have the experience of living a vegan lifestyle in an omni world, I have to say that his transition has elicited a bit stronger, more vocal response than mine.  While I didn’t start to encounter questions or comments about my veganism until relatively recently, Mark has been on the receiving end of little remarks here and there while flexitarian, and now particularly as a vegan.  He has come home with stories filled with comments like “Oooh, this chicken is so goood”, “Your salad is just vegetables??  How can you eat that?”, “Oh yeah, you don’t eat meat” followed by a smirk or snicker, tofu is so disgusting, etc.  These comments may not be expressed by the most enlightened or thoughtful people, but it honestly surprises, and saddens, me that such blatant disrespect could encircle someone’s eating habits and lifestyle.  It’s also frustrating to hear this negativity when he is making such healthful, positive choices that are making him feel good.

I raised this issue with another vegan recently, and we discussed what may be a common theme: Men simply seem to get more negative feedback and flack for going vegetarian or vegan than women do.  Not that women don’t also have to face anti-vegan rhetoric or rude “mmm, this meat is so good, you should try some” comments.  We get the comments about leather purses, belts, and shoes and confused looks and questions when someone hears we don’t drink dairy milk.  But, from what I’m seeing, both men and women seem to judge a man more harshly for his decision to forgo animal products than a woman who does the same.

Why is this?  Putting on my feminist hat (ok, I always have it on), I would say it’s a result of sexism.  Vegetarianism and veganism are commonly seen as female social movements and issues.  Most vegetarians and vegans are women; therefore, the movements are largely identified as being female.  But it’s more than just the stats pointing to gender discrepancies or the female-centered visual depictions of veggie lifestylers.  Vegetarianism and veganism encompass issues that have largely been held to be more feminine than masculine.  The lifestyle often identifies with compassion, particularly in relation to animals, but also in regards to people who are negatively affected by the economic and environmental impacts of carnivorous diets.  In our society, compassion is associated with caring, emotional, nurturing women, not men who must be tough and even deny their feelings.  Young girls feed and hug their baby dolls, oooh and aaah over cute animals, and express their care for others with little retribution, as children and as they grow into teens and women.  While many parents today are more enlightened and informed about gender roles, boys historically have found themselves in a box, being told that they should not play with baby dolls, should not show care for animals, except maybe the family dog, and should not give or express much care and thought for another’s well-being outside of themselves, and maybe their own family.  Why not?  Because doing so would be girly and who on earth would want to be associated with being compassionate (aka weak) like a girl when you could be a strong, independent, self-serving boy?

In John Robbins’ fantastic book Food Revolution (check it out), he describes a telling and incredibly memorable story about a pig farmer.  The pig farmer was himself raised on a farm which included many animals that came to be his companions, including a pig.  Hot nights spent sleeping in the cool barn were shared with the belly-rub loving pig, as were refreshing dips in their pond.  He came to see the pig as his friend.  One day, his father informed him that he had to shoot and then butcher his friend.  The boy expressed hesitation and reluctance at the thought of taking the life of his loyal companion; the father informed him that he would kill the pig or would no longer be considered his son.  The farmer went on to kill his pig and continued to push away and ignore his grave sadness around the incident for the remainder of his pig farming career.

This experience isn’t a common coming-of-age story for most boys.  But don’t we as a society, consciously or not, still relay certain expectations for our boys and men that contrast with the edict of veganism?  Our society’s boys and men are encouraged to hunt, fish, grill huge slabs of “manly” meat, and learn to shoot guns at whatever may be cool at that moment, innocent animal or target.  Men are often expected to bond around those activities.  But, when boys and men defy these expectations, in action, in diet, in dress, in lifestyle, isn’t their manhood questioned to some extent, and femininity therefore confirmed?  We seem to lean towards either that conclusion or one that states that the woman in the man’s life must simply have him “whipped”.  The vegan woman with whom I spoke about this issue shared that some friends have encouraged her husband to eat meat when she’s not around or have asked if she’s “made” him vegan yet.  How else would a man choose a compassionate, globally-aware lifestyle all on his own?  And why would he consciously choose to eat and live like a girl or woman, without being pushed to do so?

When men are chided or teased or even harassed for making choices that are deemed compassionate, therefore feminine, and therefore weak, the power of sexism rears its head, subtly but openly.  I’m relieved and proud that my strong, independent husband is far more apt to lead and defy gender role conventions than follow the tightly narrowed road society has paved for him.  So let him, and other veggie-minded men, eat tofu, I say.  And let them eat it in peace, with their sexy, compassionate manhood in tact.

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