Despite vegan men often being dismissed as ‘soyboys’ in popular culture, there is no inherent contradiction between veganism and masculinity.
The popular neologism soy boy, “used to describe males who completely and utterly lack all necessary masculine qualities,” has brought back the trite equation of veganism with sub-masculinity. Real men eat meat, as the cliché goes. The myth that soy consumption, in particular, makes men less manly has been pervasive. “The origin of the term derives from the negative effects soy consumption has been proven [sic]to have on the male physique and libido,” according to the Urban Dictionary.
Given the environmental and health benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet, dietary gender identity politics pose an unnecessary hindrance to human advancement. Veganism is an ethical stance based on reason, evidence, and an aversion to needless suffering expressed through diet. Forbes reports “that cutting out meat and dairy is the single biggest thing you can do to lessen your impact on Earth. . . . while meat and dairy provide 18 per cent of all calories consumed globally, it accounts for 83 per cent of the farmland and 60 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions.” On top of that, going vegan means that you withdraw your support from an incredibly cruel and violent industry.
I’ve been vegan since 2001, and soy has been one of my main sources of protein. I guess this makes me a soy boy. However, neither my build nor my politics correspond with the cliché. I’m very much at ease with my masculinity and my soy-heavy veganism in no way conflicts with my male identity. On the contrary, “Soya is a complete source of protein which makes it ideal is men following a vegetarian or vegan diet,” explains Nichola Ludlam-Raine. The British dietitian argues that myths about the “emasculating” qualities of soybean-based foods “typically derive from studies conducted on animals who have been given extremely high doses of soya.”
What’s more, soy grown for animal feed accounts for most of the soy consumption in the world (between 67% and 90%). In short, non-vegans consume more soy than vegans. “Protein-rich soy is now produced in such huge quantities that the average European consumes approximately 61kg each year, largely indirectly by eating animal products such as chicken, pork, salmon, cheese, milk and eggs,” reports the Guardian. Nor does veganism per se require a particularly high soya intake.
It may sound strange to some, but my initial exposure to veganism was through a very male-dominated, sometimes hyper-masculine underground culture: hardcore punk. Nineties hardcore bands such as Earth Crisis (U.S.) combined their veganism with a tough-guy look, sound, and attitude. Hardcore vegans such as the successful Ironman competitor and Cro-Mags singer John Joseph and the nationally-competitive powerlifter and Die Young vocalist Daniel Austin (both U.S.) have since come out with books entitled Meat Is for Pussies and Way of the Vegan Meathead, respectively.
Granted, such rhetoric, much of which is tongue-in-cheek, could, in part, be interpreted as classic male overcompensation, but it goes to show that the perceived link between veganism and sub-masculinity, implied by the term soy boy, can and has been broken. In fact, John Joseph’s book is advertised as promoting “a diet that can make you more fit, more sexy, and more manly.”
Some feminists have equated masculinity with predatory consumption, drawing parallels between sex and diet. In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, the feminist animal rights advocate Carol J. Adams writes, “Consumption is the fulfilment of oppression, the annihilation of will, of separate identity [and]appears to be the final stage of male sexual desire.” Adams’s intersectional critique of male consumption further bolsters the perceived link between being male and eating meat.
This conflation has led some vegan men to reject their male identity. The British singer Morrissey, for example, included the lyric “I would never eat or kill an animal” in his song “I’m Not a Man,” suggesting that vegetarianism implies a rejection of masculinity. Not only does this mindset nurture the largely nonsensical narrative of “toxic masculinity,” but it also throws the baby out with the bathwater, neglecting the possibility of a responsible, compassionate masculinity. According to the evolutionary behavioural scientist Gad Saad,
“There has been a relentless ideological attack on masculinity, stemming from radical feminism, the most recent example of which is the bogus term ‘toxic masculinity’ [which]literally seeks to pathologize masculinity in ways that are profoundly harmful to the existential sense of self of young men.”
The term soy boy is mainly used to disparage “sub-masculine” male Social Justice Warriors, implying a link between veganism and leftism. While it is true that many vegans lean to the left, there is nothing in veganism itself that prevents conservatives or libertarians from going vegan. After all, ethical consumerism implies universalisable moral values (in the Kantian sense), personal responsibility, individual choice, and free markets.
In fact, much of the criticism of veganism as a form of ethical consumerism comes from far-left radicals accusing vegans of “classism” and of “greenwashing capitalism.” In short, they dismiss veganism as a privileged lifestyle choice. “It certainly is fashionable for people to dismiss veganism as a ‘lifestyle choice,’” agrees Propagandhi singer Chris Hannah (my interview). The anarchist-leaning Canadian musician and long-time vegan has an interesting theory as to why that is:
“It’s a wild speculation on my part, but when people become involved with activist culture, progressive culture, they often feel distanced from their family and their old friends a bit. If you add vegetarianism to that, it’s just another thing you get needled about at the family dinner when you go home. I think similarly some level of white guilt plays into that. People don’t want to seem different than the so-called working classes or people living in poverty.”
It could also be argued that since veganism has broken into the mainstream it has lost its radical appeal, leading to a situation wherein radical leftists perceive it as “emasculating” in a more abstract sense: that is, as a symbol of toothless middle-class liberalism. In their view, ethical, sustainable consumerism is anti-revolutionary as it “greenwashes” capitalism. Likewise, the notion of animal rights has been criticized as supporting bourgeois law. Underlying all this is a Marxist sense of collectivism which fundamentally undercuts individual choice and personal moral responsibility, replacing individual autonomy with groupthink.
Political dogma, social stigma, and identity politics prevent large sections of society from critically assessing their dietary needs and moral responsibilities as autonomous individuals. The myth of the soy boy is but one example. The fact of the matter, however, is that veganism, both as a diet and as an ethical principle, transcends race, class, gender, and political affiliation. Given its benefits, it would be a mistake to dismiss veganism on identity-political or partisan grounds.
Heterodox literary and cultural studies scholar, writer, and musician based in Vienna. Twitter: @g_ambrosch