For These Vegans, Masculinity Means Protecting The Planet : The Salt A group of men in New York are challenging the stereotype that eating meat signifies manliness. Instead, they say that manhood can be proven by caring for the planet, not dominating it.
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For These Vegans, Masculinity Means Protecting The Planet

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For These Vegans, Masculinity Means Protecting The Planet

For These Vegans, Masculinity Means Protecting The Planet

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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: The world is run by the man.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 2: Who?

SPEAKER 1: The man. Oh, you don't know the man? Oh, well, he's everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 3: A lot of women get turned on by a masculine, earthy quality.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 4: Whatever you do, don't tell her you don't drink. She'll think you're a Boy Scout.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 5: What kind of man are you? What kind of man are you?

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: That's just one of the questions we've asked this summer while exploring the definition of masculinity. Today, the subject is food, and the notion that real men eat meat. According to advertisers, they crave steak and burgers. Here's a Burger King commercial from just a few years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BURGER KING COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 6: I am man, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore. And I'm way too hungry to settle for chick food.

ULABY: Chick food meaning foods that are marketed almost exclusively to women - salad, yogurt, cupcakes. Well, it's not just Madison Avenue. NPR's Neda Ulaby has a look at how men are stereotyped by what they like to eat.

ULABY: The guests at this barbeque in Brooklyn are a bunch of really manly guys - semi-professional athletes, mostly, and seriously built.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 7: Do any of you guys have like competitions or races or anything coming up - or fights?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 8: I do.

ULABY: These guys all share something else in common besides feats of strength.

GIACOMO MARCHESE: My name's Giacomo Marchese. My path to veganism was actually based on performance. I am a bodybuilder.

DOMINIC THOMPSON: I'm Dominic - Dominic Thompson. I am a triathlete, and I'm a vegan and proud of it.

ULABY: These manly, muscly men do not consume any animal products - no meat, fish, dairy, eggs - ever. And for that, they get teased, even sometimes mocked.

THOMPSON: You have the vegan women in the community that don't have the same pushback.

ULABY: Thompson says veganism tends to get associated with wimpy female stereotypes.

THOMPSON: Everyone always thinks vegans are weak, skinny, frail, pale. I get people that think you're like Gwyneth Paltrow.

ULABY: Who, by the way, is no longer vegan. Also unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, Thompson grew up in a rough Chicago housing project - the kind of kid who, when he saw people picking on stray dogs or cats, would rush in to save them.

THOMPSON: There's nothing more cowardly to me taking advantage of something that's defenseless.

ULABY: Today he's the guy who checks labels to avoid leather, wool, and products tested on animals.

THOMPSON: To me, compassion is the new cool.

ULABY: Let's meet the host of this all-male vegan barbecue. Tall, elegant Joshua Katcher runs a website called The Discerning Brute. It's a lifestyle guide for vegan men. Katcher also designs very expensive vegan menswear. It's caught the attention of men's magazines like GQ and Esquire. But Katcher challenges society's prevailing notions of manhood.

JOSHUA KATCHER: Mainstream masculinity is a roadblock to sustainability.

ULABY: Katcher thinks in an era of climate change and environmental destruction, masculinity should be reframed as protecting the planet, not dominating it. Since he stopped eating or using products that hurt animals, he says he's been made to feel unmanly.

KATCHER: Absolutely. It's considered just a sign of weakness to other men - like oh, you've left the club.

ULABY: There's actually been a tradition of leaving the club that dates back in this country for more than a hundred years, says Pomona College professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins.

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: One particular group of radical food thinkers advocated a kind of manliness based on vegetarianism

ULABY: Including Sylvester Graham, after whom the graham cracker's named, and Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote "Little Women." He was vegan, and for him, that was part of his advocacy against slavery and for women's rights. Although according to his daughter, Alcott never bothered to do any cooking.

Professor Tompkins is like me, a meat eater, but she finds something very masculine about following a vegan diet.

TOMPKINS: It's total control - right - of the body.

ULABY: There's something hard-core about veganism that appeals to a certain type of guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ULABY: According to a recent Harris Poll, more women are vegetarian than men, but more men are vegan. John Joseph of the punk band the Cro-Mags has been vegan for more than 30 years.

(SOUNDBTIE OF SONG)

ULABY: Joseph's also written a book called "Meat Is For..." well, we have to say wussies. The real title's too hard-core for public radio.

JOHN JOSEPH: You know, I come from jails and gyms, where, you know, guys were eating Alpo burgers 'cause the dudes would like, if it's good enough for my pit bull, it's going to give me more strength and energy.

ULABY: Back and Brooklyn, the grillmeister is not flipping Alpo burgers.

DAN STRONG: So these are our beet burgers.

ULABY: That's right, beets, for their pleasingly pinkish color, says Dan Strong. He's a professional vegan chef who trained in some fancy New York kitchens.

STRONG: I was mostly a butcher.

ULABY: But Strong met a beautiful vegan at the restaurant where he worked and converted to impress her. Because he went hard-core vegan without a mushy transitional vegetarian phase, where he still got to eat eggs and dairy, Strong gained grudging respect, he says, from the other meat cutters and macho chefs.

STRONG: I actually got made fun of more about the fact that I didn't have tattoos.

ULABY: Being vegan has made Strong think a lot about how American men are not encouraged to show feelings. Caring passionately and openly about animals and the planet is for him, a powerful expression of manhood.

STRONG: I mean, there is an illusion that manhood is like this confidence that is exuded all times. Veganism is that kind of confidence, it really is. It's a choice that we make consciously that we live actively that guides us in our lives. I can't think of anything really more manly than that.

ULABY: As the barbecue winds down, the men have decided to pursue may be the ultimate in masculinity - hunting.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 9: I don't know if you guys are in to wild foraged mushrooms, but I'm all about going out there to pick them.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 10: They don't stand a chance.

ULABY: From the new frontier of food and masculinity, this is Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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