“Are you a breast or a leg man?” – some thoughts on feminism and vegetarianism

// 3 May 2008


“Meat Market”, Oil on canvas. Artist: Megan VanGroll

It isn’t an unusual story: feminist/woman produces significant work. World tunes in for five minutes. Theory is forgotten, and next generation has to learn it all over again.

However, I think it’s still an appropriate point to make about The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams. The book and the argument it makes, which is broadly an analysis of why being vegetarian is a feminist choice, has not in my view permeated deeply into our culture, or even within vegetarian circles, if my experience is anything to go on. While I was reading this book, as happens, I was asked quite a few times to explain why it is feminist to stop eating animal products; and not just by meat-and-two veg types, but also by curious vegetarian feminists.

(Note, if you are an ardent meat-eater, you may not want to carry on reading, as I am addressing this post directly to vegetarian and vegan readers, and I am coming from the perspective of a committed vegetarian. I doubt that the book is one which will convert hordes of omnivores, but I would say it could give a new understanding and insight to vegetarian feminists.)

The preface begins with this sentence, which sums up exactly my own feelings prior to reading the book, 18 years after it was first published and eight years since I began my current stint of vegetarianism: “My becoming a vegetarian had seemingly little relationship to my feminism – or so I thought.”

However, the argument put forward is deeply convincing. It is not simple to sum up in a paragraph (relying heavily on a theoretical construct called the “absent referent“). My clumsy attempt would be to say that the objectification of animals (into meat) is the same process as the objectification of women (into sexual body parts); the two reinforce each other, and not taking part in the meat culture can, for some, be feminist activism. Well, there is a lot more to it, but I would suggest reading the book yourself to understand the nuances. Indeed, although it is heavy-going theory for the most part, I would certainly recommend the book to anyone who is curious about the whys and hows of the connection between the oppression of women and killing and eating of animals.

Above and beyond this, though, the book provides heartening reading for the feminist vegetarian. If it gave me an explanation of how vegetarianism can be feminist, it also provided a much needed insight into some other issues. First off, why it is that so many meat-eaters insist on abruptly questioning why you are vegetarian at the dinner table, often while they are chowing down on some dead animals and you are not, and what do you do about it? Well, Adams suggests that this is not the time for a real conversation on the ethics of meat eating:

In a situation where flesh is consumed, vegetarians inevitably call attention to themselves. They have made something absent on their plates; perhaps a verbal demurral has been required as well. They then are drawn into a discussion regarding their vegetarianism. Frequently, there will be someone present who actually feels hostile to vegetarianism and regards it as a personal challenge. If this is the case, all sorts of outrageous issues are thrown out to see how the vegetarian will handle them. The vegetarian, enthusiastic reformer, sees the opportunity as one of education; but it is not. Instead it is a teasing game of manipulation.

Unfortunately, Adams doesn’t have any tips on how to turn this situation around: only that it is basically impossible to win these arguments when everyone is sat around eating meat, and therefore better not to engage.

Because I am a former English Lit student, I also thoroughly enjoyed the vegetarian analysis of Frankenstein. Because I like work which uncovers bias in traditional histories, I enjoyed Adams’ sketch of vegetarianism in women’s history and feminist history.

I was particularly struck by the case of the “chlorotic girls” of the late 19th century. Adams suggests that girls’ decisions not to eat meat were medicalised. They were diagnosed which ‘chlorosis’ (a type of anemia), and suspected fear of their own sexuality, erasing what could easily have been a reasoned choice in favour of vegetarianism.

It is also interesting to read how 19th century women “saw vegetarianism as liberating them from cooking fatty foods and labouring over a hot stoke”, and, because it was seen as a healthier choice, liberating them from the job of looking after men and children made sick from a poor diet as well.

The book tackles the controversial figure of Sylvester Graham – his legacy is an odd one, because he popularised vegetarianism (or ‘Grahamism’), but he had a dodgy theory about men abstaining from meat in order to quell their libido. From a modern perspective, in particular, this is silly – of course, it has no such effect, although the constant framing of meat as somehow “manly” or “macho” would suggest that some hang on to this belief. However, Adams explains why in the context of the time, in the absence of reliable contraception, and when many women were constantly pregnant as a result, this was an ineffectual but ultimately feminist attitude:

Grahamism offered a promise of liberation and implied that control of sexuality could be placed in women’s hands. Not only did many vegetarian leaders endorse birth control and abortion; some also advocated that women had a right to enjoy sex.

Hardly a revolutionary thought these days, but important in the context of the 19th century.

Looking at a more modern times, Adams makes some interesting points about how meat eating is equated with, and connected to, masculinity. And she also tackles what you might call the PETA issue – why it is wildly offensive to use women’s exploitation to make a point about animal rights. More controversially, perhaps, she argues out that it is wrong to “appropriate” the suffering of animals to describe violence towards women (saying “she was butchered” for example). “In constructing stories about violence against women, feminists have drawn on the same set of cultural images as their oppressors.” – An argument that Adams illustrates with a lengthy description of some of the many ways that misogynist images hinge on describing women as meat:

Images of butchering suffuse patriarchal culture. A steakhouse in New Jersey was called ‘Adams Rib’. Who do they think they were eating? The Hustler, prior to its incarnation as a pornographic magazine, was a Cleveland restaurant whose menu presented a woman’s buttocks on the cover and proclaimed, “We serve the best meat in town!” Who? A woman is shown being ground up in a meat grinder as Hustler magazine proclaims: “Last all meat issue”. Women’s buttocks are stamped as ‘Choice Cuts’ on an album cover…

However convincing you find all this, the book is certainly an interesting read for vegetarians out there.

Comments From You

figleaf // Posted 4 May 2008 at 3:03 am

Just one quibble: “Grahamism offered a promise of liberation and implied that control of sexuality could be placed in women’s hands.”

While I think vegetarianism is wonderful (even though I no longer practice it.) I also really appreciate the whole-grains movement that began in very large part thanks to Sylvester Graham.

But I’m also very sure his admonitions to women to restrain their own sexual urges in order to provide semen-conserving health benefits to their husbands were absolutely not what we’d consider progressive. He a) blamed women’s sexual desire for their husband’s poor health, b) argued sex should be only for procreation… if at all, c) made men’s health women’s responsibility. Oh yeah, and d) he was *way* more concerned about men’s health (specifically about curbing all the illness, madness, and early death caused by “ejaculating even 10 times per year”) than by anything to do with women’s health.

Some interesting reading along these lines would be “The History of Celibacy” by Elizabeth Abbott, out of Canada, and the historical novel “The Road to Wellville” by the American T. Coraghessan Boyle.

But again, this is *nothing* to do with vegetarianism which besides being an excellent idea isn’t, I don’t think, as women-only as popular culture seems to believe.


InnerBrat // Posted 4 May 2008 at 9:56 am

I’ve never considered my vegetarianism to be a feminist decision, though it could easily have been born from the same moral grounding that made me a feminist – and an anti-racist, and an anti-homophobe. I notice among my friends that the vegetarians tend to be feminists as well.

But I find myself nodding along to this entry a lot – particularly in the sense that so often when someone new discovers I’m a vegetarian, they try to make an argument out of it. And these would also be the people most likely to use meat-related misogynist terms, or to link meat-eating with machismo – the big game hunter ideal or the pride in being “top of the food chain”.

I may not have linked vegetarianism to feminism, but I’ve seen a lot of – shall we say “anti-vegetarians” link eating meat to a glorious male ideal.

Jess McCabe // Posted 4 May 2008 at 11:34 am

Indeed, I must admit to knowing little about Grahamism except what I’ve read here, figleaf…

Chloe // Posted 4 May 2008 at 1:05 pm

I’m vegan, and I often get asked what I eat. As if all the food on the planet is made up of meat and dairy. I’ve never been challenged by meat eaters while eating, but I’ve been challenged quite aggressively (mostly by male friends) in the past.

I’ve been thinking about reading this book for some time, looks like I’ll have to buy it :]

anna rannva // Posted 4 May 2008 at 2:04 pm

ive been veggie for ages, and since ive lived in england its been great, this country has great choice of good quality food for vegetarians. in my small scandinavian country most of the vegetables are imported so are half rotten by the time they arrive in the supermarkets, so, not a great thing, and most people dont care because almost everyone eats meat. so, being veggie is not easy over there, my diet consists of potatoes and pasta when i go over there as theres not much else on offer/being cooked by relatives. and like others have experienced,i keep being challenged on this choice of mine, which is annoying, i dont question them eating meat, so why should they make me out like a freak even though i dont eat meat,mostly by men. ive so gotta read this book!

Lauren O // Posted 4 May 2008 at 2:56 pm

I don’t know that I buy that whole “exploiting animals is like exploiting women” thing, but I’m not going to actively argue against it, as I am all for both vegetarianism and feminism.

I am convinced by other arguments that connect feminism to vegetarianism, though, some of which have been mentioned here. I definitely see the link between eating meat and being thought manly, and I am not a fan of those PETA campaigns.

Shea // Posted 4 May 2008 at 7:49 pm

A fascinating post. I really will have to read the book. I was vegetarian, (well technically pescatarian, as I ate fish) and found it to be healthier, though since getting married I have had to give it up as said husband “cannot live without meat” (I know, I know —it’s lame). He is South American and his family were absolutely horrified at the thought of anyone not eating meat, it was a real macho thing there too.

I think one of the best arguments for being a veggie is the sustainability argument too, which links to feminism. It takes 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef, and substantially more land than it would to produce the same amount of vegetables. If we are to produce enough food to feed the burgeoning world population, without massive deforestation then we will have to start switching to vegetarianism and reducing meat consumption.

On that note I think I will take Gandhi’s advice and try to be the change I want to see in the world. Out with the meat products!

p.s Also the toxicity argument, just got back from a seminar on it- being top of the food chain means that we consume much more of the heavy metals and pesticides, such as DVT than herbivores as they build up in fatty tissues along the food chain. Yuck!

Megan VanGroll // Posted 25 May 2008 at 10:52 pm


Great article.

The link to my website is broken – so to view more of my work, readers can direct their browsers here:



george // Posted 26 May 2008 at 11:48 am

I read this book a couple of years back when I first went vegan. i definately recommend it! hard going, but summed up nicely there, thanks!

brunettegirl92 // Posted 16 June 2011 at 4:02 am

i really need to read that book! i personally get a lot of critisism for my vegetarianism, and get a lot of wierd looks through narrowed eyes as someone asks me ‘why are you vegetarian?’ as if it is something rather kooky and offensive to them. people act as if it is something irrational, confronting me with such arguements as; humans are supposed to eat meat, what do you actually eat? as if meat was the sole source of sustenance, and my personal favorite ‘jesus ate meat’ (I’m a christian), then the entire table joins in to have a fun pick. by the end of the ordeal i feel rather like the unpopular kid at school. anyway, i do see the arguement presented. the idea that a living thing, whether it be animal or woman is often degraded to the status of an object purely for male consumption and pleasure. the animal becomes meat on his plate for literal consumption, and ironically the other living object cooks it for him. the woman becomes a sexual object for the man’s pleasure and is metaphorically consumed, enslaved. as cattle are paraded in the cattle ring, bid for by meat companies, their bodies being observed for what will make good cuts of meat, women are paraded in pornography or strip clubs, like animals their breasts being checked for size and backsides being glanced at for shape, for what will be most appealing to the man and the ‘tastiest’ meal.

however, to be fair to the male gender, not all are like this. my male friends (some vegetarians themselves) do not see women as objects. xxx

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