Meat has been a marker of class and gender divisions, sparked scientific revolutions and been at the center of wars.
When was the last time you ate meat? Today? This week? Ten years ago? Never? Have you ever had a fight over meat consumption with someone, whether it was about the environmental impact or the ethics of eating animals? Are you confused by the conflicting information about the health implications of meat? Do you feel guilty for eating meat but keep doing it?
From the controversial carnivore diet to plant-based “meat” and lab-grown meat, meat is everywhere.
Many of us eat or used to eat meat – except those who were raised plant-based due to family or culture. Even those of us on a plant-based diet can still eat plant-based meat to enjoy that familiar meaty taste.
Science journalist Marta Zaraska calls this centrality of meat in diets “meat addicted.”
After all, meat is one of the oldest consumer items, with records of early humans slaughtering animals around 2.6 million years ago. And ever since, it has been part of family rituals, spiritual celebrations and social gatherings. Meat binds us but not without objections and contradictions.
How did meat become so contested? Why do we hate to love it and love to hate it?
As marketing researchers, we recently delved into the root of these contradictions and discovered that meat has been at the center of controversies around morality, ecology, gender, class and health since the 14th century. in the Global North.
Meat: At the center of the gender divide
Despite the stereotype that meat is the domain of men, the recent discovery of a female body found with hunting tools at a 9,000-year-old burial site suggests that society may be wrong in its assumptions about who hunts for food.
Yet meat is culturally shaped as a gendered product, and this is a division seen in both its production and consumption.
Gender stereotypes about hunting and butchery are prevalent in that they shape women’s career aspirations, creating a lack of representation with only a few women choosing meat-centric professions. Men are also subject to gendered expectations regarding meat consumption to maintain masculinity.
Think about meat-focused shows like Epic Meal Time and how they perpetuate hyper-masculine gender performance. This depiction helps explain why plant-based diets are considered less manly and why some men are resistant to plant-based foods.
Meat reflects who has power and money
Meat consumption, both in quantity and quality, has marked symbolic divisions between social classes since medieval times. As author Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat describes in her book food historynobles and elite ate better cuts of meat, rarer meats that we no longer consider food (like swans), and specific parts of the animal (like eyes) – until the 16th century , they were considered gastronomic delights.
On the other hand, the working class consumed lower quality meat with less variety and frequency. However, slaughterhouses and factory farming helped meat become more accessible to the masses. The quantity of meat consumed is no longer a reflection of social class, but rather its quality.
More recently, factory farming has sparked discussions around the ethics and sustainability of meat production as well as its ecological impact.
Mass production of meat destroys natural habitats and biodiversity, it exploits and objectifies both animals and workers and affects the quality of rural life.
A future that includes less meat is a sentiment shared by animal activists, governments and even the United Nations as part of their strategy towards a meatless society. But many might think that’s not a realistic goal, because, after all, we’re addicted to meat.
Rethinking a world without meat
Meat has been a marker of class and gender divisions and sparked scientific revolutions, but data shows that people don’t pass meat up.
While the ideal meatless meat is expected to look, taste and feel like meat, scientists don’t know if it can replace meat and solve our problems. And the deep-rooted cultural contradictions and conflicts associated with meat will continue to shape our contentious relationships with it, the symbols it represents, and the moral discussions surrounding it.
For these reasons, meat – and its substitutes – will continue to be loved and hated. We can imagine a future without meat, but we may not be able to escape the cultural baggage brought by the meat past.
The authors do not work for, consult, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.