The narratives of meat

Diet is a very emotive subject, so let me be clear – this is not a blog post about food choices, this is a post about the stories we tell around our food choices. It’s about a set of perceptions that are so normalised, so taken for granted that we might not even notice them. We tell stories about what it means to eat meat, and those have a powerful effect on us, even though we have more up to date stories that suggest high meat consumption isn’t good for your body or for the planet.

Meat is high status food. It costs more to produce, and always has, so we can go all the way back to the Celts and the hero’s portion at feasts. At any period in history, the poor have tended to eat little or no meat while the rich have eaten a lot more of it. Meat equates to wealth, meat consumption equates to wealth. Eating meat is part of the story our culture tells itself about what it means to be wealthy. It is feasts with whole roast swans, still with their feathers on, or Henry the 8th throwing bones over his shoulder for dogs to pick up.

Meat is seen as macho – red meat especially. So eating red meat is to be seen as masculine. To not eat meat is often seen as effeminate. Meat consumption is associated with sexually powerful heterosexual masculinity. It’s also associated with muscle building and physical strength, even though you can do that with any kind of decent protein sources. I think some of this has to do with the way our feudal history has constructed both masculinity and hierarchy. We’re back to that Henry the 8th image again.

Part of that macho red meat narrative taps in to ideas of man the hunter. Now, most men are not hunting down wild cows in order to get their steaks, but even so, there’s an emotional association that suggests to people that if they are eating red meat, they are the sort of person who could have hunted it. It’s an emotional effect that links feelings of power, competence and mastery with the consumption of meat, perhaps especially potent when the person in question has done nothing to earn those feelings.

How we feel about something often has more impact on us than logic or evidence. What we eat is part of our sense of self. The stories we tell ourselves about what our food means reinforces our food choices. The stories around eating meat are stories of strength and power, of dominance, and importance. I suspect that the less actual power you have, the more affecting those stories are.

Vegetarians and vegans tell stories about being healthy, living kindly and having less impact on the planet. There’s a different kind of power here, it’s about the power to make change rather than power over other beings. These are stories that help a person feel kind and virtuous, and worthy – all of which is also very attractive.

I find it interesting the way ideas of what is ‘natural’ enters these stories as well. As far as I can make out, everyone views their food choice as natural, but does not necessarily think everyone else’s food choices are also natural. Everyone thinks their own food choices are good and appropriate, but may well not hold the same beliefs about other people’s food choices. Food choices that supposedly make you powerful can result in some very fragile and defensive behaviour. Food choices that supposedly make you kind can result in some pretty aggressive and unkind behaviour. Our food stories can divide us into tribal groups, feeling conflict with those whose stories are different.

While we stay focused on the stories and the emotions, we aren’t looking properly at the science, the evidence and the climate impact of how we live.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

10 responses to “The narratives of meat

  • Nicholas Isabella

    Nimue,I thank you for putting all this into perspective, and I agree with you in full! The red meat eaters are doing indirect damage to our Mother Earth, those who raise and slaughter meat for our tables only care about the bottom line, not about what it is doing to our health or our environment. I wish more people would understand this.Nick

    • Nimue Brown

      I think that’s absolutely true of factory farming, which does seem to be taking over. I think older models of farming, with lower levels of animal consumption make a lot more sense, and it does also depend on whether where you live will support the growing of plant matter humans can eat – some places, you really do have to put that plant matter through a goat first. So, it’s complicated, but we are a long way from getting things right.

      • Becky

        Usually the only reason we need to put plant matter through another animal is because we’ve done something to the environment in the first place – usually having cut down all the trees, only allowed ruminants to graze there then claim that’s all that you can do with the land… You’re right though, it’s super complicated.
        The problem with grass-fed animals, is that environmentally speaking it is much less eco-friendly that factory farming, due to many factors including methane release from animals and longer lives they live and so on. Yet it’s clear that factory farming is inhumane…. I believe in this time of dire need to redress the balance, abstention is the sensible option.

      • Nimue Brown

        I can#’t point at any science here, but my impression was the reverse and that grass fed livestock produce less methane. But then the issue is quantity, and it is clear that for old-style farming to be viable, we need to collectively eat far,f ar less meat than we do. Radical reduction has to happen – and that’s easier to achieve if more of us move away from meat eating altogether.

      • Becky

        It’s complex: I believe the cows produce more methane themselves as they are eating fresh grass all day, which due to high cellulose content is harder to digest. There is some carbon sequestering in the ground but this is offset by the farting (!) and the often longer life-span of free range organic cattle. The problem is also one of cost to the consumer: it’s way more expensive to produce meat this way, so it then risks making meat a luxury again, which makes it elitist. To fulfill demand you would need to extend grazing areas (deforestation) which endangers indigenous wildlife/ecosystems – there are so many ways in which it doesn’t make sense.
        There will of course be different factors according to local/environmental circumstances and my view is generalised based on the idea that I think it’s inhumane to kill cows!

  • Becky

    Very interesting thoughts on the stories we tell ourselves. It’s amazing how powerful the man/meat message still is, isn’t it? And much of this is based on the over-inflated view of ‘man the hunter’, where not only is it likely that we hunted far fewer animals than we are said to have done (foraging would have made up the bulk of our diets), but it’s not unlikely that women may have joined the hunt too… The stories we are given were written largely by men!
    I am new to Druidry and on one hand am surprised at the fact that it seems that most Druids are not veggie/vegan (does anyone have stats on this?), but on the other, not surprised because of our love of story, and much of these include hunting! We need to adapt to the changing planet and whilst meat eating was definitely in our past, I do not believe it is in our future. And part of that is about respecting the plant and animal spirits: all of whom suffer because of our appetite for flesh!

  • Rick

    The biggest,strongest and oldest living thing’s on this planet don’t eat meat and only do when a correct source of complete proteins are not available during a period of time and place. The tragic story about meat consumption today is the possibility of PRION disease and the methods of contamination. The world health organizations have suppressed this information in support of the multi billion dollar meat industries. Then there are the viral diseases, and additives that meat contains. Macho like ‘CAVE MAN’ smart like under taker

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