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What the Personal Beauty Industry Can Teach Us About Men’s Diets

Organic Valley's 2015 "Save the Bros" campaign poked fun at "manlier" men who explored their softer side by living a more conscious lifestyle. | Image credit: Organic Valley via YouTube

As a teenager growing up in England in the 1990s, so-called lads’ mags were all the rage. Back then, these kinds of magazines ruled the newsstands, promulgating a kind of macho boyhood that was rough and rowdy. They set a cultural expectation for young English men that rolled well into the 2000s. And then, one by one, those magazines went out of business as readers moved online and their media preferences changed.

Other things in British men’s lives have changed, too.

It wasn’t that long ago that the average Joe would tell you that using grooming products beyond hair gel and shaving supplies was flat-out taboo. But in recent years, male shoppers have increasingly turned to buying moisturizers, anti-aging creams and a host of other personal toiletries -- to the point that the market for male grooming products is projected to be worth $19.5 billion in 2016. Sales of grooming products on one men’s retail website increased 300 percent in 2015 alone.

Companies selling grooming products have a deep understanding of the male consumer, and have used that knowledge to identify cues that reduce feelings of emasculation and may even help men feel more masculine when shopping for lotions and other items long seen as women’s products. Products such as “Facial Fuel” and “Urban Camouflage Concealer” are designed to readily appeal to the male consumer, emphasizing health and confidence as key benefits. Many are packaged in grey or black containers – even resembling cigar or liquor packaging -- with bold typeface and few decorations. When sold in-store, companies maximize awareness by positioning the products in the men’s section next to other accessories such as belts.

In short, companies and stores have realized ways to successfully introduce new grooming products to men, and many men have willingly adopted them. Gone are the days of one-size-fits all manhood, it seems. Even Axe, the body spray company that first made a name for itself with racy ads, has changed its tune, its advertising instead playing to the many different kinds of masculinity men are increasingly expressing.

As someone who works to help more people adopt plant-based diets that are better for the environment, I’m struck by these kinds of changes in men’s consumption - why should we think that other highly gendered consumption patterns can’t also shift?

Of all demographic groups, women and millennials are most likely to follow a plant-based diet. The UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey has found that men eat an incredible 47 percent more meat than women. This gender gap in part can be explained by the host of unique barriers men experience on their way to shifting their diets toward plant-based foods.

On one hand, men perceive plant-based foods differently from women. Consumer studies show that men are more likely to believe that plant-based diets are not nutritious or tasty and that these foods don’t provide enough energy. Men are also more likely than women to believe that humans are designed to eat a lot of meat and that meals without meat are not real meals.

If men’s perception of plant-based foods is one barrier, another is their desired perception of themselves. Researchers have found that what we eat is wrapped up with the subtle cues we give to the world about ourselves. On a sub-conscious level, we make food choices, at least in part, based on how those decisions will affect our public image.

For example, people who eat healthy foods are seen as responsible, but those who eat pastries and pies might be interpreted as fun and easy-going. And if you want to be seen as a “real” man? The research shows that you eat red meat, and lots of it.

Both men and women associate red meat with strength and masculinity. One study found that vegetarian men are perceived as up to 35 percent less masculine than men who follow omnivorous diets. Another study echoed these insights, finding that men who eat a beef-heavy diet are perceived as 20 percent more masculine and 30 percent less feminine than vegetarian men. Eating meat, it seems, is one way that men affirm their masculinity.

All in all, these preconceived notions pose a real challenge for those of us who want to see all people eat more plant-based foods. Sure, meat tastes great – but animal agriculture puts real strain on water, land and the climate. Beef generates 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than beans, for example.  Even small changes in our diets, such as swapping the beef burger for a turkey burger, can have positive impacts. The answer isn’t eating no meat at all, just less meat.

The rise in popularity of men’s grooming products is a reminder that gender norms are not fixed, and what’s considered appropriate male behavior is highly cultural and dynamic. If men can change their thinking on body spray, they can change their attitudes about meat, too.

Already, some food companies are helping redefine meat’s hold on men. Beyond Meat, for example, partners with NBA players and other athletes to endorse its plant-based foods. Impossible Foods has worked with critically acclaimed restaurants such as New York’s Momofuku Nishi to add its plant-based burgers to the menu. Because the burger looks, smells and tastes just like beef, the company hopes men will be more open to trying it.

Men seem to have a special relationship with meat, but it doesn’t mean it will last forever. Old-fashioned norms of masculinity can be challenged, and new norms developed. The Better Buying Lab is joining Eating Better and Do It Day UK to advance research and innovation on new ways to help more men balance out their diets with sustainable, plant-based foods. There’s much more to learn, but the momentum is there, and the future promising.


Written with research help from Karna Malaviya.


Daniel is a senior research fellow leading the Better Buying Lab within the World Resources Institute. He works with food companies and and experts in behaviour change and marketing to develop, test and scale new ideas that can… [Read more about Daniel Vennard]