Women Who Eat Meat

Women are taking butchery classes and embracing the new compassionate meat-eating ethos. Will a new study showing the health risks of red meat for women send us scurrying back to the salad bar?

04.02.09 6:12 AM ET

First it was the wine, now it’s the steak that goes with it. It seems like every week, women get new warnings that our favorite delectables will be the death of us.

The recent news from the Archives of Internal Medicine that pigging out on red meat is bad for you comes as no surprise—scientists have long known that eating saturated fat is a recipe for clogged arteries, and that the chemicals used in processing meats may give you cancer. But because of the study’s whopping size—involving half a million Americans over age 50—and its stark conclusions about the risks of eating red meat if you’re female, will this study slam the brakes on a burgeoning renaissance of meat-eating among women?

I remember those dark days of the women’s movement in the early ’80s, when I was convinced that in order to prove my mettle as a feminist, I also had to become a lesbian or a vegetarian, or both.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that middle-aged and elderly people who ate about a quarter-pound of red meat a day (including pork) were 30 percent more likely to die in the ten years they were followed than those who had the daily equivalent of a couple of slices of prosciutto (hopefully wrapped around some nice figs). The news was worse for meat-loving women than for men. While both women and men with quarter-pounder habits (less than the USDA daily recommendation, by the way) had similarly increased risks for cancer—20 percent and 22 percent, respectively—the women had almost double their normal risk of dying of heart disease, 50 percent, compared with a 27 percent increase for men. “It was a significant difference for women,” said Rashmi Sinha, PhD, the lead investigator (who still eats meat, “but not too much.”).

Despite the take-home message that eating a little red meat now and then is OK, many people who read the study came away with a renewed conviction that All Meat is Evil. Vegetarian bloggers everywhere licked their chops, and the Cattlemen’s Association went cowering.

Ironically, the warnings about the increased risks of meat-eating for women come at a time when a lot of women are just getting into meat, not only for foolish weight-loss reasons (the study will hopefully be the death-knell of diets like Atkins), but culinary and philosophical ones. More women are defiantly challenging the equation that meat equals masculinity, an insulting residual from our patriarchal forebears—who served women the scraps after they’d had their fill, thereby pissing us off for millennia—and from the feminists who criticized the whole notion of meat-eating as an act of masculine violence. Today, while women still eat less meat than men, their enjoyment of it, at least, is growing, and it would be a shame if this study reversed the trend of ladies lunching on a nice rack of lamb.

“There’s a backlash to the idea that the grill is a manly domain,” says Amy Standen of the Meatpaper quarterly, who, with her co-editor Sasha Wizansky, coined the term fleischgeist to describe the new culinary consciousness of meat. “Delicate women have never been supposed to tuck into a huge steak. So there’s something gross, sloppy, fattening, and uncouth about big hunks of meat that make [eating meat] appealing in a perverse way for a lot of women.”

Still, the old notion that meat is masculine remains internalized for many women. We suffer the tyranny of veggie plates when we’re hankering for something with charbroiled substance. A transgendered friend of mine says one of the few things that annoys her about being a woman is that when she orders a salad and Diet Coke, a little voice inside her is calling out for the baby-back ribs and a beer. That voice isn’t gendered; it’s the omnivore in all of us.

So it’s fun, and a bit transgressive, for women to really enjoy a big, juicy steak. Last year, when a gal friend of mine was on a crazy diet (the Blood Type diet, which apparently demands that you consume a lot of blood), she frequently invited me over for steak, grilled rare. We’d eat it with our hands, juices dripping, in a way we’d never eat in front of any man except one we were having sex with.

This happy, hearty meat-eating is a fresh rejoinder to a strain of puritanical feminism that equated meat with patriarchy. You can read Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, which explains, among other things, the “double exploitation of feminized protein,” i.e. animals that give milk or eggs before ending up on the table themselves—but I don’t necessarily recommend it, at least not before dinner. Feminist-vegetarian theory seems to hold that women have a corner on compassion—and we don’t even get to eat meat as a reward!

I remember those dark days of the women’s movement in the early ‘80s, when I was convinced that in order to prove my mettle as a feminist, I not only had to stop shaving under my armpits, I also had to become a lesbian or a vegetarian, or both. For better or worse, I chose men over meat, and suffered, for 15 years, whenever I smelled bacon or barbecue. Being a vegetarian made me feel more demonstrably peace-loving and morally superior, and perhaps contributed to my stunningly low cholesterol levels (which persist even as an omnivore), but it did not make me feel satisfied the way pulled pork smothered in Oaxacan chile sauce does.

While there are still twice as many women vegetarians as men, the women of the new fleischgeist say you can be conscious about meat—how it will affect your health, how it was raised, the environmental costs of your burger—and still enjoy eating it. “Maybe it’s a reaction to a passé view of meat and women, but there are several new artisan, high-quality butcher shops all run by women,” says Standen, who was a vegetarian herself until she recently got pregnant. “It’s about having an honest view of where your meat comes from, embracing it, and being conscious of how the animals are treated and slaughtered. It’s a thoughtful”—one might say, more feminine—“relationship to meat.”

Tia Harrison, a butcher and the owner, with two other women, of Avedano’s, an old-fashioned butcher shop in San Francisco, says more female chefs and cooks are getting into butchery because they’re interested in where their food is coming from. “We’re paying attention to whole foods on every level—how the animal was raised, how it was slaughtered, how it was treated while it lived,” Harrison says. “People want to be more self-sufficient with their food.”

Women’s new interest in meat and the warnings against eating too much of it may not be contradictory. Having a more developed and realistic consciousness about where meat comes from probably means you end up eating less of it. That’s better for your health, the health of the environment, and the animals we’re eating. Sustainable, humanely raised meat is more expensive; as in traditional cultures, where an animal was slaughtered rarely, meat becomes a treat in this way. It’s a pleasure, but in small quantities, it doesn’t have to be a guilty one.

And in any case, if you do eat steak, have it with red wine. It cuts down on the risk of cardiovascular disease, and doubles the deliciousness.

San Francisco-based writer Laura Fraser is the author of the best-selling travel memoir An Italian Affair, and the upcoming sequel All Over the Map. She is a contributing editor at More, and last year won the International Association of Culinary Professionals Bert Greene Award for Essay Writing.