Welcome to Issue 44.1 of Digestable, your daily mouthful of real things happening in the world, minus alarmist pandemic news.
Today’s news, fermented:
Monday! Amazon workers in Alabama are making moves on a unionization vote.
And there’s a lot of good whale birth going on.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Since toxic white masculinity is still shaping the nation, I’m going to revisit the Nitrogen Cycle from a few months ago with some words about the most controversial of all beans: the soybean.
I took an environmental ethics class in undergrad from a discombobulated wrinkly-shirted prof with some slightly unhinged teaching methods. His classes were seen as easy A’s since students were able to choose their own grade and readings were mostly optional as his lectures were made up of silly tangents unrelated to any assigned readings. I’m all for unconventional teaching methods and self-directed learning, but with how competitive tenured university positions are, I can’t disentangle this semi-successful experimental teaching style with the privilege of being a white man - especially at a college that has only elevated three women of color to the rank of full professor.
This all came to a head when, in a lecture supposedly about animal ethics, the aforementioned professor asked the class why they think “women” are more likely to be vegetarian than “men.” Brainy dudes love to ask this question, the ethics prof actually asked it two different times during the term. I also had another prof ask it in a lecture on Brazillian history this past term as well, provoking an anecdote from a fellow student about how difficult it is for him to be a heterosexual male vegetarian and to have waiters give him the wrong plate when he’s at a restaurant with a non-vegetarian woman. To me, it’s obviously the result of socialization - that women learn empathy while men are taught competition and domination. But for cis-dudes who have never been asked to interrogate their own beliefs or behaviors, it becomes this mythical question: what is it about women that makes them prone to vegetarianism?
In the ethics class, one of the jocks in the back row tried to formulate an answer. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact that women’s bodies are better at processing the estrogen in soy.” As a Big Queer Nerd™ sitting in the front row, I was already infuriated by the question itself, but the answer that vegetarianism = soy = estrogen = women sent me into a seething rage that continues to smoulder in my gut microbiome this very day.
One more anecdote before we dig into it: It’s 2018 and I’m at a Rockefeller-owned farm in the Hudson Valley. I had had a lovely time so far, slept in a big bed and pooped in their indoor composting toilet (another Rockefeller venture), toured their on-farm mill and bakery, and later we were to visit a beautiful dairy/wedding venue - also pioneered by the oiliest of oil families. The farmer was taking my coworkers and I through their grain fields - heritage wheat and barley varieties interseeded with tallgrass prairie and given long rotations with soy (to fix nitrogen remember) and fallow prairie to rebuild organic matter. Truly a dream.
We were just finishing up at the grain silos where barley and soy was stored as feed grain when my gowanus-mom coworker, god bless, asked about giving her kids tofu. Apparently she had heard something about it not being good for them. The farmer, and this is a person who is deeply invested in regenerative agriculture and sustainable foodways, responds by saying that though he sells soy as feed to animals he would never give his kids unfermented soy, only fermented products like tempeh, because “the estrogen will mess with their hormones.”
Folks, listen to me when I say this: eating soy is not going to influence your hormones. Men are so afraid they’re going to grow boobs or that their balls are going to fall off and it’s just not going to happen. If eating soy was going to significantly influence your hormone levels we wouldn’t have trans folks fighting for the legalization and legitimization of hormone therapies - you could just switch up your diet.
The science behind the fear is that soy and its derivatives contain “phytoestrogen,” a plant hormone that is similar but not the same as estrogen. Animal hormone receptors can pick up and respond to phytoestrogens, but not always in the same way as estrogen, and the studies that strike fear into men’s hearts are mostly ones conducted on lab rats where they are fed diets consisting entirely of soy or have derivative phytoestrogens injected into them. These studies tell us important things about dietary hormone uptake, but to extrapolate them to the tofu in your fridge is not how science works. Also, jokes on you farmer guy because fermented soy products are actually higher in phytoestrogens.
Rats are not humans, and if we should take away any dietary advice from these studies, it's that if you only eat one thing all the time, you’re going to have problems. Maybe these studies could even prompt us to rethink the diets fed to animals in CAFOs, just a thought.
This white masculine insecurity is also pervasive in conservative internet circles, where emasculated men (read: anyone outside the proudboy-white-nationalist-meninist ecosystem) is referred to as a “soy boy” - inferring to the fact that they’ve been feminized by their soymilk flat white (see also: the rise of almond milk, oat milk, and whey protein supplements). Not only is this fear of soy rooted in sexism and transphobia, it also reflects the racist portrayal of asian men as feminine and impotent. Soy cannot be bad for you if it’s been a dietary staple for a kabillion years - unless the people for whom soy is a staple are themselves seen as backward and emasculated.
This complex of sexualized and racialized attitudes form the dietary requirements of masculinity. Vegetarianism = soy = Asia = emasculation = estrogen = women. The framing of the question “why are more women than men vegetarian” and men’s attempts to answer it, reveals the real answer and the real question:
Why are men less likely to be vegetarian? Because they are afraid. They’re afraid of excommunication from the boys club, of acknowledging privilege, of giving up the only way they’ve ever learned to move through the world.
So reject masculinity and eat soy with wild abandon (unless you’re allergic)! Feel the phytoestrogens coursing through your blood infusing you with feminine energy! Not only does the plant play an important role in agroecosystems it has one of the best coefficients of digestion (more of it is nutritionally available) of any food meaning that if you’re looking for protein, soy is better than meat. Take that, men.
Back tomorrow from the superb Latifah Azlan.