It’s thought that the term “soy boy” first emerged from the depths of the far-right internet in 2017. Broadly, it is meant as an insult to men perceived to be too feminine due to their liberal beliefs, such as vegans. It has been adopted by climate denial groups such as The Heartland Institute in the US. It was used by a man in a threatening email to his MP, Tory health minister Will Quince, in 2022.
Some vegans are taking the meanness out of the term by proclaiming themselves to be soy boys. A vegan burger restaurant in Toronto, Canada, is called Soy Boys, as the owner decided he might as well “just own” the term. The restaurant is so popular that he now sells merchandise with Soy Boys branding.
Here we dive into the origins of the term, what it has to do with choosing not to consume animals, and why it’s misogynistic and speciesist.
Soy and estrogen
Soy contains isoflavones, plant-based compounds that mimic the activity of estrogen. Based on this, there has long been a myth that consuming soy increases estrogen production in men. This supposedly leads them to develop more feminine physical characteristics such as breasts. But there is little actual evidence that consuming soy will make men more feminine.
Nonetheless, the notion has taken root among certain online groups. Those that obsess over their masculinity and fear any association with femininity. Soy boy may first have appeared on 4Chan, a message board site favoured by the alt-right and the misogynistic incel community.
Eating soy is associated with veganism in the west (its consumption is widespread in parts of Asia). Additionally, veganism fits within a liberal worldview. For these reasons, soy boy is often used as an insult for vegan men, who the alt-right view as feminine.
Meat and masculinity
Real men eat meat. This trope is everywhere, from meat marketing to right-wing capitalist ideologies peddled by figures such as Jordan Peterson. It’s so ingrained in our cultural psyche that men will often eat more meat to make themselves feel better when their masculinity is threatened. Add to this the fact that more vegans are female than male, and the association between veganism and femininity grows stronger.
In this context, refusing to eat meat is viewed by some as being unmasculine, since it threatens gender norms. People who get called soy boys aren’t always vegan. But they are supposedly physically weak and submissive, and champion leftist causes such as feminism and social justice.
Some vegan men may laugh off such insults, while others seek to upend such stereotypes. There is no shortage of “vegan bros” using social media to show how muscly and strong they have become on vegan diets.
But the negatives stereotypes and insults like soy boy can put men off veganism. “Men’s concerns about perceived masculinity and anti-vegan backlash might present a serious barrier to moving towards a plant-based diet,” write psychologists Alina Salmen and Kristof Dhont. “This is in line with decades of research that indicates that men often go to great lengths to protect their precarious manhood.”
Misogyny and speciesism
Soy boy is of course not only meant as an insult to men; it also derides women and perpetuates speciesism.
Women are considered inferior among the alt-right groups who champion the toxic masculinity behind the soy boy insult. Misogyny and other forms of prejudice including racism share psychological underpinnings with speciesism. These include the endorsement of hierarchies and the rationalization of social status quo.
Meanwhile, other psychological studies show that men are more likely to use speciesism as an excuse for eating meat. This includes believing humans are the top of the food chain.
Calling someone a soy boy thus has these further implications that women are inferior and animals are food.