It’s no secret that, for years, women worldwide have been made to feel unworthy by terms like “beach body” and “summer body”. Huge marketing campaigns have been pulled for promoting the insidious idea that certain bodies are “ready” to be displayed and others aren’t. Incidentally, these are often ads for products like detox teas, diet supplements and gym memberships. Essentially, companies often use the term “beach body” to profit from low self-esteem.
On the other hand, social media has become the home of a new conversation and a new movement that celebrates bodies of all size, shape, ability and colour – under the hashtag #bodypositivity, or #bopo for short. At the core of the body-positivity ethos is a message of acceptance: no one should be made to feel ashamed of their body but rather encouraged to accept and flaunt their form, regardless of whether or not it meets the rigid standards of “perfection” our society has fabricated.
Many people claim body positivity promotes obesity. This is bullshit. It has been proven that weight and physical health are not as closely linked as many may believe. Besides, the body-positivity movement does not technically favour any body type. The reason that plus-size bodies are featured more often is simple – there is little to no positive representation of these bodies in the media. Fatphobia and body-shaming are often excused by the suggestion that the abuser is simply thinking of the other person’s health. That needs to stop.
The body-positive conversation, for all its importance, does need to extend, however. Several body-positive platforms are spotlighting diverse beauties of all sizes, but the discussion rarely expands to incorporate men. And when it does, it’s far from perfect.
IMG Models last year seemed to break new ground by signing Zach Miko, the first in a newly formed male plus-size division. However, the company chose to label this division "Brawn", a descriptor as rooted in masculinity as it is body type. The message was unintentional but clear – men can be plus-size and attractive, but only if they can be considered desirably masculine. Furthermore, Miko is still the only man on the roster.
There are other alternatives to be found in CURVE Model Management, a Hamburg-based agency which currently has 35 male models on its books. “My colleague and I observed a growing trend in plus-size models and decided to start CURVE in 2011,” explains Mona Schulze, one of the cofounders. “It is our goal to see plus-size models on the catwalk at fashion week without the size being the main focus. Fashion should be the main focus!”
The agency experienced huge success last year when one of its models, Scott Bayliss, was chosen as a face of ASOS’ new male plus-size collection. It may have taken years for a male plus-size equivalent to the women’s plus-size pages to come along, but it marks a necessary step forward. Schulze agrees: “The amount of clients asking for plus-size models is changing and constantly growing for male and female models. I think this is a sign that we are definitely going in the right direction.”
It’s understandable that the #bopo conversation had to start with women – after all, women face increased scrutiny, media objectification and exposure to crippling beauty standards. Generally speaking, women's bodies, whatever size they may be, are more heavily policed than men's. However, this is not to say that men don’t have insecurities or need to see themselves represented.
Men are constantly trapped by the invisible yet extremely relevant margins of masculinity – to admit weakness, discuss self-image or confess insecurity is an act of vulnerability, which men are not traditionally supposed to display. This may seem a generalisation, especially when we consider the rise of the “metrosexual”, but those trappings still exist, especially outside of big cities. This goes a long way towards explaining why the biggest killer of men under 45 is suicide.
One man doing his bit to progress the conversation around male body image is Kelvin Davis, a plus-size blogger and moderator of Instagram account effyourbeautystandards. Not only is he using social media to discuss his insecurities, he is a plus-size male model in his own right and will this year release his first book all about poise, manners and body confidence. “I still cannot figure out why the body-positivity movement is so low for males,” he admits. “I think for it to move faster we need more men to start speaking up against the fashion industry’s unrealistic male beauty standards in the same way that women are doing now.”
Davis agrees that the rarely critiqued standards of masculinity are to blame for a lack of discussion: “Men aren’t supposed to be emotional or vulnerable, especially when it comes to how they look. We are encouraged to just ‘suck it up’ and keep it moving. I don’t think that is mentally healthy at all.” He also discusses the "summer body" rhetoric which encourages us all to think our bodies are worthy of display only if they meet certain criteria. “I think it’s a weak-ass marketing term to be honest,” he says. “When I see things like ‘Get your summer body ready’, I just keep scrolling.”
Instead, Davis champions a message of self-acceptance: “To me, [brands and marketers] are trying to sell you some unrealistic standard of what a body is when, in actuality, your body is great the way it is. As long as you love yourself and have confidence, I think you won’t be fooled by that term ‘summer body’.” Davis does, however, acknowledge that certain brands are reclaiming the term, using it to support every body type: “It’s a great way to take a term that people often see as being negative and changing it into something positive and inclusive.”
Troy Solomon – aka abearnamedtroy – also believes in the power of social media to spark change. Last year, Solomon launched #BearItAll, a campaign designed to get everybody – regardless of age, race, gender or sexuality – to discuss their hang-ups. “I wanted to create a safe space for people to learn that there is immense power in embracing insecurities,” Solomon says. “By acknowledging an insecurity, you’re learning to accept it as part of you and, in turn, taking one step towards claiming power over that insecurity rather than being powerless to it.”
He continues: “Over time, Bear It All has morphed from a separate initiative into just a part of what I try to emulate on a daily basis through my words, actions and posts. It’s no longer this private movement, it’s me and all that I stand for and try to promote in the world. I still like to use the hashtag and I love seeing other people use it, but I think it’s more effective as a mindset than a movement.”
The fashion industry may occasionally embrace body positivity, but it’s necessary to look at the lack of plus-size male models and examine exactly what message this sends. We see that the desirable aesthetic is thin, toned and usually white. We see that, whenever models do appear to break this norm, they are muscular – strong, solid, "brawny". The language needs to change, and the representation to broaden. We need to see images of plus-size men which aren’t rooted in masculinity, as well as trans, non-binary and femme representation.
“Having a negative body image isn’t something that people are born with,” explains Solomon, “it’s a learned behaviour. The body-positivity movement is helping people unlearn that behaviour. It’s transforming the negativity that swirls around in people’s heads, making them feel like they’re not good enough, into positive thoughts that uplift people and make them feel they can do and wear what they want.”
The truth is plain and simple. Brands make money by selling things; modelling agencies are complicit. Some brands and modelling agencies are slowly working to tackle the problem, yes. But in the meantime, the best example of progress can be found on social media. As Solomon points out, it’s the people behind the body-positivity movement that need to be highlighted – people like Solomon, Davis and the various other personalities behind accounts like effyourbeautystandards and theconfidencecorner.
The body-positive conversation must engage men not only because diverse representation should, by now, be embedded in the fashion, beauty and marketing industries and it isn’t. It must engage men because there’s a wider problem: many men are still reluctant to admit weakness or talk about the way they look. These discussions could be a catalyst to change the way we think about masculinity overall – because we all deserve to feel good about our bodies.