The discussion about the unattainable beauty ideals of fashion models is not a new one, but one that continues to dominate the fashion conversation. The past few years, however, have seen the industry take steps toward plus-size body acceptance.
Brands are expanding their plus-size offerings like never before. There’s even ALDA, a new coalition of models co-founded by plus-size model Ashley Graham to promote “beauty and a healthy body image of the female body beyond boundaries and limitations of size.”
These are all excellent and necessary initiatives that serve to widen the narrow idea of beauty. What’s missing from this body-positive cultural shift? Men. Yes, women are held to a decidedly stricter beauty ideal and can get away with a lot less than men can when it comes to body type and shape. But when it comes to male models, the ideal remains out of reach.
The gay community, which in and of itself puts the muscled ideal on a pedestal, contains communities that appreciate and fetishize the bear and cub body types. For many gay men, these are either their bodies, or those that they are attracted to. The Internet’s love affair with the “dad bod” this year saw a (predominantly straight) response that was largely positive, celebrating the non-“perfect” body type with an air of “aren’t we just sooo counterculture?”
Yet despite this vocal interest in bodies outside society’s beauty ideal, upon researching plus-size male models and menswear bloggers I was simply greeted with articles about the lack of them in fashion. Where were the blogs or portfolios of actual plus-size men? I reached out to menswear blogger and PR man McArthur Joseph: “Do you know any plus-size male fashion bloggers you could connect me with for a piece I’m writing?”
“They don’t refer to themselves like that,” he answered. “Guys refuse to claim [the “plus-size”] title. With women, there’s a market for those who are body-positive… men aren’t looking for that voice. They’re usually never taught to be ashamed of the way they look, so as a whole, they don’t feel the need to address body positivity and diversity compared to their female counterparts.”
Plus-size men have built supportive communities by and for themselves to celebrate body positivity. Gregory Littley runs the Instagram BearWeek365, inspired by the event Bear Week Provincetown. “I didn’t think it was sufficient to only celebrate the segment of the community for just 7 days a year. I found myself not identifying with or being attracted to any gay ideals and imagery I was coming across in my social news feeds. I decided to create my own resource.”
The account was an instant hit. “At first, it was ’likes’ and comments revolving around admiration and attraction to the images I was crowdsourcing through the #BearWeek365 tag,” Littley explains. “Then it turned into a bigger movement. Men all over the world were sending me thank you’s saying that they felt better about themselves and for the first time, they were identifying with a conversation.”
“There hasn’t been a brand with the guts to truly go after this segment,” Littley asserts. Which is counterintuitive since, as he points out, “most men who identify as ’bears’ represent the average american male: husky, bearded and without a six pack.” Even at Bear Week Provincetown, where the audience is concentrated, “mainstream fashion has sort of kept away” in terms of sponsorship or representation.
But just because plus-size men aren’t rallying for change in the fashion mainstream doesn’t mean they don’t want to dress well.
Chubstr is a lifestyle website that offers tips and resources, conducts interviews with tastemakers, bloggers and celebrities, shares reader photo submissions and features an XL+ shop. “The women’s clothing industry is so much larger than men’s, so it makes perfect sense to me that the plus-size body acceptance movement would start there,” says Chubstr founder Bruce Sturgell. “I think body positivity for men is really just taking baby steps at this point, but will become more visible in the next few years.”
Representation in advertising is also profitable. “We’re more apt to purchase clothing when we see it on a model we can better identify with. This type of model can be (and is) still aspirational, and can drive sales for brands.” Chubstr puts together their own photo shoots, and the impact shows: “People comment, click and buy products from brands we partner with,” says Sturgell.
Curve Model Management in Hamburg has over 20 plus-size guys on their website. “The market seems to be different in Germany,” agency owner Mona Schulze told The Guardian last month. “Customers want to be able to identify with the models, they want them to mirror them.”
It’s only a matter of time before these men are off the sidelines and in the mainstream fashion conversation. If these men feel alienated from the menswear industry as a whole, there’s no impetus for change—and there won’t be any consumer demand to ignite a cultural shift. Without being challenged, the status quo remains the same.
With the rise of the plus-size male fashion consumer, a push for more accurate representation in mainstream menswear advertising could be just around the corner.
Main image courtesy of Paul Specht.