Why fashion needs more big guys embracing their curves

IMG Models, a global modelling agency based in America, has just signed its first “plus size” male model.

Zach Miko, an actor and former US Target model looks, to my eye, like most fit young men. Yet Miko is one of very few “plus size” male models with agency contracts.

The UK has no plus sized models signed to an agency, and Australia has less than half a dozen. Australian model Jesse McNeilly is signed to BGM Models, largely a female modelling company. One of his label-mates is James Aitken, another of the few Australian “plus size” male models.

So why is the rise of the larger male model such a rare event?

There has been growing cultural appreciation of the plus sized female body. “Plus size” female models are increasingly appearing in mainstream women’s magazines.

Recently, the size 16 Australian actor Rebel Wilson featured on the cover of the UK edition of Cosmopolitan magazine wearing a t-shirt that exclaimed, “Here’s REBEL … and she’s got Hollywood by the balls”.

There are far fewer examples of larger men in popular media, and this is not a good thing. Generally, we are fed images of very similar kinds of male bodies: slender and very muscly or thin.

Jesse McNeilly, a plus-size Australian male model.

Miko and McNeilly are both clearly muscly and they have strength that appears natural, not the result of diets aimed at “shredding” fat. Yet, alarmingly, the kind of muscle we see on most male models is achieved through strict diets and exercise for aesthetic purposes only, rather than exercise to be strong for health or sport.

There are two reasons traditionally used to sell the “plus sized” female body that don’t work for men. Firstly: capable, “healthy” women’s bodies are required for reproduction. This can be seen as free state labour, growing future workers and consumers in expanding women’s bellies for very little cost. Capitalism is happy and as such, breasts and hips can be seen to have an economic purpose beyond their obvious aesthetic appeal. Economies do well out of fleshy female bodies.

Beyonce at the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala.
Andrew Kelly/Reuters

There is also a popular contemporary aesthetic tradition of the voluptuous female body. Marilyn Monroe, Jessica Rabbit and Beyoncé are all famously curvy. Incredibly, Marilyn and Beyoncé would be considered plus-size by the modelling industry.

There isn’t a comparable late modern history for men in which larger male physiques are aesthetically valued. Rugby players, weightlifters and open weight rowers are valued for their highly functional physiques, but they are unlikely to appear on the cover of Men’s Health. Yet these sportsmen would measure up larger than Miko, who is 6 ft. and 6 inches tall with a 40-inch waist (this works out to 198 cm of height, and a 107 cm waist).

We can draw on images of landowners and the elite in pre-modern and early modern British history, in which large male stature was linked to social and economic power. But, in contemporary contexts the embodied aesthetic of power has changed.

While the Marlboro Man of the 1950 and 60’s was muscular, he had kind of “normal” strong man muscles. Nowadays, male models are considered “plus” if they are 42-inch or above. Men’s bodies in ads are becoming increasingly unrealistic. They are filled with “defined”, “lean” muscles – long, stringy or bumpy body casings that demonstrate effective micro dosing of nutrients and supplements.

To be popular, men have to be good at a certain kind of control. Whether they rule the family, their public domain of employment, or their body, successful masculinity has been synonymous with control for too long.

Celebrity stylist James R. Sanders on a snowy day in Baltimore.

The “plus size” male model is the beginning of undoing this pathetically narrow trope of representation. The fat man: the emotional, needy, noncompetitive, sensual, big guy, is outside of capitalist value, he is hard to sell. He is also a kind of accidental gender-bender. Softness and curves are thought about as feminine qualities and when embodied by men they have a transgressive edge.

This is acknowledged in the many talented actors who are often typecast in comedies. Jack Black, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, John Goodman are all highly successful actors who show there’s a place in Hollywood for big men.

This “funny fat character”, which has its female counterpart in women like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, needs to be distinguished from that staple of sitcoms, the schlubby husband with an improbably gorgeous wife.

So, apart from the fact that Michael Moore is witty and politically savvy, and Matt Preston is a culinary icon, big guys are, generally, the beginning of a change in what contemporary popular culture wants from men.

Big men might just be as virile as super fit men. Indeed, they might be super fit. They might be more interested in consumption and pleasure than acts of control and repetition (lifting weights, gobbling nutrients, training again and again.) Don’t we want this kind of astute guy, with his values in check, celebrated in the public domain?

Plus size male modelling is still a niche market. Jesse McNeilly, pictured above, has said there is much less work) for “plus size” men than other male models, which seems like counter intuitive marketing.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the average weight of a man over 18 years’ year old is 85.9 kg, regardless of height. The average Australian male waist is 97.9 cm (3.9 cm more than the 94 cm recommended by health experts).

So, clothes are clearly not being marketed to men who are our statistical “average”. Imagine if most clothes were made and sold for 85.9+ kg men.

A Twitter, Instagram and Facebook campaign – #droptheplus – is calling for the removal of the term “plus size” when referring to brawny models.

Let’s see representations of ordinary Australian men – whether posted on Facebook or Instagram – hashtagged “droptheplus”. If you or your friends are 85.9+ kg, put images of yourself online and lobby for change.

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