No more Mr Muscle: the activists championing body confidence for men | Body image

Back in 2013, Kelvin Davis was shopping for a red blazer in his home town of Columbia, South Carolina, when he was publicly body shamed. The school teacher, who is 5ft 10in and wears 38in waist trousers, had not previously been concerned about his frame. “The tipping point was when the sales assistant told me I was too big to shop there,” he says, adding it was made worse by the fact that others overheard. “I felt very insecure and didn’t know how to deal with that.”

So he turned online, launching his blog, Notoriously Dapper. Davis felt overlooked by the fashion industry, because of his size and colour. The blog enabled him to delight in fashion, talk about his body and interact with other guys who felt vulnerable. People were initially puzzled – “They’d say: what’s a men’s body-positivity blog?” recalls Davis – but, in time, his loud shirts and sunny outlook attracted a loyal following. He now has 15,000 blog subscribers and more than 92,000 Instagram followers – and has modelled for brands including Gap.

A small handful of others have joined him. In 2016, IMG signed 6ft 6in barrel-chested Zach Miko as its first plus-sized male model, while pioneering diverse modelling agency Bridge launched a men’s division. Big-and-tall outfitters, such as Jacamo, gained prominence; and high-street players, including Bonobos and Target, cast burly blokes.

Some celebrities have also since broached the topic of body insecurity. Former England cricketer Freddie Flintoff revealed his bulimia struggles, actor Christopher Eccleston wrote of his anorexia and Ed Sheeran spoke of binge eating. In July, Matt McGorry, an actor and former bodybuilder who starred in Orange is the New Black, posted a photo of his “big, soft belly” on Instagram, accompanied by the caption: “As men, we must be hard and angular… We are taught that a lean and muscular physique is the prize of self-control.” Yet these efforts to highlight different male forms and body concerns remain scarce. Make no mistake: chiselled guys still dominate.

Lawrence Smith, 29, a London-based actor and singer recovering from anorexia, calls them “perfect sweat shimmer Instagram men”. They appear in countless social media posts, basking in the afterglow of a workout with jutting jaws and abs whose neat grooves resemble cobs of corn. These models, actors and professional influencers are conventionally handsome and impossibly lean, seemingly hewn from the same Carrara marble that brought Michelangelo’s David to life.

A large, bare-chested Savage x Fenty male model in trousers
Standing tall: a Savage x Fenty model.

The message is hard to miss. “If I’m having a low day, you make comparisons. There are pangs of jealousy,” says Smith. “Even though I know they’re filtered, the moment I see them I go: ‘Oh, I’m less than that.’ It just makes the normal person feel shitty.”

Lean men, widely upheld as totems of the ideal western male, come in two varieties: waif-like, à la Timothée Chalamet; or brawny, like Chris Hemsworth. Either way there’s not an ounce of fat on them. Of course these specimens aren’t confined to Instagram. They dominate the catwalks of Milan, Paris and London, the advertising campaigns of luxury brands and razor startups, and screens big and small, from reality shows to superhero blockbusters. They are seen as unequivocally aspirational. They are the way all men should look.

In the past decade, the women’s body-positivity movement has made great strides, ignited by sororal calls-to-arms on social media demanding that brands acknowledge everyday women. Plus-size models, such as Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday, have been on the covers of magazines and starred in lingerie ads. Curves have been embraced – to an extent – by the fashion industry and the broader culture. While there’s still much to be done, including promoting bigger bodies from different races, the conversation is getting louder.

The movement’s raison d’être is to embrace all physical forms, irrespective of build, colour, gender, disability or anything else. It’s not, in theory, a gendered campaign. But, so far, it has focused on women. This makes sense given the enormous pressure that’s long been placed on females to conform to a certain beauty ideal – and the fact that women’s bodies (unlike men’s) have always been up for public discussion. Yet, as male eating disorders and body image concerns escalate, surely it’s time men followed the lead of women and started championing diverse shapes. Rather than mocking “dad bods”, shouldn’t we be celebrating big boys?

Broadly speaking, the movement hasn’t achieved much momentum, scale or urgency. Men’s bodies are rarely the focus of social media debates or on the tips of tongues at fashion weeks, and that pool of bigger models hasn’t really grown. Plus, with the notable recent exception of Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty underwear line (which featured heavyset model Steven G in size 2XL boxer briefs), premium brands are yet to show interest in larger men.

Nick Stickland is the co-founder of ODD, the London advertising agency behind a recent campaign for Jacamo that celebrated the notion of “big”. “I haven’t been asked by other brands to put plus-sized men in the casting line-ups,” he says. “Not once.” The issue extends beyond marketing to the more practical matter of product sizing. Although some high-street brands have increased their size ranges, Davis says Tom Ford is the only luxury brand that makes clothes that fit him.

“There’s been some change, but I feel like nothing’s changed as far as the conversation goes. The conversation I’m having with you right now is the same one I had, like, four years ago,” says Davis.

Celebrity support: Freddie Flintoff has been open about his struggles with bulimia.
Celebrity support: Freddie Flintoff has been open about his struggles with bulimia. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images for Sky

A major reason for the lack of progress is that there’s so little precedent for prizing different male bodies. There is a long history of admiring shapely female forms: think of the voluptuous Renaissance portraits; the fuller figures revered in many African societies; or previous body-positivity waves in the 1960s and 1990s. Today’s brands and media have history and context to reference – seeing women’s curves as attractive is not an alien concept.

For men, though, lean has always been in – from Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and ancient Greek statues to the moustachioed Marlboro man and Diet Coke hunks. “All these advertising folklore heroes have been chiselled gladiators of the modern age,” says Stickland, adding that there’s simply a “dearth” of information about whether rounder guys could shift products. Brands know biceps sell, whereas rolls remain uncharted territory and are, therefore, commercially risky.

The fashion industry hasn’t helped. Increasingly, designers have championed androgyny, but “all these collections that embrace femininity are showing it on a lean or muscular male body,” says Dr Ben Barry, chair and associate professor of equity, diversity and inclusion at Toronto’s Ryerson University School of Fashion. When it comes to changing how we think about masculinity, he says bigger bodies might be the “most” stigmatised topic of all. The final frontier. “Men can wear dresses and lace and heels, but they need to be thin. They can’t start to worry about rolls and flesh.”

Compounding this is the fact that, because men typically aren’t comfortable talking about appearance, the grassroots campaigning that sparked the women’s body-positivity movement hasn’t been mirrored by male consumers. That’s not to say men don’t care about how they look – that tired trope is easily dismissed given that they spent an estimated $55bn worldwide on grooming products in 2019. Yet there remains a reluctance to discuss image – something that, Barry says, can be traced to “dominant western notions of masculinity, that attending to the body is vain, crosses into femininity, and makes one vulnerable.”

If men speak of such things, their manhood and sexuality might be questioned. It strikes at the male ego and fear of humiliation. Psychotherapists reference the shame men feel when asked what they see in the mirror. And Omari Eccleston-Brown, a London-based campaigner for body-dysmorphia issues, links discomfort around discussing image to “latent” societal homophobia. “It’s like, oh it’s only legitimate to care about your body if you’re gay – that’s often the subtext,” he says.

Two large models – a woman and a man – from Rihanna’s latest Savage x Fenty underwear campaign.
Living it large: two models from Rihanna’s latest Savage x Fenty underwear campaign. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

All this matters, because many men are struggling with body image issues. In England the number of annual hospital admissions for men with eating disorders has more than quadrupled since 2007, according to NHS Digital. Meanwhile, the charity Beat estimates that, of the 1.25 million people with eating disorders in the UK, a quarter are male. A 2019 study by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation revealed 28% of men felt anxious about how their bodies looked and 11% had suicidal thoughts due to body concerns, while a 2020 YouGov survey found younger men struggle with body confidence nearly as much as women. Body dysmorphia, in which individuals obsess over perceived flaws, affects men and women in equal numbers.

Charlotte Parkin, a psychotherapist at London’s Priory Group who treats addiction-related disorders, sees male clients with anorexia, bulimia, muscle dysmorphia (an obsession with building muscles, also known as “bigorexia”) and orthorexia (an addiction to clean eating). She thinks men’s eating disorders are “definitely” increasing and has noticed an influx of patients who are “really starting to buff up”, hitting the gym for hours on end and gorging on protein-rich meals with religious fervour in a bid to sculpt their physiques. “It’s like a prison for these people, because they get stuck in [their routine] and become so frightened of losing the shape,” she says. “We need to name this as a problem. It’s not just a hobby that’s gone wrong. This is a pathology.”

Professor John Morgan is a psychiatrist and author of The Invisible Man (2008), a groundbreaking book on male eating and exercise disorders. He says while gay men have long grappled with the “body beautiful threat”, now younger straight men are, too. “General body image disparagement, the soil from which an eating disorder develops, is far more widespread among teenagers,” he says, citing social media as a contributing factor.

Eating and other body-related disorders are often rooted in deeper problems from childhood or relationships – sinewy actors probably won’t directly cause anorexia. Yet a shift in the culture – seeing different-shaped models presented as aspirational; having Action Man toys with average proportions; hearing more celebrities speak out; encouraging everyday guys to share body worries; even promoting a catchy hashtag – would help to change the composition of that “soil”. Consequently, troubled individuals would be less likely to chase physical “perfection” as a solution to their problems (issues which might manifest themselves elsewhere). It would have the greatest impact on boys with plastic minds. Morgan thinks boys form opinions of what a desirable body looks like at around 11 or 12 – and teaching them about diverse frames would be a preventative measure “similar to visiting schools and talking about the dangers of smoking”.

When I ask Lawrence Smith, the anorexia survivor, how seeing bigger models in a glamorous campaign would affect him now, he pauses. “My thought patterns and behaviours are so ingrained I don’t know how much it would change my beliefs about my own body,” he says. “But for the generations coming up, for the Lawrences who are now 13, it would be amazing.”


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