In 2016, Zach Miko became an Internet sensation during the apex of the body positivity movement when he became the first model to sign to IMG’s then-new plus-size male division. “Meet Zach Miko, the Plus-Size Male Model Out to Change the Fashion Industry,” read a Vogue.com headline. Three years later, it’s hard to see what that “change” really means. Click on Miko’s portfolio on IMG Models’ website and nothing happens. In fact, his bio appears to have been without an update in years, despite the fact that he was recently interviewed in the New York Times. But even the lens of that piece—”5 People Who Can Help You Love Your Body”—is an indication that Miko was branded for a moment in time, called “the future” without a roadmap or help navigating through the present. He broke a barrier, but what comes next for plus men is still a story being written.
Just looking at the data, there is a dearth around plus-size men within the fashion industry. Even organizations like The Fashion Spot, which tracks plus-size model appearances in campaigns and on the runway bi-annually, omits plus-size men from its calculations. When it comes to the runways, fashion industry, and men’s magazines, there is an untraceable presence of male models over a certain size because the larger fashion brands trend toward erasure, despite the number of people in a certain market.
Retail does seem to be catching on slowly, at least for certain brands. In 2017, online retailer ASOS launched plus-size and tall sections for men. In 2018, Bonobos designed its first plus-size men’s line. Both lines were met with praise from all across the spectrum, and are now regarded as go-tos for people looking for stylish men’s clothing over a size XL.
Other changes and perhaps the most potent one, has come via social media and the ways in which it’s both given exposure and access to and for plus-size men. It’s also created a sub-community within the continuously burgeoning body positivity movement, creating spaces for men to celebrate things like cellulite, stretch marks, and other body types not often seen on the covers of Men’s Health and GQ.
This change in landscape is both rapid and enormous for a category of men, many of whom grew up with no representation like themselves in the media. “It was almost impossible to see,” Jey Santos, tells me on the set of our COOLS shoot. “It was non-existent,” Ady Del Valle, 32, says. “It was very disheartening at a young age to know that there was a cap on what fashion was,” Thadius Coates, 25, offers. “I felt like there was a roof on inclusivity and fashion, and it was made very apparent at a young age.” For others, like Tahge Benoit, 29, he looked to basketball players as relatable fashion icons.
“As bigger men, we tend to get relegated to athletics or nothing else,” he explains. “I did theater in high school. My family and friends, everyone was telling me, ‘you need to play football; you need to play football.’ I remember there was a time in basketball when you had to show up to a game in a suit and a tie, and that was mandatory for everyone. And just seeing people like Shaq. These bigger guys that were taller and fuller and looked like me being able to rock a slim suit and really kill it was inspiring. Because going to the tailor meant getting the very generic straight leg, so the fact that I was able to see these guys showing up and looking as slick as the Justin Timberlake’s and the Pharrell’s made me realize I could definitely pull this off. And it taught me that whatever I rock, I’m going to kill it.”
In speaking with the four models for COOLS shoot, it quickly became clear how similar each of their stories were: growing up having few representations of men that looked like them in the media, the feeling of not being able to find clothes that fit them when they were shopping, and finding confidence through learning not just to accept but love the way they looked. But perhaps most similar in their stories was how each one, unprompted, would mention the role of social media. “It was social media that taught me to embrace who I am and be more about my body and able to love myself,” Santos says. That ability to openly love oneself, while a pillar of the body positivity movement writ large, remains a lesser spoken about factor for men, body positive or otherwise, due in large part to the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity, which masquerades the idea of loving oneself as soft in a world where men must be tough.
“Social media plays a huge part in my relationship with my body, one of the reasons I’ve come this far in my self-love journey,” Del Valle says, noting it was through social media that he discovered model Tess Holliday, one of the platform’s most visible fat models (‘fat’, a term Holliday uses to describe herself). “She was not your average plus body; she was on the more voluptuous side of the spectrum which I could relate to the most. Seeing her and how beautifully she celebrated her body with no care what anyone thought. That’s when I told myself I’m going to be that for me, for guys, and for everyone else out there, that looks like me and relates to me. Now we see so many guys celebrating themselves carefree, and that makes all of the risk of being bashed, bullied online, and talked about worth it. I’d do it all over again.”
Coates agrees, saying that he often finds other men of size to shoot with or collaborate with thanks to the connectivity of such platforms. There’s also the impact, and the ability social media has to interact with those you’ve affected. “I often get messages from guys my size thanking me and encouraging me to continue to represent and things,” he explains. “Especially with the American Eagle campaign, there were guys who were so excited and eager to buy the jeans because they saw me in them, and the representation for them was super influential.”
Is it enough, this incremental change largely being relegated to social media versus runways and magazines who hold the power to broaden societal beauty ideals? “My whole outlook is that it’s being pushed,” Benoit says. “It’s being spoken about. It’s being brought up. It’s very minute, but the fact that progress is being made and companies are saying, ‘Hey you want to involve people of real sizes,’ to me is a win.”
Perhaps the obvious next step for plus-size men is getting that coveted mainstream fashion magazine, a la Tess Holliday on the cover of Self Magazine, or seeing them storm high fashion runways, like Precious Lee at Christian Siriano. While social media has no doubt played a role in democratizing beauty standards, the gatekeepers of fashion still could use that long-awaited wake-up call.