​is brawn the first true step forward for male body positivity?

After IMG Models made headlines with the announcement of its new ‘plus size’ men’s division, we weigh up what it could mean for equality and diversity.

Mar 23 2016, 6:00pm

The launch of IMG Brawn was accompanied with the news that Zach Miko, an actor and comedian that had previously modelled for Target, was the first name signed to the new division, essentially making him the world's first plus-size male model. It's unsurprising that IMG were the first mainstream agency to take the step towards full body-positivity - after all, they also manage Ashley Graham, who recently made history for becoming the first plus-size model to grace the (unretouched) cover of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue. IMG Models are taking steps towards making fashion a new, more accessible place - that much is undeniable.

The steady rise in popularity of menswear is emblematic of a new generation of men becoming increasingly concerned with their body image. As Ivan Bart, IMG's CEO, rightly pointed out in an interview accompanying the launch, "body positive messaging and size diversity is something that's relevant… we have to extend the conversation for men". A recent study conducted by Chapman University revealed that body dissatisfaction is a problem experienced by many men, with 20 to 40 percent of 116,356 men surveyed expressing a lack of confidence due to their appearance. Although body positivity is increasingly promoted within the world of womenswear (although there still much to be said and done), the topic is largely absent from conversations within menswear. Society assumes that men are strong and confident in their appearance which, statistically, is not always the case, making IMG's new division a much-needed breakthrough.

However, the series of exclusive statements from IMG's CEO Ivan Bart that accompanied the WWD announcement, left us questioning how revolutionary it might be. "Brawn has a body positive message. Brawn is physical strength", he said, before later going on to clarify that he views himself as a "beefy, stocky kind of guy" and further verifying that he doesn't consider himself "morbidly obese". These quotes arguably explain why the brand is so reluctant to adopt the 'plus size' moniker - because, in essence, big corporations are afraid of the accusation that they're promoting obesity. For example, Zach Miko may have a 40-inch waist but he is also 6 foot 6, which would make his waist size roughly proportionate to his height. Tellingly, women are often branded 'plus-size' whereas men are usually 'big and tall'; the implication is not that they're overweight, but simply of a larger frame.

Add this to the fact that Miko is, undeniably, extremely attractive. He has facial hair, tattoos and his build is fairly muscular - these are characteristics that society have always deemed to be attractive within men but have never been accurately represented on the runway. A text from a friend following the announcement confirmed these thoughts, "Hello to the guy in that article! I want me and him to be plus size together forever." Obviously Amy doesn't represent all women worldwide, but her comments seem to be inline with other articles published, in particular an article by Cosmopolitan whose headline calls Miko "a total hottie". The fact that Miko is hugely attractive isn't surprising - after all, he is a model. But the fact that he is a representation of what society has always deemed to be attractive and masculine makes his 'plus size' stature more palatable and less controversial.

The emphasis on masculinity also poses a problem as, referring back to Chapman University's survey, men medically classed as 'overweight' were largely satisfied with their appearance. A doctor behind the survey explained that "men can feel pressure to appear strong and powerful, so having some additional mass does not necessarily lead to body dissatisfaction" - an explanation which makes sense of IMG's choice to base their branding on strength and power. The underlying message is that it's acceptable for men to be overweight as long as they are big, strong and, above all, masculine. Unsurprisingly, the survey also reveals that gay men are less body confident and are statistically more likely to cover up during sex, avoid being topless in public and consider cosmetic surgery. By placing masculinity on a pedestal, the division's branding is arguably pushing men that don't fit these ideals further into a corner and alienating what could be a core market.

On the other hand, body positivity within womenswear has been a key point of conversation for some time, most notably Tess Holliday made headlines last year by becoming the largest model ever signed to a mainstream agency. Holliday was more than a token example - she spearheaded new attitudes with her #effyourbeautystandards movement, designed to empower women that had previously been told by society that they weren't good enough. However, despite being incredibly beautiful and using her platform to spread positivity, the model has been the subject of many discussion pieces which rip her to shreds. She's been forced on numerous occasions to clarify that she exercises regularly due to accusations of being a poor role model and promoting obesity - accusations which exemplify that society is more likely to tear down women than men. Holliday continues to use her social media feeds to respond to fat-shaming and confront accusations made against her; she's honest and accessible, making her a key role model. The intention here isn't to argue that menswear needs an equivalent to Holliday, but instead to highlight societal double standards. It may well be the case that the same audience that brands Holliday as a bad role model are the ones most willing to accept Miko for his accessible good looks and his (at least according to Cosmo) 'hottie' status.

The key point revealed by IMG's Brawn division is that brands are still reluctant to be seen as promoting obesity, and that female plus size models are largely forced to be accessible and defend themselves because society bombards them with criticism on a daily basis. Whilst the Brawn division remains an unprecedented victory for a menswear industry that, until now, been almost entirely void of diversity, it still places disproportionate emphasis hegemonic masculinity. Men who don't fit this archetype are still being left behind and ironically, the ones represented by it are, at least according to the Chapman University study, already satisfied with their appearance. Zach Miko and IMG are clearly two important figures in the diversification of menswear but, as ever, there's still work to be done.


Image via IMG Models