As I step back from a semester of writing on the issues surrounding models in the fashion industry, it strikes me that many of the topics I’ve covered—body image and plus-size modeling in particular, but race as well to a degree—center primarily around the discussion of female models. But what of the male model? Do they face the same kinds of problems as women, the same restrictions on race and size?
Statistics on the racial makeup of the male modeling industry are hard to come by, but an informal survey of Models.com’s top 50 male models presents us with six black models and four Asian models. It’s a substantial fraction, comparable to the five black female models and six Asian female models among the female top 50, and one that would have been unimaginable several years ago—but as is true for female models, tokenism within male modeling is still at play. “I can count on one hand the number of times when, if it hasn’t been a BET [Black Entertainment Television] fashion show or a ‘black’ fashion show, that there’s been more than one black male model on the shoot,” said Brent Zachery, a well-known black model, in an interview with The Washington Post.
Body image presents less of an issue. Male models’ bodies tend to fall into two categories: slender and muscular, with the former dominating the runway and the latter appearing more frequently in editorials and ad campaigns (which consequently makes them of greater influence to their male audience). The ubiquity of perfectly toned male models in Calvin Klein underwear ads and similar campaigns certainly influences men to attain a more muscular physique, according to a study cited by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. But the difference between this driving force toward muscularity and the parallel desire in women to achieve the slender figures of female models is that the degree to which male models are muscular is not inherently unhealthy, while the degree to which female models are thin is.
Are there male models that fall outside of this ideal—that is, is there a male counterpart to the female plus-size model? For now, it appears, the answer is no. “Women’s ‘plus-size’ is based on the fact that curves can be sexy,” wrote Wilhelmina Models booking agent Greg Chan in an email to New York Magazine. “The equivalent of curves on a man is a beer gut and love handles, and that’s not sexy.”
In lieu of the male plus-size model is instead a small market of big and tall models: men who are essentially taller, beefier versions of regular male models. But while female plus-size models, at size 12, don’t necessarily fit our definition of “true” plus-size, they are built similarly to the average American woman (at size 14) and thus provide some degree of representation of the everywoman’s body in the fashion industry. Men, on the other hand, have no equivalent. The male modeling industry is comprised of skinny men (runway models), buff men (editorial models), and buffer men (big and tall models), with no gray area in between for an average man—and the ensuing pressure for men to diet or train until they fall under one of these three body types, while perhaps not as medically dangerous or prevalent as the female compulsion to be thin, still serves as a mental and physical burden that could be alleviated were there a greater presence of average-figured men in editorials and on the runway.
What it comes down to, as it always does, is the obligation that those exposed to images of these models, as well as the models themselves, feel to conform to a certain look, whether that standard refers to skin color, body type, or gender. There continues to be an overwhelming and seemingly intentional lack of diversity on the runway with regard to any type of distinguishing physical attribute: Calvin Klein’s Fall 2013 Menswear show, for example, featured an army of men with the same translucently pale skin and straight, side-parted brown hair (supplemented with one black and two Asian models—thanks for the diversity, CK!), all garbed in head-to-toe black and gray. Such a choice on the part of the designer and the casting director is understandable—to standardize the models is to draw less attention to each individual and is in some ways analogous to creating a unified color palette for the collection—but the aesthetic that they do choose to represent their entire collection is internalized as the beauty ideal in the minds of their viewers.
We should know better—but we don’t. So while designers have a responsibility to their craft, their art, they also have a responsibility to the people, to ensure that those who bear witness to their work don’t go to extremes in the attempt to attain an impossible ideal that can never be reached.
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