New York Fashion Week Men’s is here, and each season comes with the opportunity to discover all of the new talent involved. From experienced and well-known faces, to newcomers on the rise, the role of the model in fashion week is vital. But most of what goes on behind the scenes at the shows, specifically the way the male modeling industry operates, remains unknown to the public. The aura that surrounds this industry is mysterious, mainly because menswear is typically far less marketed than womenswear. Unfortunately, just like female models, males are exposed to extremely restrictive conditions enforced by brands, casting directors, and stylists – yes, we are talking about beauty standards. Current “trends” for the male physique range from extreme muscularity, to ultra thinness, to “androgynous waifish.”
From my perspective, brands should consider connecting with their male audiences by taking diversity into account – namely, different body types, looks, and ethnicities. The whole problem starts when the fashion industry fixates on a specific standard of beauty and prioritizes it over other aspects of the casting process, eventually making it a trend. But why is it ok for a brand to make “ultra thin” a trend when not all the men in the world are ultra skinny? Not even all the aspiring models are ultra skinny.
While models may seem like the only ones under pressure to keep up with the industry’s expectations, men today seem more concerned with body image than ever. According to a research study done by Mintel, a market research company, 45 % of men say that staying in good shape is a priority, and 17% of young men aged 16-24 think that male models in advertising have made them more body conscious.
Through these harsh beauty standards, male models are obviously also subjected to unhealthy side effects. Malnourishment and anorexia can predominate if rapid weight loss is required for a casting. Bigorexia, a disorder where the main preoccupation is that one is not big or muscular enough, poses a threat to those who are under the pressure of developing more muscle mass. Some fashion insiders claim that muscular guys also starve themselves to fulfill a certain figure.
So how did these standards manage to become trends? A lot has to do with the Asian fashion market, which has been growing rapidly in the last decade. In Asia, beauty standards idealize a small body type for men, to the point where being ultra thin has become the norm. Hedi Slimane, former creative director of Saint Laurent, also strongly influenced the rise of ultra skinny male models with an aesthetic that was closely aligned with rock stars, smoking, and the late 1970s. Even Karl Lagerfeld confessed toTelegraph that he felt pressured to lose weight, saying “[Slimane’s] fashions, modelled by very, very slim boys, required me to lose at least six of my 16 stone.”
Androgyny is also at the forefront of the industry. I believe in gender fluidity; it allows everyone to feel comfortable and dress however they like and identify. Nevertheless, this has arguably instilled more restrictions, as now, models not only have to be ultra skinny, but they may also need to have androgynous features in order to have a higher chance of being cast in some shows. To a certain extent, the idea that breaking down gendered barriers has to equal conforming to a different gender’s stereotypes simply enforces the binary further. It also takes away a certain element of autonomy with regards to gender identity, one that is deeply personal and shouldn’t be dictated by casting trends or a rigid idea of what androgyny looks like.
But the dark side of the male modeling industry does not only lie within beauty standards. Sexual harassment and other forms of abuse have been known to be common in the modelling field. Women may still outnumber men as victims of sexual assault by tenfold, but men are not exempt either. Edward Siddons, a former model, made a buzz when he opened up to Newsweek about the dangers of male modeling. Silence prevails here; sexual harassment is rarely reported and models have to adapt to overwork and being underpaid. Siddons wrote about being under tremendous pressure to lose weight after being insulted on several occasions. He once overheard a stylist referring to him as “beautiful, but fat,” while talking to someone else. Another one once directly told him to “stop being lazy and do some fucking crunches.” The former model also recalls an editor offering him a shoot for the cover of his magazine, under the condition of posing naked and joining him for a “romantic dinner” afterwards. He declined, but the editor kept sending him unsolicited messages, which became graphic over the course of the year. Siddons reports several other cases like this. He also mentions that some fashion insiders, like Noah Shelley from AM Casting, have been open about their role in the proliferation of the pressure to be skinny. Others however, like Sebastien Meunier of Ann Demeulemeester, fail to acknowledge the dangers to which models are exposed and claim that if they are adults, the responsibility is theirs alone.
And although it may be hard to believe in this industry, homophobia is still at large too. In conversation with Dazed, numerous models explained circumstances in which they encountered discrimination after signing with a new agency. John Tuite and Carlos Santolalla became the first openly gay couple to be signed as a duo at a large agency, but they recall having to deal with discrimination when they first became models. Tuite says that his first scout told him that the agency wouldn’t sign him on because “they don’t work with gay men.” Santolalla says that a common practice in New York City was for agents would tell models to “not be gay” and to “act like a man.” In fashion, it is almost impossible for lawsuits to be ordered, because agencies consider this a matter of “taste”, when in fact it is discrimination. In many cases, male models have to keep their sexuality a secret, as they could lose their jobs over coming out.
Another component that should be taken into account by brands is racial diversity. Several years ago, most of the models represented were white. The fashion industry has surely made advancements; brands today are portraying more models of color on runways and in campaigns — think of big female stars like Lineisy Montero and Imaan Hammam. Sources like Huffington Post argue that NYFW Men’s is even more diverse than women’s fashion week, and Vogue says that European labels are finally improving when it comes to inclusion. However, I think that there still must be a greater effort to achieve diversity. By simply analyzing the Spring 2017 menswear shows that we’ve seen so far in Europe, it’s easy to see that several megabrands are almost entirely white. Some of these are Balenciaga, Lanvin, Acne Studios, Dior Homme, Gucci, and Vetements among others; they included as little as four black models from a total of 50 exits.
In spite of all the current problems, not everything is bad news. The male modeling industry is following the womenswear side in seeking improvement when it comes to diversity in all its forms. IMG Models, one of the world’s most prestigious agencies, recently launched a new men’s plus-size division called Brawn. “The body positive messaging and size diversity is something that’s relevant and something that continues to be on everybody’s mind. We have to extend the conversation for men,” says Ivan Bart, president at IMG. This is a huge advancement in order to include men of all body types.
Furthermore, new legislations in France, Spain, Italy and Israel require working models to possess a medical certificate that confirms them to be fit using a BMI measure. However, the majority of the countries where models work — the USA, the UK, and countries in Asia — do not have protective laws. Additionally, many question the accuracy of BMI because it does not measure body fat content and does not take into account muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, and racial and sex differences. But even so, the consideration of health is another step forward. More progress is seen at big fashion brands that feature racially diverse models, encouraging powerful statements of inclusion. Givenchy and Balmain have embraced diversity and set a great example due to their power and influence in the fashion world. By celebrating inclusion, brands can connect with their male audiences more effectively. There are surely many financial and social benefits that are yet to be seen as beauty standards continue to be upheld. Undoubtedly, the latest advancements have helped, but for models, adversity remains.