Ever tried on an XL T-shirt in Zara so tight it came up like a crop top? Or attempted to pull on a pair of Topman jeans you couldn’t get past your calves?
I have. And I’m not “fat”. I’m 6 foot tall, weigh 209 pounds and have a healthy body fat percentage of just under 20 per cent. (Not that that matters much when you’re trying to button-up a restrictively tight XL Christopher Shannon shirt in such a way that it doesn’t strain like a sports bra.)
Still, according to the rules set out by an article recently published by a leading men’s magazine I read and respect, if I can’t squeeze into certain brands’ size ranges, then “fat” is exactly what I am. Which doesn’t seem fair considering most of my weekday evenings are spent squatting in a gym, not scoffing burgers.
Of course, I’m not alone in my trials with fit. According to a recent YouGov survey, 34 per cent of men in the UK struggle to find clothes to suit their body shape, whether because they’re too big, small, round, narrow, whatever. Which isn’t hugely surprising when you think about the fact that, owing to biological diversity, we really do come in all shapes and sizes – something most clothing manufacturers who produce on a huge scale simply don’t take into account. Or perhaps more accurately, can’t afford to if they want to make a profit.
The average menswear brand takes a rudimentary approach to size diversity. They start out by designing a garment, let’s say a Medium (typically a 38-40-inch chest), based on the measurements of their fit model – the real-life mannequin whose dimensions are as close to what the brand believes its customer’s are in real life. Then, in order to design bigger and smaller sizes to complete a size range, most manufacturers will simply add or subtract inches while maintaining the ratio, failing to consider the fact that that’s not really how our bodies work.
“Most brands design off of a block, and scale measurements up to make larger sizes,” says Ed Watson, Creative Director at N Brown, the parent company of menswear retailer Jacamo, which stocks sizes Small to 5XL.
“But while that might take dimensions into account, it doesn’t allow for subtle differences in overall body shape as you get larger. Size and fit are two very different things, and not all brands and retailers have the expertise [or the money – Ed.] to design with that in mind. At Jacamo, we use several different fit models to build our bigger sizes to ensure that fit is optimised across the scale.”
The idea, then – considering most of us buy off-the-peg rather than have our entire wardrobes made for us bespoke – that the reason some brands’ standard size ranges don’t fit someone well is because they’re, well, too fat, kind of misses the point.
Look at Zach Miko for example, the very first ‘Brawn’ model to be signed to major model agency IMG, and the man who has sparked so much of the debate around male size diversity so far (including the article I mentioned earlier) – mostly for being the first ‘plus size’ male model to appear on American retailer Target’s online store.
At 6 foot 6 inches and 240 pounds, Miko’s definitely ‘big and tall’. And while, yes, a few HIIT sessions might shave an inch or two off his 40-inch waist, his detractors seem to be missing the fact that standing at a whopping 8.5 inches taller than the average US male, no amount of sweating it out on a treadmill is going to make him any shorter. Or make it any easier for him to find jeans that won’t look like three-quarter lengths.
“People are, in evolutionary terms, physically getting bigger,” says Watson. Just look at the stats: the average height of a man in the UK has risen by over four inches since the 1870s, while the average male chest in the UK now measures 42 inches, and the average male waist clocks in at 40 inches. Which all suggests brands still tailoring their product to a guy with a 38-inch chest and a 30-inch waist are probably missing a trick.
“There’s a tonne of income being lost over archaic ideas of ‘brand perception’,” says Corbin Chamberlin, New York Times journalist and contributor to Chubstr, a website providing fashion and style tips for bigger guys. “Brands like DXL and KingSize are trying their best, but they really need to get some young blood in to freshen things up – they’re not trying hard enough.”
But while still relatively untapped, the plus size men’s market isn’t entirely underserved – Chamberlin cites Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren as brands worth a punt and, here in the UK, retailers like High & Mighty (which offers sizes up to 6XL) and Jacamo have been catering for larger guys for 60 years and seven years, respectively, while household names like ASOS and Marks & Spencer now offer styles in sizes up to 3XL.
No, you won’t find anything above a 2XL at brands like Reiss. Nor will you find much sized bigger than an XL at high-end stores such as Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. But premium and luxury fashion have always marched to the beat of their own drum, taking pride in their inaccessibility – whether in terms of sizing or price.
What’s most disturbing about the reactions to Miko, though, isn’t the ‘revelation’ that menswear brands aren’t providing for everyone (a moot point considering we all fall victim to the shortcomings of clothing designed off of a block, and let’s remember – having access to clothes that fit you perfectly isn’t exactly a human right), but the flak levelled against him for how he looks – the fact that the mere presence of his larger, non-normative (by advertising standards, at least) body provokes a caustic reaction from a media culture hell-bent on body-shaming. Don’t fit the modern-day Michelangelan ideal of masculinity beauty? Then, lose some weight, fattie. Bench some more, bruh.
Such rhetoric is not only puerile, but dangerous.
Earlier this year, Wentworth Miller – the Hollywood actor who shot to fame after his breakout appearance as the muscular, tatted up prison inmate Michael Scofield in Prison Break – found himself the subject of a callous, fat-shaming internet meme that spliced an image of Miller playing super-lean Scofield with a candid paparazzi shot of the actor from 2010 that was taken to ‘expose’ his post-show weight gain.
“The first time I saw this meme pop up in my social media feed,” he said via Facebook, “I have to admit, it hurt to breathe.” Of the paparazzi shot – taken at a time Miller has said he was feeling suicidal – he said: “In 2010, fighting for my mental health, it was the last thing I needed.”
It might seem inflammatory to connect Miller’s experience with the response to Miko’s signing, and the still-lacking menswear offering for guys who aren’t rail-thin or gym-honed. But there’s no denying the “Fit to Flab” headlines that tried to shame Miller are symptomatic of a wider anti-fat attitude that’s brought us to a point where 40 per cent of men in the UK now say they’re dissatisfied with their body shape, and 1 in 4 eating disorders are occurring in males.
It might be easier to think – in a society where male body image always seems to be the butt of a joke (‘spornosexual’, ‘dadbod’, etc.) – that lazily slinging a slur is all in good fun, or just ‘banter’, but the strong link between poor body image and depression (not to mention rapidly rising male suicide rates) say otherwise.
Of course, there will always be those that fear embracing size diversity is simply condoning unhealthy habits. That celebrating Miko’s success, or calling for an increased presence of body diversity in the media, only makes serious health issues like obesity worse. But, as research has shown, stigmatising people who are overweight not only doesn’t help combat obesity, it actually makes it worse.
So we need to stop shaming. Stop policing bodies. Stop suggesting weight loss is the solution to finding clothes that fit when it’s not and – due to the fact that brands will always cut and scale differently – never will be. Because doing so is not only unfunny, it’s damaging.