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American Eagle #AerieMan campaign
American Eagle #AerieMan campaignvia American Eagle

American Eagle thinks male body image is a joke

The brand's #AerieMan campaign promoting male body positivity was actually an April Fool’s joke – here’s why it was a step backwards

Over the last few months, things have generally been looking up for male body-positivity. Modelling giant IMG recently launched its Brawn division designed to represent larger-bodied men in the fashion industry (although there has been debate surrounding its rejection of the ‘plus-size’ moniker for a term that suggests ‘muscle’). Then, just a few days ago, American Eagle’s Aerie underwear division released a video entitled #AerieMan, which depicted four male models of various sizes talking about body image and retouching. The clip was light-hearted and humorous, but the message was one of positivity – summed up by the tagline ‘the real you is sexy’.

Shortly after the video went viral thanks to its progressive attitude, the company issued a press release explaining the whole thing was an April Fool’s parody of the brand’s existing #AerieReal range – an actual plus-size range for women largely unrepresented by the fashion industry. Apparently, the video was designed to show that American Eagle can ‘have a laugh’, and was released to mark the fact that the brand would no longer retouch male models in their campaigns. They also made a $25,000 donation to the National Eating Disorder Association – but the damage had already been done. Despite their donation and seemingly progressive decision to abandon retouching in future campaigns, the overriding message was that while body-positivity for women could be taken seriously, for men it was nothing more than a joke.

Things developed further on Instagram, where IMG Brawn’s first signing Zach Miko expressed disappointment in the campaign and implied that the models involved were unaware the whole thing was a joke. “We all have a sense of humor. But the idea of men being happy and confident in their own body being represented as a joke worthy of laughter and ridicule is very disappointing,” he said. Miko later posted an image of model Kelvin (a.k.a. style blogger Notoriously Dapper) alongside a caption which deemed the campaign “an elaborate April fools parody against the knowledge of the models involved.” As we spotlighted back in January when we interviewed the blogger himself, menswear needs diversity – why reduce it to a joke?

Unfortunately, the now-viral ‘parody’ highlights a double standard which assumes that women need body-positivity more than men. This assumption is based on nothing more than archaic masculine ideals which argue that insecurity and any display of excess emotion more generally are ‘feminine’ traits. It’s undeniable that unattainable standards of beauty are forced upon women by the mainstream media far more than they’re forced upon men, but this doesn’t mean that men don’t develop insecurities and don’t deserve to be included in the same body image debates. According to one 2014 study, almost 18 percent of teenage boys are concerned about their bodies, while in the USA, 10 million men will reportedly suffer from a significant eating disorder in their lifetimes. Still, while progress seems to be being made to encourage more diverse casting of women, men remain largely absent from conversations about body positivity, and brands remain unchallenged on their casting.

#AerieMan seemed particularly progressive because it represented an underwear brand, which have long featured slim yet buff models – think back to Mark Wahlberg in his iconic Calvin Klein adverts with Kate Moss. The plus-size models of #AerieMan were challenging these standards by exposing not only their bodies but their potential insecurities, revealing themselves in order to spread a message of acceptance. The video makes this evident, with all models talking about the importance of body confidence.

What message does it send to young men when this kind of video is announced as a hoax? A video which tells men to be empowered, positive and proud of their own bodies is nothing more than a parody organized by a big brand, which tells men that body-positivity isn’t something to be taken seriously. Sure, the ‘no retouching’ announcement is great, but it refers to the process of image manipulation as opposed to the actual model casting. Will this really lead to greater diversity? Or is the notion of a man that doesn’t match the rigid standards of ‘underwear model’ still too laughable to be considered by American Eagle?

“What message does it send to young men when this kind of video is announced as a hoax? A video which tells men to be empowered, positive and proud of their own bodies is nothing more than a parody”

Finally, there’s Miko’s insinuation that the models cast were unaware the video was to be released as a parody. After all, why would they suspect anything when this was the same brand that had made such a positive move with its #AerieReal campaign? Releasing this as an April Fool implies that the joke is on the models – a fact alluded to in an Instagram post by Kelvin which claims that ‘Body positivity is no joke… even through despair I plan on remaining positive and spreading that positivity throughout.’ Publications have picked up on this, branding the campaign as ‘cruel’ as well as an enormous marketing misstep.

It’s worth mentioning that the brand has, in the past, stated it takes body-positivity very seriously, yet reduces the topic to nothing more than a punchline when applied to men. Despite its cursory charity donation and pledge to forego retouching in future, the #AerieMan fiasco is a step backwards in terms of true diversity. Whether or not it was intended in ‘good humour’, these men were unaware they were to be treated as a punchline which is harmful capturing them at their most vulnerable. Aerie made a mockery of an issue that needs to be progressed and, in the process, highlighted a double standard which needs to be eradicated.