Writer: Jason Lie
Image: That beautiful light: Fulsom Street Fair, San Francisco (2012). ©2012 torbakhopper, courtesy of flickr.
While conversations about body image tend to focus on cis women, women who are assigned female at birth, the issue certainly affects a wider range of people. In 2015, clothing retailer, Target hired its first plus-size male model Zack Miko. If our media is truly a reflection of our society, then Target’s decision to hire Miko is proof that men, too, have been calling for a broader representation of their bodies. In an interview with People magazine, Miko criticises the advertising of large clothing sizes, ‘I never understood why [when] looking at big and tall clothing, they show me these Abercrombie & Fitch-style, really cut, really fit guys.’
Although the struggle for male body acceptance may seem like uncharted territory, there’s actually a gay sub-culture that has embraced this movement for decades. They’re known as the Bears. It’s a community with its own events, codes and culture specific identity. The bear himself, can be defined as the chunky, yet hunky kind of guy; the one who’s a bit soft around the edges. He’s the kind of guy who will eat a rack of ribs on the first date. He’s the kind of guy whose deep booming laugh can be heard from across the room.
There’s some debate about whether straight men can be bears, but if so, then Michael Hyde, who the magazine is named after, could be considered a Polar Bear!
Maybe he’s the guy who you’ve been stalking on Instagram for the last couple of weeks, but now his account is private. If you still can’t imagine what a bear looks like, then think of Daniel Franzese, the actor who played Damien in Mean Girls. Besides size, body hair is another defining characteristic of the bear although it’s not a necessity. Even within the Bear community, there are more specific identities:
Cub: A young or younger looking bear who is typically smaller than your usual bear.
Otter: A slimmer bear.
Polar Bear: An older bear whose hair may have turned white or grey.
Panda: A bear of Asian descent.
Leather Bear: A bear who engages in kink.
Muscle Bear: A muscular bear.
Ursula: A lesbian bear.
Another way for a bear to flirt with another bear is to ‘woof’ at him; similar to how people whistle at each other.
From an outsider’s perspective, the Bear community is radical in the sense that they embrace body features that are normally rejected. Having a hairy chest or a noticeable stomach is not seen as a problem, in fact, they are seen as desirable; a bear can express his interest in another bear by rubbing his tummy. Besides rejecting a restricted definition of beauty, the bear community is also inclusive. This inclusiveness is reflected in the array of people who have embraced the bear label. Trans people, women, older people and people of colour could potentially be bears. It’s the bear’s choice to approach other people and themselves with love and acceptance that makes them worthy of being models for the body positive movement.
Jason studies Professional Writing and Editing at Victoria University and is a member of VU Pride.