UPDATE: Aerie has informed NYLON that the campaign, while a hoax itself, was nonetheless intended to spotlight its commitment to refusing to retouch its male models. Further, one of the models in the campaign, Kelvin Davis, reached out to NYLON via Facebook to say: "I was not fooling anyone in this campaign. Everything I said and represent is 100% true. I am the main male body positive advocate!!!" He added: "I want to set the record straight. I was 100 percent real in that campaign. There is nothing fake about the men in that video! How they marketed it had nothing to do with us!"
Something about Aerie’s #AerieMAN campaign felt off when it debuted on March 23, 2016. There was something insincere about its tone, something smug. Devon and the three other “real” guys featured in the campaign sounded slightly disingenuous. The burgeoning optimist in me, however, decided to seek some sincerity in it. The general masses ate it up and lauded Aerie for taking yet another step in the right direction for body positivity in our consumer-driven society. Kelvin Davis, one of the men featured, told BuzzFeed he was “glad brands and companies are starting to see the need for male body diversity in fashion.” #AerieMAN, however, was fooling us. How disappointing.
Today, American Eagle released a statement lifting the veil on its lingerie brand’s April Fools' joke. "We aren't afraid of being bold in how we engage our customers," the brand's global brand president Chad Kessler said, "whether through through a video that makes you think twice, or challenging the norm in how a brand markets to men.” He continued, “We are an all-inclusive brand and we know our male customers respond to humor. We look forward to continuing to innovate and evolve the American Eagle Outfitters product offerings."
I hope Kessler’s last sentence means not making a joke out of male body positivity in the future. As a young man who grapples with body dysmorphia almost daily, these ads brought a sense of hope. Indeed, more women are likely to suffer from an eating disorder than men are. The conversation around that topic is vast and it is plenty. Many brands, Aerie included, have made considerable steps towards more inclusive advertising, through a diverse array of models and forgoing airbrushing. The dialogue around the Y chromosome is growing, but mute compared to the roar of the Xs.
The Adonis factor still rings true for men. The more chiseled you are, the bigger your bicep, the pec-ier your pecs, the bubblier your butt, the more likely you are to be desirable—regardless of sexual orientation. As a cisgender homosexual male, I can vouch for the validity of the statistics that state that around 42 percent of gay men have eating disorders, despite making up only 5 percent of the male population. The pressure to look like a Hemsworth, a porn star, or have abs like Usher is high. Campaigns like #AerieMAN are—well, were—tiny watershed moments in the dialogue around male body image. I looked at their models, Matt, Devon, Kelvin, and Doug, and saw some bit of myself in them, for once. I wanted to believe them, and for a moment, I did. It’s a wonder Iskra, Aerie’s new spokeswoman, who is also a spokeswoman for The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), agreed to the joke.
There is an inch of a silver lining, though. Outlined in American Eagle’s press release was a plan to halt airbrushing on all its models—including men. The company has also donated $25,000 to the NEDA. While I appreciate the idea behind “[raising] awareness around body diversity” through humor, the execution has left a bittersweet taste in the mouth—especially coming so soon after IMG announced its first plus-size male division, an undoubtedly groundbreaking moment for men's fashion. Sincerity first, humor later. It's still too early to parody body positivity. Maybe next time, but for now, the joke’s on American Eagle.