My Naked Decade Looking Back at 10 Years of Fat Acceptance and Plus Size Modelling

This text discusses body image issues, fatphobia, and links to NSFW images.

I’m in a remote house somewhere in Hampshire. It’s two days before my 26th birthday and despite it being the height of June, the place is freezing cold. Turns out this giant mansion has no heating whatsoever. Not even the dozens of people running around, the droves of props that cover almost every inch of floor space, or even the many studio lights do much to bring the temperature up. The call sheet did mention to “please dress super warm”. Considering why I’m here, that’s only going to help me so far.

After a few hours of waiting and pacing around, it’s time to get ready. I quickly find myself sitting shirtless in this chilly house, writing poetry over my arms and torso while several professionals work on my hair and makeup. It’s hard to tell if I’m shaky because of the pervasive cold or if it’s the nerves.

This is the first time I’ve done paid work as a model. I’m one of a dozen people that are going to be featured in this project, although I don’t even get to meet any of the others. The shoot is spread over three days and each shot takes several hours just to set up.

Around me people are moving props and equipment around, fixing lights, sorting cables. Several people are outside holding a giant branch through one of the windows as a background detail. In the middle of this elaborate, expensive, carefully coordinated whirlwind of artistry is me, standing completely naked.

“The same boy that skipped showering after gym class to avoid being naked around others, and spent several summers swimming in a t-shirt was now unapologetically nude in front of the world.”

Was this terrifying? Not as much as I assumed it would be. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but agonise about how I looked. My usual insecurities. About the size of my belly and genitals, about my stretch marks and my face. About the knowledge that the result of this experience will last forever. It’s going to be used on prints, hang in galleries, even make a few rounds in museums. All those feelings were there, and despite all of that I managed to not suck my gut in or let shame get the upper hand.

This is a far cry from the boy that only years earlier could not look at himself in the mirror without triggering an intense, overpowering self-loathing. The same boy who lived with his gut perpetually sucked in, who skipped showering after gym class to avoid being naked around others, and spent several summers swimming in a t-shirt was now unapologetically nude in front of the world.

All of this happened when I had the opportunity to work on Julia Fullerton-Batten‘s Unadorned project, and I distinctly remember this specific realisation hitting me as I stood there. It was a record scratch you-probably-wonder-how-I-ended-up-here moment, but in an almost entirely positive sense.

It was also the culmination of several years of work to accept myself. To tear down that self-loathing that was an integral part of my psychology from childhood. However, the single most important step occurred a few years earlier.

I. A Nude Beginning

On the 30th of April 2010 I posted the first submission on the DeviantArt page called lesmouches. I had no plan at this point, illustrated by the fact that I named the account after the band I happened to be listening to while creating it. All I had was a series of photos ready to go and some ill-defined desire to share them.

The photo itself is a monochrome self-portrait. It shows me lying on mine and my partner’s bed, lit only by the small amount of sunlight that crept into our dark attic room. My face is cropped out. I’m naked. Everything that could potentially identify me or my location has been carefully edited out. It’s not much, but it was the unceremonious beginning of my naked decade.

Even now, I struggle to remember exactly what I was thinking before and after posting that first one. I don’t recall being afraid or worried, even to receive negative comments – I was 100% certain I’d get plenty. I also don’t recall being particularly excited. It was an odd time in my life, and one that in hindsight was my absolute low-point. All I can remember is that I wasn’t going to stop myself.

“I don’t recall being afraid or worried, even to receive negative comments – I was 100% certain I’d get plenty.”

The 10 year anniversary of my debut as a plus size male model just happened to occur with another blast from my nude past. By happenstance, last month saw the launch of the documentary series NAK-ED directed by Jan Dalchow. The series has been in production for years and all the way back in 2013 I was interviewed for it while taking part in the 1000 Bodies Project.

This project required participants to strip off, stand alone in front of a camera, and use a remote to take one single portrait of themselves. I travelled to London from Birmingham just to take part. After the shot I was asked to answer some questions about my self-image and nudity, once again on my own with only a camera for company. This was during what would be the peak of my modelling, and looking back at this now is mind-blowing.

Seeing the person I was then, able to speak so confidently, is a wildly emotional experience for me in 2020. Around this time I had been modelling for several years with some decent success and it’s probably not a coincidence that it was also a peak for my self-image. I sound so strong in this video, so confident and assured. The person talking believes every word they’re saying. I hardly recognise them.

II. The Worst Time Of My Life

However, the lesmouches DeviantArt account was not my first outlet. When asked in other interviews why and how I got started, I’ve given some slightly different responses, both of which are true but don’t tell the whole story. Fact is that I started out at least partially of spite because I got fed up with an online community for gay men.

This was around 2010, when I had just graduated from university and was currently living with my then-partner’s family. This was still in the recent aftermath of the recession so job searching was going nowhere, which was straining our relationship as well as my physical and mental health. I started going to the Jobcentre, which was already demoralising enough before they refused to actually pay me any of the benefits I was owed. In turn, this lead to a year-long legal battle that ultimately ended with me completely broke and still jobless.

To put it bluntly, my life sucked. I had no friends, my relationship breaking down as neither of us were happy, and I had nothing to do with myself all day. I was trapped in a tiny, cluttered room that stank of rabbit poop, feeling like a complete failure and burden to those around me. Unbeknownst to me I was also currently developing asthma from sleeping two inches away from a thick layer of black mould behind the bedroom wall.

“I got fed up of only seeing a very narrow definition of beauty everywhere I looked. Jokes about fat people. Negative comments. Concern trolling about “health issues”. I was finally sick of it.”

In all of this I tried to find some avenue of escapism. Since the internet was my only window to the outside world, I wanted a community where I could be candid while remaining anonymous. I’d heard of a gay community called Ladslads from some classmates who claimed one of our tutors had an account (which he did) and that’s how I ended up there too. All very spur of the moment.

Turns out, Ladslads was mainly used for sex chatting and hookups, neither of which I was interested in. Instead, I wrote some blog posts and tried my best to connect with people with very limited positive results. It didn’t really work, but it helped to killed time for a while

Since very few of the site’s users were interested in anything but dating and sex, naked bodies were everywhere. I obviously wasn’t unaware of how narrow the standards of acceptability are before this, but something about being confronted with that reality there and then, in my state at the time was enough to catalyse something in me.

I got fed up. I was fed up of only seeing a strict definition of beauty everywhere I looked. Jokes about fat people. Negative comments. Concern trolling about “health issues”. I was finally sick of it. I felt all of it so deeply, I had marinated in it my whole life, and now I finally had enough. I needed to lash out, so I did with the only tool I had at my disposal: my body.

III. The Fat Splinter In Your Eye

The photos I uploaded to my Ladslads profile that day were not particularly artistic or even explicit. They were just monochrome photos of my body in a nondescript pair of black underwear. There were hundreds of others like it. The only real difference was how the subject’s body was shaped.

In contrast to my initial DeviantArt posts, I have a vivid memory of how I felt when I uploaded these images. I distinctly remember thinking that if my body and ones like mine are such eyesores, if we’re going to be subjected to abuse and belittlement for daring to exist alongside “acceptable” bodies, then I might as well own it.

My whole life I’ve been told that my body is a sign of weakness, but how strong can you really be if the sight of a fat body is enough to upset you? If my body is a needle in your eye, why should I hide away just to protect you from it?

So I posted the photos and waited. Comments began to roll in almost immediately. A lot of them were as expected. Mocking, rude, some outright abuse, “worries” about my health and diabetes and heart attacks before I’m 30.

I anticipated those. In a way, I think I even wanted them. In hindsight, a big part of what I was doing was externalising and projecting my self-hatred outwards. If I were in control of it, it couldn’t hurt me. I turned my insecurities into not just a shield, but a weapon.

“My whole life I’ve been told that my body is a sign of weakness, but how strong can you really be if the sight of a fat body is enough to upset you?”

What I wasn’t expecting were the other comments. Most of them were not posted publicly, but trickled in through my private messages. These comments were the polar opposite. They were encouraging and positive. Sure, a few of them were varying degrees chubby chasers (I would lie if I said I didn’t appreciate these at the time) but a large chunk were different.

I got several messages from other people who struggled with their body image, people who were shaped similarly to me or otherwise didn’t fit the expected standard. Some of them even thanked me. A common sentiment was “I wish I was as brave as you”. But I wasn’t brave. I was bitter and self-loathing and had no idea what I was doing.

But every single one of those messages – god, I wish so much that I had saved them – put cracks in my armour. My initial goal of being a splinter in everyone’s eye started shifting to something else, something infinitely more healthy and positive. Those messages showed me that I wasn’t alone. That a bunch of us were sick of apologising for our own bodies and never being represented in any public space.

Turns out that representation is important. Yes, even if it comes in the form of amateur photos from an anonymous fat guy on a gay dating site.

IV. Change For The Better

Along the same time, my partner had started getting involved in the body positivity movement, which in a pre-social media age was still very niche. Initially, I had little interest. Partly because I was so used to thinking of my body as inherently worthless, that the idea of being positive or even accepting of it didn’t even register. However, it was also because the movement was almost exclusively championed by women and gender non-conforming folks.

A lot of people have subsequently framed this as proof that the movement excludes men. The truth is that men were always welcome, but it took them a long time to care enough to get involved. This makes some degree of sense. While I strongly believe people of all genders suffer with body image problems, due to the way society treats bodies that don’t conform to its standards, it affects women as a group much more and on a more day-to-day basis.

However, with my newfound interest in self-portraits I found an organic link to that community and I started learning. I started reading writers like Lesley Kinzel, started following fat acceptance blogs on Tumblr, fell in love with Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project, which remains an inspiration to this day.

The first plus size models were just making minor splashes around this time, even though the concept was still novel. None of these were men. Instead, it was women—and especially WOC, even if they are often overlooked—who led the way for this wave of the fat acceptance movement. Inspired by their work I wanted to do something similar for male-coded bodies. As I had personal experience with body image issues and now knew for a fact that there was a silent group out there who wanted to see bodies like theirs represented.

“I started appreciating parts that I had previously despised. I noticed aspects I’d never thought of before because I had simply never allowed myself to look close enough.”

As a result, I started getting more ambitious. While the only things I had my disposal were my aging Nikon D40x, a cheap tripod, and a tiny room with hardly any light, I began experimenting. I used self-timers, different outfits, close-up bodyscapes, long exposure shots, different colours, photomanipulations.

I had previously enjoyed photography as a hobby but this was the first time I truly relished it. This also had a strange effect on how I perceived my body since it forced me to view it as more or less an external object outside of myself.

In order to create good shots, I couldn’t let my insecurities steer me. I had to view my body as a separate thing, as an object to portray and a tool to use. I started appreciating parts that I had previously despised. I noticed aspects I’d never thought of before because I had simply never allowed myself to look close enough.

Let’s just say that the quality of my output at this time was mixed, and there’s only a handful of shots that I’m still proud of today. However, the experience of taking them had a profound effect on me that lingers to this day. Getting to place that distance between my internalised fatphobia and my physical self forced me to really see myself for the first time.

V. On Promoting Obesity

During my first few years of modelling I actually managed to build a small but supportive fan community on DeviantArt. For every troll or abusive comment, I received dozens of positive ones. I never liked being called “brave” because while what I did was on some level transgressive, I ultimately didn’t stand to lose much. Cis men are defined much less by their bodies and what they choose to do with them than anyone else.

Even so, I kept myself anonymous for several years. Both me and my partner were worried that it could ruin my chances of finding work, or even lead to more direct forms of harassment if people had a name and face to tie their fat-hatred to.

See, while the negative comments I received were mostly harmless trolling, a decent number were actively hostile and hateful. Turns out people really do hate fatties, and especially a fatties that do not hate themselves.

A self-hating fat person at least follows the script. They know they’re “wrong” and while that is in no way enough to escape vitriol, it does at least conform to the status quo. On the other hand, if a fat person expresses themselves in a way that is acceptable for “standard” bodies, they cross a line from detestable to outright abhorrent.

A self-loving fat person destroys the narrative of what a fat person should be. Just by existing they mock the body standards that a decent chunk of western society is built on preserving. A lot of people have put a lot of time, effort, money, and emotional energy into advancing within those standards, and to have somebody go against them in such a public way is seen as an affront. How dare you reject the structures that I am working hard to succeed within?

“A self-loving fat person destroys the narrative of what a fat person should be. Just by existing they mock the body standards that a decent chunk of western society is built on preserving.”

If you don’t believe me, go and look at the comments underneath literally any plus size woman’s Instagram post. You’ll see the same recycled slurs and whinging about “promoting obesity”, “unhealthy lifestyles”, and context-free statistics of the dangers of being overweight.

You’ll see the same pattern elsewhere. Check the Instagram of a trans person. Or openly queer person. Or person of colour. You will find plenty of supportive comments (hopefully) but always at least a few that are nothing short of furious. Angry at another person’s happiness, because that person dares to not care about something that largely doesn’t affect anybody else.

VI. The Best Time Of My Life

It was in 2012 when I first used my name and face alongside my work. I had just met with the brilliant Julia Fullerton-Batten to take part in her Unadorned project, and at the same time started working with local student photographer Marius Do. The anonymity that had previously protected me started to feel restrictive.

I was getting more prominent and started posting more of my work on social media. While rewarding, it was a struggle from day one, as my Instagram account was deleted twice due to getting bombed with false claims that I was breaking the terms & conditions. To this day Instagram remains extremely hostile towards any bodies that aren’t deemed advertiser-friendly. Fuck them then and fuck them now.

At this point, the concept of a plus size male model was still unconventional. In fact, variations on the question “where are all the plus size male models?” was a common joke. Plus size models were just getting some mainstream attention and naturally guys had to make it about themselves. Of course, this question was hardly ever asked in earnest, but as a means to belittle the handful of female plus size models that were slowly gaining prominence.

“Variations on the question “where are all the plus size male models?” was common. Of course, this was hardly ever asked in earnest.”

For several months I would search the term on Twitter and respond to each with a list of the male models that had started by this time. We were here and we weren’t difficult to find if you wanted.

As I said before, men were always welcome in the movement—which I can attest to first-hand—they just never bothered before. Women and gender non-conforming people paved the way for all of us, and all most cis men could do was mock and complain. As usual.

At the time, I was one of very few male plus models working in the UK, which meant that I was lucky enough to contribute to some amazing projects. Aside from Unadorned and the 1000 Bodies Project, I was featured in Marius Do’s Modern Bodies series, and worked with Aleksandra Karpowicz on her award-winning Let’s Talk About Sex project. One of my photos was even used as the cover for The Biggest Lover, a collection of bear erotica short stories.

I also started branching out to life modelling in classes all over the West Midlands, and even got the opportunity to do a runway show for Jacamo in 2015. The brilliant lifestyle site Chubstr did a feature with me, and I wrote a series of columns for the sadly defunct Swedish fat acceptance magazine FeTT Magazine.

I was even a meme that topped Reddit’s home page at one point. What higher honour could a fat guy possibly ask for?

VII. A Dime A Dozen

By 2016 the very idea of a plus size male model was no longer a joke or quirky novelty. By this point guys like Notoriously Dapper, Darnel Ghramm, Alessandra Carella, Ady Del Valle, Zach Miko, and literally dozens of others were not only blowing up on Instagram, but getting worldwide media attention.

For those of us who had been along during the days were our job description was seen as an absurd joke, seeing the wave of body positivity for men cresting was exciting. It was also the start of the trough of my personal modelling career.

My Instagram stopped growing and the number of job opportunities fizzled out. Since there was more demand for plus size male models, agencies started signing them. I had previously found work by responding directly to casting calls, and as these started going through modelling agencies, I was left out in the cold. Meanwhile, those agencies were only interested in a very specific type of plus size man – guys who were basically conventionally attractive, but with a hint of belly fat. Dad bods, we call them now. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still feel a bitter shiver every time that phrase is mentioned.

As such, I was rejected from every single agency that proclaimed to support body diversity, despite my years of experience. I got frustrated, I felt bitter again. People who I had given advice to as they started out were now featured in magazines while my posts was just barely reaching a few hundred people.

“Agencies were only interested in a very specific type of plus size man – guys who were basically conventionally attractive, but with a hint of belly fat. Dad bods, we call them now.”

It didn’t feel worth the hassle anymore. The world had grown past the need for what I had to offer. For years I only had a half-hearted presence on my modelling accounts. I felt defeated and what had once been a source of joy and self-acceptance started feeling like a millstone. I carried on but there was no passion left in it for me, which hardly helped to stop my stagnation.

This is where I you might expect me to tell you that this was the moment where I had some major breakthrough. That I managed to triumph over my inner doubts, that I became more creatively fulfilled and successful than before.

It’s not quite as dramatic as that, as is often the case in life.

VII. Whatever Comes Next

When I said that I started out with my modelling out of spite, I was telling another half-truth. While it is true that I posted those initial photos out of spite, that’s not why I shot them in the first place.

The real reason stemmed from a realisation I had during one of my episodes of self-loathing. I was looking at old photographs of myself and I had a thought that I believe it universal. I kept wishing that I still looked like I did then. There’s something about having that distance where you can evaluate yourself more objectively—or at least without the same ire you afford your current self—to see what your self-hatred wouldn’t let you at the time.

In that moment it hit me that I had felt the exact same thing when those photos had been taken years earlier. I couldn’t shake this thought that I was always a few years away from self-acceptance, stuck looking back at a version of myself that I never appreciated in the first place.

That’s what inspired me to document what I looked like right then. I wanted to save a memory of my body for my future self so that I could look back at it and maybe appreciate it in a way I wasn’t able to at the time.

Sitting here now, 10 years later, several pounds fatter, many joys and sorrows having passed in between, I have become that future self. The one who was the intended audience for my self-portraits. I am looking at those photos again.

I’m looking at that depressed, aimless, lonely 23 year old haplessly trying to create tasteful self-portraits with almost no experience or resources. I see everything about my body that made me feel worthless and unlovable. The stretch marks crossing like rivers across my stomach. The flabby thighs that jiggle every time I shift my weight. My belly resting over the edge of my waist, often poking out from the bottom of my shirts. My chest, my butt, my penis, my arms, my eyes, my skin. My body.

And I think he looks pretty good. And I do wish I still looked like that,

“I couldn’t shake this thought that I was always a few years away from self-acceptance, stuck looking back at a version of myself that I never appreciated in the first place.”

At first I took this to mean I hadn’t made any progress. I’m still looking back, judging myself based on a version of me that’s never coming back. However, on reflecting I actually it to be comforting. It’s a reminder that progress is never a straight line. That no matter how great or awful I’m feeling right now, this too shall pass. I’m in a very different stage of my life, and while body dysmorphia and negative self-image are still part of my life, they no longer rule me.

It’s also forcing me to confront how pointless this self-hatred ultimately is. I can’t just decide to not feel it anymore, as it runs much deeper than rational thought, but it is possible to understand and live with it. You can even occasionally triumph over it.

Recalling the ups and downs makes it clear how many more downs and ups are ahead of me. Remembering where I’ve been and who I was helps me not just appreciate the ups more, but it also prepares me to cope with the downs ahead of me.

Ultimately, I never became a successful influencer or professional model. In hindsight, that was probably for the best anyway. I’m happier with what I did get; a much deeper understanding of who I am, both inside and out. I also had a couple of amazing, life-changing experiences along the way.

And I did it all while fully naked. I shed not just my clothes but my anxieties and hatred. I called the fatphobes’ bluff and I thrived while doing it.

The first two decades of my life I spent feeling nothing but shame and disgust, never questioning my negative self image. In the ten years that just passed I found ways to accept myself, even loving who I am and how I look. I can’t put into words how lucky I feel to have that, and I truly hope I did something good in the process.

It was my naked decade. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen in the next one.

Rikard Olsson Written by:

Sweden-born, England-based writer that can otherwise be found in PC Gamer.