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Big, Black and Beautiful: The Vital Virality of #BigBoysAreCute

For Virgo Vonnie, it all started with the magical, rejuvenating, glow-inducing power of coconut oil and a single hashtag (#BIGBOYSARECUTE).

A week later, on August 15, Vonnie followed up with a second tweet that marveled at all the support his campaign had received.

Of course, the internet being the internet, when Vonnie hit that viral sweet spot and his message of male body positivity spread far and wide, some haters crawled out from under their dumpster and offered unbidden opinions. Like this guy who thought big boys should know that, while he may not be a doctor, he thinks they’re unhealthy.

Still, all of this suggests, in small ways at least, how things are changing. Body positivity is growing in popularity and acceptance, and as it increases in media representation and industry access, it also needs to widen its aims. Because even though you now see plus-size female models in prominent ad campaigns (e.g., Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, or Tabria Majors), you’re still equally unlikely to see a big-and-tall man celebrated for his sexiness, asked to walk the runway for a fall fashion show or even be included in a photo campaign to sell clothes to other big men.

The big man has yet to be as accepted in the culture. He remains the dad on sitcoms, and while his weight may no longer make him the butt of the joke, he’s still rarely seen as a positive role model by brands and broadcasters. That’s what Vonnie aims to change. He wants to expand the body positivity movement to include men, especially men of color. He’s been selling his fashion designs for a year now. And thanks to his recent viral success, he’s launched a website BigBoysAreCute.com where you can support the movement by purchasing one of his T-shirt designs or his coconut oil — and soon, other items like beanies, denim jackets and shirts.

I recently spoke to Vonnie by phone, during which we chatted about how his path to viral fame really started with underwear; the bullshit ways big brands pay lip service to big-and-tall men; and how he believes Ashley Graham is as important to the Big Boys Are Cute movement as any XL male celebrity.

You had two tweets, practically back-to-back, go massively viral. What’s been the most rewarding, heartwarming response?
I got a message from this one guy named James in Australia. We exchanged emails, and we’ve been emailing back-and-forth. He just let me know the day he saw the tweet he was down on himself — about his body and what he saw in the mirror. He said in Australia there isn’t really an active body positivity movement, or least not like how we have here. That really brought me to tears. Him, telling me his story of growing up, not really feeling confident. That isn’t my narrative, so hearing that from other people is mind-blowing and heartbreaking.

Male body positivity isn’t something we spend a lot of time talking about — especially for men of color. What messaging did you receive growing up?
The only representation I can even remotely remember seeing as a chunky black boy — I’ve always been a little overweight — was Cory from That’s So Raven. I remember always watching that show because it was like me, I could see me doing that. Other than that, not really — especially growing up. Not until recently. And the men of size I do see aren’t men of color. So, yeah.

What messaging would you prefer that big boys receive? Or if you could go back and talk to young you, what would you say?
Just stop comparing myself to others, which is hard to do when you’re younger. It’s a normal thing kids do. And not to let anyone else get into my head. I’ve come to realize the older I get, all of the negative images I thought of myself were placed there from somebody saying something. Like, as far as my legs. I have pretty good legs. I’ve always had good legs. I never had a problem with my legs until somebody pointed out to me, “Whoa, you have really big legs.” I still remember that comment from middle school; it’s stuck with me for my whole life.

Taking other people’s insecurities — or other people’s issues — and putting them on you was a big thing that I feel like a lot of youth need to learn. That’s that person’s issue, you don’t have to put that on you. That’s their problem, that’s not your problem.

Do you think men of color suffer from particularly negative messaging, or is not particularly unique to men of color to receive a heavy amount of negative messaging for being a big guy?
Men of color are set up to meet a certain standard to be somewhat perfect because of all of the obstacles we have to deal with in the world. It’s one thing to be black; it’s one thing to be a black man; it’s another thing to be a fat black man. There’s a whole other set of obstacles you now have to go through.

In the recent past, Abercrombie & Fitch got into trouble after the company’s CEO said he didn’t want larger people shopping in their stores. Overall, there’s been evidence of biases like this based on ugly stereotypes and a cultural bias against fat people. Is that attitude still prevalent? Or are brands beginning to make fashionable clothes for big boys?
I feel like more brands are bullshitting and tip-toeing around it, because even when you go into big-and-tall stores, you’ll see a 6-foot-3 chubby guy modeling something that’s supposed to go up to a size 48 waist. Then when you look at the details, you see the model is wearing a size 40. Uh, that’s not really plus-size. That’s kinda plus-sized. That’s kinda tipping the scale a little bit.

I feel like they’re using it as marketing tool because the body-positivity movement is getting more advanced. I feel like they’re just using it. I don’t feel like it’s more accessible. Like I’m a size 44 waist, and I still cannot buy jeans in the mall. I was never able to buy jeans in the mall unless it was Levi’s — and even then, it wasn’t a good fit. There’s always been a limited selection, and I don’t really see the change. Online? Yes. I see a lot of change. But as far as in stores? No, not really.

In terms of the differences shopping online, do you mean like niche brands where people are making the clothing they want to wear for people like them, or is it different than that?
Yes, people are making the clothing they want to wear, and you’re starting to see the bigger brands jump on that wave. That said, it’s more true with plus-sized women. I’m not aware of a lot of plus-sized designers for men — I probably only know like a handful.

Was this the impetus for you to start Big Boys Are Cute?
My first item I used to sell was underwear, actually. (laughs) No T-shirts, nothing. Just underwear. (laughs) Because all of my underwear was very uncomfortable. So I had this notion, “I’m gonna sell this underwear dedicated to bigger dudes.” That was a stretch. (laughs) Trying to find plus-size underwear was one thing, having someone manufacture it was a whole other hassle. So I was just like, what can I put out that people will… Nope, wait. It was my dad actually. He asked me a question, he said, “When people think of you, what do they see?” My reply was, “When people think of me they think: Big boys are cute.” (laughs) He was like, “That’s a nice slogan.”

So, I put it on a T-shirt. The T-shirt that went viral was probably made in May of 2017. So that T-shirt was kinda old. (laughs) When I came out with it a year ago, I liked the slogan so much, I just switched it around to make it the whole brand — Big Boys Are Cute.

When you were talking about underwear as your initial product, who do you go to for that? Who do you approach?
I have a manufacturer in Atlanta. I have a friend who is a designer. And he knows a manufacturer in Atlanta. Right now, Big Boys Are Cute is more about T-shirt design because it’s hard to have somebody manufacture plus-size design and keep costs low. That’s another thing I try to do. Right now I’m kinda in the middle of that. I’m trying to do jeans and jackets and other stuff like that. But it’s hard because I wanna do more than XL, XXL; I wanna do up to like a 5XL.

You were saying it’s more costly, is it just material, or is it an industry bias that they have to retrofit sewing machines on the industrial line so they charge a lot more?
They say it’s in material. But I’m not really sure about that.

If you could have an ideal celeb co-sign from a famous big boy, who do you want?
DJ Khaled would always be my answer. (laughs) I just feel like he’s doing positivity, and also DJ Carnage. He’s a man of color and a man of size, as well. But I also feel like in order to push the narrative of male-body positivity, we’re going to need our sisters to help out. As far as Ashley Graham or other women in that realm of female body positivity, we’re gonna need them to be like, “Hey, big boys are cute, too.”

What do you have to say to all the critics and haters who came at you for your tweet? Or better put, what do you tell yourself so you don’t succumb to the negativity?
First of all, I have really thick skin. So a lot of it doesn’t really affect me, because I don’t think it’s personal. It isn’t talking about my family, my moms or my dad. It’s pretty much about me, and I can pretty much take it. I kinda laugh at it. Also, I just know there will be internet trolls trying to go viral and get attention from being negative. I don’t really pay that any mind. I feel like if I feed into the internet trolls and the people being negative, it’ll just bring more attention to them and cause more people to come over and do the same thing.

For guys looking to be as confident about their size as you are, where do you think you get your confidence from?
The earliest thing that I can remember is my mom always reassuring me — with the smallest things, too. Things like, “You’re so handsome,” and “You’re a good person.” Even when I didn’t make the best decisions growing up, she always reassured me that I was a good person and that I had a good heart. So the fact I always feel confident, I think I got it from that and my moms.