The Habits of Successful Men: Ben James, model
Author: Nick Carvell
Signed to Milk Management in 2018, Ben James has fast become one of Britain’s most recognisable plus-size male models. Standing at 6’6, his enviable good looks and gloriously glossy hair have bagged him campaigns for major labels including ASOS, Ted Baker and Burton since trading his job in sports and tech marketing for modelling in his mid-Twenties. However, it’s a career born out of a childhood suffering with coeliac disease, which caused him to experience not only intense fluctuations in his weight, but also to internalise a toxic relationship with his own body. It was only by starting on a journey to mending this relationship that he gained his confidence back, and it’s this that’s lead him to become not just a successful model but also one of the UK’s most prominent male body positivity advocates on social media with over 250,000 followers on TikTok
Today, Ben is on a mission to normalise more relatable male physiques in the modelling industry and set an example for men and boys who have grown up not loving their bodies. “I went into this to show all the mini-me's out there that they can be creative and fashionable and cool, not just the fat friend who makes their mates laugh at parties” he says, when I speak to him over Zoom. “I felt like I owed it to people my size to show them that they are normal and that they can be celebrated in a positive way. That they can stand out for the right reasons.”
Here, I speak to Ben about how he got into the modelling game, who inspires him with their attitude to exercise and how we can all build a healthier relationship with our bodies.
How did you become a model?
So, a bit of background! I grew up with so many different body issues because I was so big at such a young age: I was 6ft when I was 11 and I was 6’6 by the time I was 14. Being that tall kind of robbed me of my childhood, because you’re a foot taller than the average man so you get treated like a grown-up rather than a kid. More than that it robbed me of a positive relationship with my own body, because it made me feel like a freak – like I stood out for all the wrong reasons.
Later on, when I was about 23 or 24, I discovered I have coeliac disease, which means my body has a reaction when I eat gluten and a number of other foods. But before that, I ballooned to a really large weight in my late teens and it completely destroyed my confidence. When I discovered my condition, I was able to lose that weight safely and I gained my confidence back.
So when the opportunity came along to be a model, it felt like I could right a lot of wrongs. It was outside my comfort zone and it forced me to learn a new relationship with my body that I’d learned to hate.
So how did the opportunity to model come about?
About three years ago, a guy with a build like mine called Zach Miko was signed to a new male plus-size division of IMG Models in America, and it was global news. So, I looked at him and thought, if he can do it, then I can do it. I approached a few agencies and I was really taken aback to receive offers from three agencies within a day. One of the agencies immediately came back with the offer of an international campaign in Denmark - so, at that point, it became real for me. I realised I could be a real working professional model. So I signed a contract on Monday and on Friday I was out there in Denmark on my first job.
Did you get any coaching on how to model?
No, I didn’t get coaching in advance, but the company that signed me knew it was my first time. The thing is, plus-size or “big and tall” male models are a niche in the modelling world right now, so there’s not a long lineage of us who have been in the industry for years like, say, David Gandy.
What has been a highlight of your career so far?
One of the key moments for me was when I got to do a campaign for Ted Baker at the end of 2019 and it wasn’t a specific “big and tall” campaign. That was a really big deal for me, because I wasn’t being used as a plus-size guy in that shoot, I was there as a model and my body type was completely irrelevant.
With so much toxicity out there on social media, it's tough to feel comfortable in your own skin. What advice would you have for a man who's embarking on the journey to self-acceptance?
The key is consuming less of the stuff that has a negative impact on your mental health. If you are consuming content that makes you feel toxic within your own body, you need to unfollow those accounts and stop comparing yourself. Instead, follow people who inspire you, whatever they do.
Who inspires you with their body positivity?
Those in sport and service, such as firefighters. For people in these fields, the appearance of their bodies is immaterial - they have an objective and they care for their bodies in a way that helps them achieve that. If you look at rugby, for example, all of the guys on the team have different bodies, all honed not for aesthetic reasons but to do the job in the best way possible. I think that’s what people need to learn more about. It’s the same with a firefighter. If your house is on fire and you need saving, do you care that that fireman has love handles? No. What’s important is that his body is primed and ready to do that job. Exercise needs to be about using our bodies, not just showing them.
So you should embrace your body for what it can do, as opposed to what it looks like...
Yes because chasing an aesthetic goal like getting abs is totally subjective - it’s not a measurable goal so it’s impossible to achieve. However, if you’re orientated around getting faster or being more flexible, then you can set measurable goals and improve on them when you have achieved them. That keeps you far more motivated than aesthetics alone.
You make really great work-out content. If a man wants to ease into exercise after lockdown comes to an end, where would you advise him to start?
If you’re looking to get into exercise when restrictions ease, I would recommend a sport or a group activity (as restrictions allow). We are social animals and if there’s a social element to what you’re doing with your exercise, you’ll be more likely to go so you can see those people. If you do go to the gym, the key is frequency. If you go to workout twice a week and go really hard, you’ll be stiff and exhausted and you’ll end up training less. If you go at a pace in the gym that’s more enjoyable and manageable long term, then you’ll end up going more - perhaps four or five times a week. And over a month that builds up. Find a time that works for you and a space you like, and focus on exercises that build up your strength safely. That’s the foundation to build everything from moving forward.
What is the most rewarding thing someone has told you in response to one of your posts on social media?
Something that gets me genuinely emotional - and this has happened to me twice now - is when a guy sends me a message buzzing that they’ve gone shirtless on the beach for the first time. The thing is, I’m not sitting here saying we all have to love our bodies, we just shouldn’t hate them. True body positivity is neutrality, where it doesn’t upset you to take your shirt off in front of other people. I have days where I struggle to take my T-shirt off in certain environments, but I have to tell myself that the only person who’s making this an issue is me. So it’s incredibly rewarding for me when men tell me that what I’m doing on social media has helped them to get to that point and relax without their shirts on for the first time in their lives.
What is the definition of success to you?
To be happy and to feel like that I’ve made a difference. If I can look back as an old man sitting by the fire and know that I’ve made a few people feel better about themselves, then that’s a real achievement.
Do you have any habits as a part of your morning routine that help you get ready for the day ahead?
Music is super important for me in the morning. I like to play tracks that match my energy.
What’s one habit that helps you relax in the evening?
Working out. I like to finish the day with exercise and after that I feel I can properly relax.
What’s a habit you can’t give up?
Social media. I’m a bit addicted to the scroll.
What’s a (bad) habit you’re proud to have given up?
I used to be a really messy person, but I’ve got control of that over the past few years.
What (good) habit would you like to cultivate?
Being more organised with my diary. I keep a lot of the things I’m going to be doing up in my brain and need to get better at putting my schedule down on paper.