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Mina Gerges grew up in Egypt, where the 'government often persecutes, imprisons, and murders the queer community.'Colin Gaudet/Handout

Growing up Egyptian and gay, Mina Gerges didn’t see anyone who looked like him reflected in the fashion world. But that hasn’t stopped the Toronto-based activist from pursuing a career in modelling while proudly claiming his relatable physique – rolls, stretch marks and all. By challenging restrictive physical ideals for men, he’s landed campaigns with global players like Sephora and Calvin Klein. Sharing with a 98,000-person following on Instagram, Gerges is on a mission to use his voice to inspire male body positivity. The Globe and Mail caught up with Gerges to find out how he is redefining beauty standards.

At the beginning of June, you shared on Instagram that this Pride Month feels like the most significant one you’ve been a part of in your life. How are you feeling now?

[Sighs.] Today I’m doing a lot better, but Sarah Hegazi, one of the really big activists in the queer Egyptian community, recently passed away, and I’ve been doing a lot of organizing with our community. We’re doing a vigil for her. It’s been a difficult time for any person of colour, any allies to Black people – all of us have had to step up.

I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. Can you tell me more about your activism work?

I grew up in Egypt, a country where to this day, it’s still illegal to be gay. The interesting thing about it is that it’s not written in law, but the Egyptian government often persecutes, imprisons, and murders the queer community and they’re very unapologetic about it. It’s so close to my heart because we immigrated to Canada when I was 12 years old, and I know for a fact that my life would have been so different if we hadn’t. And I take that privilege with me every single day. It’s a heavy responsibility that I’m here for a reason, that I can be myself, but the people from my own community cannot.

It’s become about, how am I going to use my privilege to make and create space and fight for my community? I do everything that I can to advocate in person, but also through my career. The biggest thing I believe can change people’s minds is stories about us. To see us being beautiful and strong, and to push against that narrative that’s engrained in our culture, that we have a mental illness or that there’s something wrong with us. So, I want to create stories of hope and beauty. And I hope that can change people’s minds.

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Gerges was told by a model scout that he did not 'have the right look, and there’s no market for someone like' him.Colin Gaudet/Handout

How did modelling become the best way to share your message?

Well, when I first came out as a teen, I Googled “gay men” and the first images I saw in that search were of thin, muscular men. They were also mostly white. As a brown, fat kid, that did not help my body image whatsoever. Eventually, I started to really hate my body and developed an eating disorder. I was starving myself and obsessively exercising, so desperate to achieve that body type that is the most ideal standard of beauty. When I told my family they laughed and told me “Men don’t have eating disorders.” That really stuck with me as a 19-year-old, to be told that my struggle was not valid.

Around that time, I tried to get into modelling. I had this very dismissive encounter with a model scout who told me I don’t have the right look and there’s no market for someone like me.

That must have been devastating to hear.

It perpetuated my body image issues. But around the summer of 2018, I started seeing different shapes and sizes in women’s fashion. We were having conversations about the importance of diversity and showing that women don’t have to be a size zero. Seeing those curvier women being celebrated really helped me a lot, helped me to love my body, stretch marks and curves. That was a really groundbreaking moment for me.

And then I looked at the men’s side and thought, how is there no progress? At that point, I had grown [my following] on Instagram and thought, why don’t I just share my journey with my body image and eating disorder? That story was picked up by Teen Vogue, Paper and the CBC, and there was an outpouring of support from so many people who said they had experienced the exact same thing.

It gave me this purpose. There’s no one really pushing for this diversity. I think the progress and things I’ve been able to accomplish in my career so far speak to the fact that people are more than ready [to see change]. We have been asking for it, wanting it, and it’s beautiful to see brands slowly starting to recognize that.

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Gerges wants to 'normalize seeing plus-size men.'Colin Gaudet/Handout

What needs to happen to take the movement to the next level?

From my personal experience, it’s like everyone knows that men need plus-size fashion, need more diversity, but no one is really doing anything about it. The fashion industry has been complicit in erasing and silencing the need for it, and the conversation. I don’t want to look at campaigns that make me feel [bad] about my body. I want to shop a brand that shows me that my body, just the way that it is now, looks good and can look good. Once we reshape that narrative, that’s the biggest shift the industry needs to start taking on.

I want to normalize seeing plus-size men, men of different body sizes. The goal is that when a brand like Calvin Klein works with someone like me, it’s not the first time, but that this is the norm. This is the expectation.

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