Meet the model: Mike Nguyen on masculinity and body image
Nisa has a chat with Mike, the face of our new men’s range, about body image and his journey through adulthood working out who he is and what he stands for.
For Mike Nguyen, modelling in Nisa underwear wasn’t his first rodeo.
Mike often finds images of himself plastered across the streets of Melbourne in his undies, as part of the awareness campaign Drama Down Under. While this would be the worst nightmare of many, Mike gets a laugh out of the idea of his acquaintances or colleagues blushing when they recognise him. He’s not afraid to show his body; it bears evidence of the years he’s taken to discover who he is. These days, he’s working as a graphic designer, supporting others in the queer community, and squeezing a Zoom interview with us into his lunch break over a bowl of Phở.
Mike, 33, grew up in Naarm (the aboriginal place name for the land in the Melbourne area), and works there as a graphic designer. From a young age, he was used to standing against heteronormativity and masculine norms. As a Vietnamese-Australian, he felt pressure from both sides; he had to battle discriminatory stereotypes about his culture, and struggled with the emphasis on tradition within his family. “My mum couldn’t dress me as a child. I refused to wear the outfits she picked for me after I turned six or seven,” he recalls. “I wasn’t necessarily trying to rebel, I just didn’t want my life to be dictated.”
As he entered young adulthood, the pressure to conform to other people’s expectations took its toll. Unhappiness manifested in his attitude towards his body. “I had an eating disorder. I used to starve myself of nutrients. I got to my goal weight and was fitting into sample-sized clothing, but I felt and looked malnourished. Some of my friends were really concerned for me.”
Though Mike’s path to self-confidence wasn’t linear, he thinks a pivotal moment was when he came out as gay aged 23. “I stopped caring about what other people thought of me. Part of learning to love myself more was learning more about who I was and my culture.” To him, having the right support system was essential. He attributes a lot to his best friend, who was only one year older than himself but “grasped things from a very young age.” He gained a huge amount of perspective by forming friendships with other people of colour from all walks of life.
Part of learning about himself was embracing his Vietnamese heritage. “I feel like Vietnamese people are humble. It’s the softness of the people and their hospitality that I really appreciate, and that’s how I try to be.”
Mike also built support systems for himself in the queer community. He is now a part of Naarm’s ballroom scene, which emulates the ballroom culture forged by the black and latinx trans community of New York in the late twentieth century. “I belong to a diverse queer community. We encourage and inspire each other. Our purpose is to create safe spaces for trans people and for those who are discriminated against for being who they truly are.” He says that belonging to a chosen family provides a nice contrast to what otherwise feels like a very individualistic society. He’s the oldest of his group, the House of Dévine, giving him a de facto protective role: “I have a little more life experience. My responsibility is to be the father figure. They often call me Dad.”
The time that he has spent learning to love himself and helping others do the same has led to the realisation that self-love isn’t constant. “We are always going to have issues with our bodies,” he says. “I have mates who are bodybuilders. Even they’re not happy with their bodies when they’re at their most ripped. It’s unattainable to always be happy. It’s not overnight, it takes time. You’ll have good and bad days, but I can confidently say that I have more good days than bad when it comes to my body.” His advice to others? “Find what you have to offer. Everyone has value as a person. Why not be the best version of yourself, with every single fibre of your being?”