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What’s Wrong With the Term ‘Plus-Size’?

By Kaylin Tran


As a relatively new sector in the fashion market that was first introduced in the 1970s, much attention has been focused on plus-size models and clothing to achieve better diversity, inclusivity and representation for the masses. Models Paloma Elsesser and Ashley Graham discussed how they felt about the term “plus-size” in Graham’s podcast, “Pretty Big Deal.” Debates have been made before—and continue to exist—regarding the possibly offensive nature of the term. Elsesser and Graham came to the consensus that it wasn’t necessarily about the term itself, but rather the mistreatment and ostracization that plus-sized models face as a result of being placed in a separate category. Though body positivity has come a long way in the world of fashion, these discussions emphasize the gap in the market for plus-size individuals.


Plus-sized models are usually size 10 or 12 and higher, but even someone who’s a size 8 can qualify. Most plus-size clothing for mainstream consumers starts at size 16. Here lies the first problem: the type of plus-size that’s defined in fashion shows and marketing doesn’t realistically represent the true demographic. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2018 the average weight of a 20-year-old woman in North America is about 170.6 pounds, which is roughly a size 14. The promotion of thinner models in a category meant for bigger people continues to perpetuate the toxic concept that thinness equates to beauty.


The word “fat” itself has been constantly associated with negative connotations to the point of being euphemized. Of course, it’s every individual’s choice and right to decide how they want to describe themselves. From curvy or plus-size to thick or full-figured, many different terms have been created to empower others. However, it’s also important to address the struggle with morality that some people often face when it comes to calling someone fat. It’s something that even I have an internal debate about.


“I call myself ‘fat,’ personally, all the time … I think it’s important to sort of force people, even in a passive way, to confront the moral judgments they make about fat people,” said writer Amanda Mull in a conversation about the term “plus-size” for Racked. “Because, like, what else do they want us to say? Everybody else gets a way to describe their body that is accurate, that is a physical word about their body—thin or muscular or whatever. But when you get to fat people, the natural, obvious word is something that is so weighed down by moral judgment, and so weighed down with the idea that being thin is virtuous, that we’re not even allowed to use the word about ourselves now.”


Falling outside of this beauty standard of thinness comes with a stigma that’s debilitating. I say this as a size 12 woman, someone who is below the average size in the U.S. (according to the CDC’s report), but is still practically mocked by companies and brands who continue to misrepresent this demographic. It doesn’t help that creating a separate category indicates that plus-size people fall outside of the norm (which isn’t even the true norm in the first place).


“It’s similar to Eurocentric beauty standards, with what we call ‘exotic,’” said creative and influencer Ushshi Rahman, also for the “plus-size” discussion with Racked. “By saying something is exotic, you’re saying something else is a baseline. And so when you say ‘plus’ in the sense of language or self-description, what you’re saying is there’s only one normal way to be and you’re plus of that.”


Thus, the idea that plus-size people are different results in behaviors that reinforce that belief. This echoes the same sentiment that Elsesser and Graham discussed in their podcast. Even as well-known and successful individuals in their profession, they’ve had their fair share of experiences with microaggressions. They’ve arrived at a shoot only to find that none of the sample clothes fit; they’ve been ridiculed by staff with off-handed comments about their size or were even assumed to be the hair/makeup stylist instead of the model.


“I would rather not be in a label,” said Elsesser in the podcast. “I work personally very hard at producing good work, being respected in an industry that for so long I never thought would include me, so I don’t want to be devalued or reduced to a label. I also want the same treatment, I want the same clothes, I want the same experiences as a model.”


A common argument against acknowledging different body types stem from the belief that it glorifies obesity. Individuals who experienced discrimination because of their weight are about two and a half times more likely to experience mood or anxiety disorders, according to nationally representative data from the U.S. There’s a difference between being heavier and being unhealthy. Graham, an advocate for body positivity, constantly emphasizes the importance of fitness no matter one’s size.


“There are people that go on steroids,” said Rahman, “there are people who have eating disorder recovery, there are people who gain health by gaining weight, there are people who also gain weight because they have a back injury, or chronic illness, or fibromyalgia, or so on, so forth, where their mobility is affected—and guess what, they still deserve respect. They still deserve love. They still deserve to be treated just as humanely as someone with perfect health.”


So how do we work towards improving the plus-size aspect of the fashion industry? It’s all about normalizing different body types and abandoning the outdated standard that size equals beauty. But of course, this is much easier said than done.


It starts with fashion brands and clothing companies making an honest effort to be more inclusive; trying to convince the masses that size 8 models are a proper representation of the plus-size demographic is not only insulting for both parties, but entirely misleading for consumers. It starts with creating more in-store clothing options for plus-size individuals, many of whom are tired of shopping online. It starts with demystifying the harmful stereotypes surrounding fat, curvy, thick and beautiful people. It starts with promoting a lifestyle that revolves around overall health and wellness, mentally and physically. It starts with having positive media influences that embrace their small breasts and big thighs, their stretch marks and cellulite, their FUPA’s and double chins.


So just to set the record straight, the fault doesn’t necessarily lie within the actual term “plus-size.” It’s more so the stigma and consequent treatment of plus-size people that’s problematic.


Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.

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