Over the last few years, there has been a lot of debate on whether the label ‘plus size’ is positive or negative for women. Plus size models, modeling agencies, style bloggers, and fashion designers have come together to get people to drop the label. Retailers that are either size inclusive or specifically serve the “plus size” market have been dropping the label or finding a less loaded term to convey they sell clothing in a broad range of sizes.
Plus size, like many labels, is one that some people embrace and others shirk. And, like so many labels, it was intended to be a practical descriptor but has come to have other connotations and stigma attached to it. In 1922, Lane Bryant made the shift from describing their customers as ‘stout’ to advertising their wares as “Misses Plus Sizes.” The term was initially used as a way for retailers to easily convey what clothing sizes they sold. But over time, the term came to be attached to the myriad of fatphobic connotations our misogynistic, beauty-obsessed society firmly holds. Because we all know that as far as our society is concerned, the absolute worst thing a woman can do is be fat.
The majority of my frustration with the plus size debate in the fashion industry lie in the effects of society’s intense fatphobia. The majority of plus size models that are part of #droptheplus and #plusisequal are people who are plus size within the fashion industry, like Ashley Graham and Stefania Ferrario, but who are not considered plus size by retail brands. And while I can understand how it must be frustrating to partially fit a label, as a fat/plus size woman myself it makes me wonder if their issue with being called “plus size models” is strictly about desiring inclusivity in the fashion industry, or if it’s because they don’t want to be connected in any direct way to fatness. Other plus size models and style bloggers like Tess Holliday, Kat Stroud, and Naomi Griffiths find the ‘plus size’ label to be an empowering way to describe their clothes, their bodies, and their communities.
I don’t personally find the term ‘plus size’ to be harmful or damaging, but then again I also proudly, and somewhat defiantly, identify as a fat woman. I’m about 5’6” and typically wear a 24/3X, putting me very solidly in the plus size market. I think that like many other labels, “plus size” is problematic because while a label may empower some, it will inevitably be a source of pain and shame for others. We currently do not live in a world free of labels, and until all (or at least the majority of) clothing retailers are size inclusive I, like Chrystal Bougon (Owner of Curvy Girl Lingerie), will proudly identify as plus size.
I recognize that my experience with labels such as ‘fat’ and ‘plus size’ isn’t exactly typical. While I’ve gone through periods of discomfort and frustration with my body, I’ve never been at war with it or loathed it. I’ve never seen myself as less than or unworthy of love because of my body, even when peers made snide comments about my quickly developing, pubescent, preteen body. I didn’t need them to see me as beautiful, because I already knew and truly believed I was. That is all thanks to my parents.
I was raised by a mom who was fat and a dad who was thin. I watched them be loving to each other as well as to me and my brother. Weight wasn’t really discussed in our home, and I genuinely never recall either of my parents saying shitty things about their own bodies or other people’s bodies. They both encouraged and complimented me and my brother on the things that interested us and the things we were good at. My parents wanted me to know deeply and certainly that I was (and am) beautiful, but more important to them was that I had that same deep knowledge that I am smart, driven, funny, and passionate. I grew up knowing that my body was a representation of me, but that it in no way defines who I am.
My experience differs so much from stories I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances who have also been fat since their teen years or earlier. I think the way I was raised to view myself helps me more easily see words like ‘fat’ and ‘plus size’ as descriptive words rather than as barbed insults that barely hide negative connotations like ‘ugly’, ‘lazy’, or ‘lacking self-control’ below the surface. Don’t get me wrong, I am still very aware that other people refer to me as fat and mean it in an insulting way. But in those moments I choose to see that insult as a reflection of their narrow perspective of what is beautiful and not as a referendum on me or my body.
I think it’s all too easy to listen to messages prevalent in almost every area of our society and see fat bodies, even our own, as bad and ugly and unhealthy and wrong. The effects of societal messages touting one ultimate beauty standard for women are bound to trickle down from words like ‘fat’ and ‘fatness’ to ‘plus size.’ This point is made more obvious when you notice that as ‘fat’ became more of a catch-all insult for larger bodies, people started using “plus size” as a euphemistic way to describe fat bodies. It became a way to call out fat bodies for their size while creating a perception of distance from the connotations associated with fatness. This is what is really at the heart of the debate against the plus size label: connecting plus size to the negative connotations around fatness, and how those messages can be incredibly alienating and emotionally harmful to women.
Despite these negative messages and connotations, I’ve seen the plus size label create and foster incredibly positive communities for people of all genders, races, and levels of ability. And I’ve seen that happen far more than I’ve seen people feel hurt or offended by the label. While the label is problematic, I think its effects on women are far more in the neutral-to-positive side of a graph rather than the negative. I see how the label is alienating and exclusionary to some women, but in my experience ‘plus size’ has cultivated positive, empowered bonds between women. And anything that gives women the opportunity to be kinder to ourselves and each other is a powerful and positive thing.