Drop the Plus

Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for HSN

Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for HSN

Melissa McCarthy’s new clothing line Seven7 launched this month to much fanfare, particularly because it comes in a wide range of sizes (size 4 through a 28). In an interview with Refinery29, McCarthy explained her disdain for the label “plus size”:

I just think, if you’re going to make women’s clothing, make women’s clothing. Designers that put everyone in categories are over-complicating something that should be easy.

I don’t like the segregated plus section. You’re saying: “You don’t get what everybody else gets. You have to go shop up by the tire section.” I have a couple of very big retailers that I think are going to help me chip away at that in a very meaningful way, and I’m really excited about it. I’m not ready to announce them yet, but they agreed to just put me on the floor. I said, “Run the sizes as I make them and let friends go shopping with their friends. Stop segregating women.” And they said, “Okay.”

0And she is not the only one who is displeased with the term “plus size.” Prominent plus-size models such as Robyn Lawley, Ashley Graham, Denise Bidot, and Stefania Ferrario, who launched the #droptheplus campaign, have been vocal against the term.

Over the past few months, I had the pleasure to comment on the debate in a number of publications including The Washington Post, Hello Giggles, MIC.com, and Zipped Magazine. So, let me summarize the problem from a sociological perspective.

The expression “plus size” is often misunderstood or unknown (and usually equated with fatness). As many could surmise from a single glance at magazine photos of plus-size models, the basic definition of “plus size” in modeling does not match the cultural image of a fat woman. Most casual observers of plus-size models would probably not even perceive them as “plus size,” let alone fat. Indeed, many of these models are of “average” size and weight, typically wearing women’s sizes ten to eighteen; retail industry experts estimate that the average American woman weighs approximately one hundred sixty pounds and wears a size fourteen. Typically, the industry considers anything over a woman’s size eight as “plus size.”

Whitney-in-Seventeen-Magazine-whitney-thompson-1485350-1561-2084For example, look at the case of Whitney Thompson, the declared first plus-size model to win the coveted title of America’s Next Top Model in the television series’ tenth cycle in 2008. Since she first appeared on the show, many debated whether she should really be referred to as a plus-size model since she, at a size eight or ten at the time, did not embody their image of a fat woman; however, from the fashion industry’s perspective, she was, indeed, plus size. Tyra Banks alluded to this distorted body standard when she argued during a judging session that Whitney was not considered “big” except when judged as a fashion model. More recently, Robyn Lawley, who wears a woman’s size twelve, became the first plus-size model featured in a swimsuit issue of Sport’s Illustrated. These models are “average” to the ordinary consumer, but, in sharp contrast, they are “plus size” to the fashion industry.

rookie-reveal-robyn-fullsize-12134_0The term “plus size” is highly problematic because it is not measured in absolute terms and, quite simply, means different things to different people. Without standardized sizing practices and the added complication of vanity sizing (i.e., size inflation), a static dimensional form of plus size does not exist. On top of that, there is the inconsistency in the categorization of plus size between the modeling and retail clothing industries. In clothing retail, plus-size retailers generally start their merchandise at a size fourteen (sometimes twelve) and run through size twenty-four. (Super-size apparel begins at size twenty-six or 4X to 6X.) On the other hand, the fashion modeling industry considers anything over a woman’s size eight as “plus size.” This presents an interesting scenario where it is not uncommon for models to be hired to advertise for plus-size clothing lines while they, themselves, normally do not fit into plus-size sizes. Consequently, many of these “smaller” plus-size models use body padding to effectively size up because clients want a plus-size body but thin face.

Ultimately, the term “plus size” becomes increasingly meaningless when used to categorize clothing sizes that the average woman wears. It does not accurately reflect the nature of the bodies it supposedly describes. The term “plus size,” however, is still loaded with huge cultural significance and plagued by the stigma of fat. The “plus” in plus size is not really a positive but a negative, which explains the increasing movement by industry professionals—from agents to prominent models such as Ashley Graham and now Melissa McCarthy—to distance themselves from the term.

Bree_Warren1While conducting my research for my book, Fashioning Fat, I noticed some movement within modeling agencies towards challenging the traditional “thin is in” and “plus size is everyone above a size eight” stance in fashion. As it stands, the distinction between straight- and plus-size models is based solely on size. The basic model requirement of proportionate facial and bodily features is standard among all models and, quite simply, the nature of modeling work, itself, is the same no matter the model’s size. The agents themselves saw little justification for the continuation of this division.

Recent developments indicate that the distinction between plus- and straight-size modeling is eroding. Take Jag Model Agency, founded in 2013 by former directors of Ford Models’s now-defunct plus-size division. The agency represents models from size 6 to size 20. And unlike other agencies, they don’t segregate based on size categories. IMG Models (the world’s top modeling agency) announced in the fall of 2013 that they, too, would no longer segregate models into different boards based on size.

I agree with this movement towards eliminating a categorical system based on arbitrary size distinctions. Models are models and women are women, regardless of their size.

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