By Nathalie Atkinson
A few weeks ago, Ajay Rochester, a former host of the Australian version of TV’s The Biggest Loser, teamed up with her compatriot, model Stefania Ferrario, to spearhead a new campaign called #DropThePlus. Making clear that she doesn’t find the descriptor “plus-size” empowering, Ferrario wrote “I am a model FULL STOP” on her naked torso, then shared the image on her Instagram account. The duo’s effort questions whether the term “plus-size” is inclusive or even necessary, going so far as to demand that the fashion industry banish such labelling.
The problem with the way they’ve positioned this, though, is how it conflates several factors and objectives. The first problem in discussing the underlying issues is a complicating layer of misunderstanding: Ferrario is the equivalent of a Canadian size 8, so already there are arguments and accusations over whether she’s simply ashamed to be lumped into a category with fat women. Second, fashion has a language all its own and – surprise! – it isn’t always logical.
The term “plus” dates back to U.S. retailer Lane Bryant’s use of the category name Misses Plus in advertising in the early 1920s. Today, there are two different working definitions of plus-size, depending on its industry context. In fashion modelling, a plus is any woman who is a size above 4 (38 chest and 28 waist for men). Among clothing manufacturers, sizes 14 and up are considered plus. When sociologist Amanda Czerniawski and I spoke about her book Fashioning Fat in February, the former model admitted that she has a problem with the term plus-size. “Plus what?” she asked animatedly. “You’re referring to average bodies!” Pointedly, Czerniawski uses the term “average” rather than “normal” (“which would imply a right or a wrong”) throughout her book.
It’s hard to think of a term, apart from “plus,” that wouldn’t be an even more awkward euphemism. For a while, I favoured “Rubenesque,” before the crushing pretentiousness of it became too much. The term “curvy” is frankly worse, coming with its own sets of pressures (it may be fine for a slogan, but not to quantify or describe, since it suggests an exoticization of the flesh).
Do we need a term at all? Women wondering if they can fit into a frock already have a handy reference guide, right there on the label. It’s called a number. Somehow, though, mere label distinctions have become a hierarchy, with petite at the top and plus sizes (and the women who wear them) at the bottom.
That is the real issue at hand – and one of the reasons that plus-size model Tess Holliday doesn’t agree with #DropThePlus campaign. The problem, she feels, isn’t the wording, but the industry that uses it. Holliday has her own hashtag, #EffYourBeautyStandards, but says she won’t get behind banning “plus” because, among other things, a thriving community of women and men have already embraced it, find no problem with it and don’t need or deserve further confusion on the matter
I, too, find the term helpful in a retail context, but that’s because most mainstream designer brands don’t size main collections larger than a 12; if they make clothes for larger women at all, it’s a completely different collection, one that, like big-and-tall men’s wear, is relegated in North America either to a separate department or to its own stores altogether. When I was in Denmark some years ago, I remember being pleasantly surprised while shopping at the department store Illum because larger sizes were grouped with smalls and mediums in a single department carrying all sorts of designer brands. That’s right: By Malene Birger hung alongside Balenciaga, except that you won’t find the latter in any size approaching average.
What the disparity on our side of the Atlantic has done is create an opportunity that benefits many of the niche and specifically plus-size brands that design exclusively for 12s to 24s. When 14, however, is the acknowledged average size, representative of the majority, should 14 to 24 be considered niche? The real issue isn’t how clothes are labelled, but how designers and retailers ignore consumer reality both in what they create and how they sell it. In the real world, “plus” isn’t “fat,” but a category of real women excluded from participation in mainstream style. And from the point of view of alienating a lot of consumers when you’re trying to sell stuff, that’s isn’t just bad vocabulary, but a flawed business model.