When Did “Plus Size” Become An Insult?

I see more and more people recoiling from the term "plus size" like it's a total slam. What's up with that?
Publish date:
January 27, 2014
fat, weight, body politics, euphemisms, models, plus size

Robyn Lawley is one of the most popular plus size models working today -- the only problem is that she hates the term “plus size.” According to the Daily Mail, anyhow.

"People say, 'How is she a plus-size model?' and I'm like, 'Exactly, this is the point, how am I a plus-size model?'"[...] She also revealed that she would like to see the end of the term 'plus-size' altogether, arguing that as she isn't a plus-size person, she shouldn't be considered one."I don't think anyone should be called plus-size," she adds. "I think it's derogatory to anyone - it's a label."I'm a model; I don't think I need 'plus-size' in front of it."

Lawley’s observations were met with some complicated reactions from the internet, and I’ll confess that my initial repsonse was UGH, WHAT? as well. “Plus size” as a term serves a purpose for women whose clothing options are drastically limited by the size they wear. It’s not “derogatory,” it’s descriptive. You can offer me gorgeous dresses all day long, but if they don’t come in my size I have no use for them. At minimum, “plus size” is a necessary evil to distinguish the clothing that I can hypothetically buy and wear from the clothing that I can only admire from a distance.

Lawley’s thoughts were particularly perplexing considering she wrote a much-lauded condemnation of the ridiculous “thigh gap” business for The Daily Beast just a few months ago. Fortunately, she followed up on the plus size backlash by clarifying on her Facebook page with an explanation that gives a little more context:

The reason why I truly don't like being called "plus size" is because I'm worried girls and women will look at the label the fashion industry has given me and compare their bodies to mine. For example, I often see women commenting, "if she is plus size what does that make me?" It saddens me that women, especially young and impressionable girls, are bombarded with very certain body types and labels, that our society unfortunately dictates we should be. It took me years to get this notion out of my head and to look at my body and say "no, it's fine the way it is. I do not need to change, and no, I'm not plus size." I feel a women shouldn't have to go into a department store and be segregated into a "plus size" section, hence why I think the label "plus size" is derogatory. Their size should be included on the racks like everyone else. I'm trying to do this with my own swimwear label.My intention is not to offend the community that continually supports me and who has put my career on the map, when no fashion labels would. I feel a social responsibility to promote size diversity. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, it always has and always will.

That makes far more sense to me, and the point is well taken. Lawley -- who, near as I can figure from a lot of different reports on the subject, wears around a size 10, or possibly an 8, or maybe sometimes a 12 -- is not quite “plus size” by the standards of the majority of clothing designers and manufacturers, most of whom top out at a 12 or a 14 before things get plusified. I can understand her discomfort.

And besides, different models are allowed to have different feelings about the plus label. In September of last year, Refinery29 interviewed four plus size models; in each case, the interviewer asked them about their feelings on the term itself, and the result was four distinctly different answers. Personally, I liked Fluvia Lacerda’s response best:

"Skinny jeans, A-line dress etc., those are just words to describe something we all know what it is, but to describe it specifically. It gives the costumer a way of identifying what exactly is been sold or talked about.[...]I don’t get why people in the industry seem to be so offended about it or so desperate to be included in the just 'model' bag. Yes, I am a model. That’s how I pay my bills. But, I model clothes for women who have a hard time finding clothes in the average shop, and they usually go to the plus-size section or label. It’s simple; and to me, really no big deal. If you look at me obviously you will know I am plus-size. I don’t wear 10, 12, or 14. I wear 18, sometimes 20. So, that’s my body shape and the industry I work with, and the women who keep me employed are plus-size. I have zero problems with been called a plus-size model."

Of course, the obvious difference is that Lacerda is legitimately plus-sized by most people's standards, and thus she doesn’t have to struggle with a label that might not fit the reality of her life, as many other “plus” models do. If the reactions of Lawley as well as the other models in the Refinery29 article are anything to go by, all of these women are acutely aware of the bizarro situation of being employed to represent a size group they don’t actually belong to.

Euphemisms are not generally my bag (UNLESS they’re funny or satirical, like “death fat” instead of “morbidly obese,” or “fat rampage” instead of “obesity epidemic,” to name a couple) because while the purpose of euphemistic speech is to soften the blow of a more straightforward assessment, it often winds up backfiring in the end, when the euphemisms wind up being just as insulting as the allegedly offensive terms they’re meant to replace. “Curvy” is one of the more common euphemisms for fat, and aside from being inaccurate -- not all fat broads are “curvy” in the manner expected, thankyouverymuch -- I’m seeing it used more and more often with a sneer, now that folks have figured out what it’s code for.

Same with “plus size.” Last week I was flipping through Instagram and spotted a comment on a photo of Tess Munster -- gorgeous magnificent glamour girl and plus size model -- that said something to the effect of, “It’s insane that anyone would consider you plus sized!” Because, I guess, “plus size” means gross and ugly and bad.

I had one of those am-I-insane moments there, where I wondered if I should check whether the sky continues to be blue, or that I didn’t accidentally wake up in a world where apes evolved from men and must send their youth to compete in a battle to the death in order to secure unobtanium from giant robot aliens who look like cars. Tess Munster is a striking beauty by any standard, but she is also most assuredly a person who wears plus sizes. Maybe not all the time -- hell, I’m a huge great size-26-wearing fatass who has loads of straight-size sweaters, because things do stretch -- but according to her own site, she wears a size 22. (Can I just pause and reiterate how much I love it when models and actresses are up front about their measurements and weight?)

I’ve seen this other places too -- in comments on any article about plus size models, the criticism of their being called plus size is usually not a matter of semantics, and the fact that “plus size” ought to mean something specific. People typically aren’t arguing that the term is inappropriate because the models may not technically be plus-sized, but are often rather arguing that it’s wrong because the models are BEAUTIFUL, and well-proportioned. Which is not “plus size.”

See also the oft-repeated idea that, "If SHE'S plus size, what does that make me?" Well, a GROTESQUE OBESE CORPULENCE-MONSTER, obviously. Why are you even making this comparison between yourself and a woman whose job is literally to enact an impossible fantasy? The truth is, you can get away with being an "inspirational" and unconventionally beautiful "plus size" at a size 12, or even a 14, if you happen to be tall, and have an hourglass shape whose proportions reflect what contemporary beauty standards have decided are most desirable.

But for the vast majority of everyday women, this is simply not an option. Details like hip-to-waist ratio are overwhelmingly genetic. If you are not a woman predisposed to an hourglass figure, certainly you can attempt to diet yourself smaller overall, but there really is no diet or exercise regime that is going to give you those dramatically “curvy” proportions. In spite of what late-night ads for weight loss quackery will tell you, if you tend to gain weight in your belly as opposed to your hips, it’s not because you’re eating the wrong kind of food, or that you’re doing the wrong crunches; that’s just your genetic cross to bear.

Regardless of how it might be misused in modeling contexts, “plus size” shouldn’t be an insult, or a detraction, nor is it necessarily a bad or lesser status of body. “Plus size” ought to be a simple descriptor of a group of sizes, not unlike “petite” or “tall.” I mean how often do you hear people saying of a short woman, Ugh, she’s so petite, it’s sooo gross. That would be absurd.

The fact that I have a certain body shape (not hourglass) that wears a certain size (plus) is just one attribute about me. I’m not hurt or upset when someone calls me "plus size," because in my case -- unlike many plus models -- it’s literally true, and I’d have to be deep in denial to argue otherwise. (Honestly, I get more annoyed when people pretend it doesn’t affect what clothes I can wear, because THAT is just insulting.) I'm not embarrassed by either the term itself or my size, and since I would never tell anyone else how they ought to feel about their body, I'll thank you to not tell me how I should feel about mine.

While I do agree with the notion that it would be nice to no longer need this term anymore, because all the clothes come in all the sizes and are delivered to our homes by baby unicorns sliding down rainbows to our front doors and gently passing us all our dream outfits with their glitter-encrusted hooves and then inviting us to go for a cheery romp through meadows of flowering donut-plants heavy with donut-fruits filled with the magical jelly of universal self-love, refusing to use it does not itself change anything. Refusing to use it does not erase the fact that wearing a certain size sets many women apart, as consumers and even as participants in culture, of which style and fashion are often a significant portion.

So maybe instead of dismissing “plus size” as a newly negative assessment, we should adjust the thinking that leads us to knee-jerkily assume that ANY acknowledgement of size difference is always a bad and embarrassing thing.