Recently a good friend asked me “Are ‘average’ sized bodies considered ‘plus’ in your field?” It was in the context of a conversation where I’d been referring to both average and plus sized women, so it was a completely relevant question and one I promised to address because I think this is a topic that causes a lot of confusion amongst people not in the fashion industry.
My short answer is that I feel that there should be two terms at work here: one for models and one for consumers.
A plus sized model is a model who doesn’t fit into designer sample sizes to model garments on runways or in photoshoots. Designer sample garments typically cap out at a maximum of size 4-6. (And there are reasons that sample garments are made small. Some are vanity based and I don’t agree with them, but some are pragmatic and I do support those.) Thus, a model who we would still consider very slim, but who is over the sizes of sample garments is literally “plus sized” in that she is oversized in comparison to the garments she is expected to model in her profession.
That said, in common terminology outside the high fashion industry in the consumer fashion world we use the term “plus sized” to refer to someone who maybe carries some extra weight and is above somewhere around a size 16 or so. These women are over the sizes typically carried by standard retailers as opposed to those used for runways. They are “plus sized” in comparison to a completely different range of sizes.
However, we run into problems when women outside the fashion industry start seeing size 7’s called “plus sized” and thinking that the fashion industry considers that size “overweight.” We believe that the fashion industry is equating a size 7 to a size 16 and trying to convince us that someone as tiny as a size 7 is venturing into the realm of “heavy”. (I will take a moment to state that there is NOTHING wrong with either a size 7 or a size 16. Both are beautiful and I’m using a lot of subjective and relative terms here. Hence all the quotes.)
I believe that this problem of perception stems from the fact that we use the same term for both body type standards (or apparel standards really) when they are clearly describing two different things.
We run into a bigger problem when brands throw around these terms in the public eye rather than just within their own private spheres. E.g. actually saying “here’s a plus sized model in this magazine spread” referring to someone who’s a size 8 rather than someone the public understands to be plus sized who might be a 16+. I think this is the exception, not the rule, but I bring it up to caution artists and brands not to do this. It’s confusing and damaging. (Furthermore, as a personal pet peeve, if your brand’s sizing only goes up to a size 12, don’t label it “plus sized” as a marketing ploy just because the model is technically a fashion plus model. You will not only anger your public, you will harm your demographic’s self image. Just don’t do it.)
Along these lines, we’ve seen a number of scandals in the media that can be summed up by “How dare they call this model ‘plus sized’?!” We’ve even seen some problems arise where models themselves have internalized this problem of terminology and started to think of themselves as unacceptably heavy because they’ve been assigned the plus sized label even though they may actually be very slim to average weight. However, the fact is that these models are “plus sized”…in the context of their specific industry. The trouble is when the language of the real world and the fashion world overlaps. These women aren’t plus sized out in the world at large, but they do arguably need to be marketed to their clients as plus sized because their clients need to know their relative size when compared to sample garments being pulled from designers so that they know what kind of shows or campaigns they can book. They are over the sizes that are likely to be on hand at a show or shoot without a different set of accommodations.
That said, many or most of these women aren’t considered plus sized in the way we use the term outside the fashion industry when we talk about someone who weighs a little more than average. (Obviously models nowadays run the gamut all the way up to very large sizes like the gorgeous Tess Holliday, who would be considered plus sized in both senses. This is great. I love seeing this diversity shift in the industry. I hope this trajectory continues.)
In the end, it is a problem of terminology and in my opinion, it’s not a problem we should dismiss as trivial.
I’m afraid that I don’t have a new terminology proposal at hand and I would love to hear your ideas! Let’s set a new standard that differentiates the idea of a model who doesn’t fit sample sizes and the idea of a larger, curvier woman. We don’t need to keep confusing younger generations with inarticulate terms that are harmful to self image. Both of these ideas are clearly ones that we want or maybe even need names for, but let’s stop accidentally conflating them with each other in problematic ways.
*I’m coming at this problem as someone who worked as a photographer for many years, someone who has worked as Director of Photography, and someone who has worked for agencies representing models and actors. I’ve studied body image extensively, but I’m also intimately familiar with the problems of both casting and marketing talent articulately and succinctly to clients. I’m highly sympathetic to both the industry and to the public (and models) suffering from body image issues caused by the industry. I am not necessarily happy with the status quo, but I think it’s important to explain and understand at the very least in order to start a necessary dialog. Understanding is the first step to any kind of change. I’ve actually seen a large push to abolish the term “plus sized” entirely. I think that’s an interesting concept, though I am still interested in maintaining a vocabulary of some kind if a less problematic one.
Photos by Stephanie Maulding. Model: Erica Larsen
Erica is one of my favorite plus models.
She is also one of the first plus models I ever got to work with. I shot these many years ago.