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Clockwise from left: Hunter McGrady, Ushshi Rahmen, Darlene Lebron, Amanda Mull
Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images

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What Does “Plus Size” Even Mean?

Talking about how we talk about size.

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A funny thing happened when we brought four women together to talk about how we talk about being a size 14 or above in America: Everyone knew exactly who and what everyone else was wearing. “I love that jacket, Rebelist?” was met with, “You know it — and that top’s Torrid, right?” or “Cute Premme dress!”

Anytime you bring a bunch of stylish people together, particularly to talk about clothes, there’s a chance the conversation will turn to designers and brands. But in this instance, everyone agreed that their encyclopedic knowledge didn’t come purely from a love of fashion; it came from the fact that plus-size offerings are limited. It’s not so hard to know everything about a market when there isn’t much to know.

The limits of the plus-size market and the limits of marketing to plus-size clothing shoppers were just a few of the topics covered by blogger Darlene Lebron, creative and influencer Ushshi Rahman, model Hunter McGrady, and writer Amanda Mull. They joined us in the Racked office to talk about the public conversation around size — and what’s still missing from it. Read on for an in-depth discussion about terminology, confronting moral judgments about weight, the role of capitalism in twisting the discussion around body positivity, and so much more.

Bonus: You can listen to it, with only minimal editing (this version has been condensed and edited for clarity). Audio link below.

Meredith Haggerty, senior editor


Meredith: What we’re talking about today is the way we talk about size. So I was wondering if I could have you guys each say what words you use to describe yourselves or like others to use. Do we need words for this at all? Are there words you like and words you don’t?

Darlene: I think it’s a personal preference, and that it has a lot to do with some of the personal issues that we may carry from our lives. So I am okay with the term “plus size,” I’m okay with the term “fat,” I’m okay with some of the other words that are used. I understand and comprehend that not everyone feels the same way, and I’m okay with that as well.

Personally, I think the industry is a little too young to do away with the label, because unless I can walk into a department store and every single designer has plus-size clothing in their rack, I don’t want to be shifting through to see. Like, “Well, does Tommy Hilfiger have plus size ... oh no, no, shit it’s been 20 minutes looking” just to find that he doesn’t. So I think once our industry grows and all designers start doing clothing — not just for the plus majority, like sizes 14 to 22, but also 24, 26, 28, 30, etc. — then we can get to the point when we can strip the labels.

[Ed. note: Tommy Hilfiger does sell plus sizes, but they aren’t available at all department stores.]

Ushshi: Similarly, I’m sort of okay with however people choose to identify themselves. But I do think there’s a lot of power in words, and there’s a lot of power in the politics that go behind them, and reclaiming “fat,” specifically in terms of desensitizing people around fatphobia, is necessary.

I kinda have an issue with the term “body positivity” even though I know that’s the new movement and that’s the new terminology. But having come from radical fat acceptance and body politics, it’s hard to see smaller women take over the work and the credit of people that have come before them, while simultaneously excluding the very people for whom it was made. And how brands have latched onto it and have been making their coins off of activism — you can’t really mix activism and capitalism, those two don’t go hand in hand, and the fact that they are is part of why things are getting so warped and mangled.

Oh, and I hate the word “inclusivity.” It’s so tokenizing. It’s all about getting the pat on the back for having all the right representation, when rarely is the representation treated in the same way or with the same amount of care that they do for people that make them the majority of their money back. And so when it comes to media representation in particular, I think it’s possible to represent people in a way that is truly inclusionary versus inclusionary for the sake of being so.

Hunter: I’m kinda from that same school of thought, and it’s funny because even last year, had you asked me, “What do you think about the term ‘plus-size?’” I would have said, “Well, you know it’s a category and you’re kind of segregating women, and yada yada yada.” But then after talking to a few of my friends who are like, “Listen, I’m proud to be called fat. I’m proud to be called plus-size. I’m proud to be all these things,” I’m like, “You know what? Hell yeah. Me too.” And I think that whatever you want to be called, like now I’m like, “I’m a plus-size model. Hell yes.” Like, I own that.

The word “fat” has to be desensitized. I think that whatever we are — fat, skinny, athletic, whatever it is — we’re all worthy of the same things and being loved the same way. And l personally love the word “inclusivity,” but at the same time, it’s hard for me to say it sometimes because I know firsthand a lot of people who claim and use the word “inclusivity” as a hot-button topic are ruining it. Unfortunate.

Amanda: I call myself “fat,” personally, all the time. It’s something that I do consciously, because I think it makes a lot of people — and especially a lot of thin people — really uncomfortable to use that word. And I think it’s important to sort of force people, even in a passive way, to confront the moral judgments they make about fat people. Because, like, what else do they want us to say?

Everybody else gets a way to describe their body that is accurate, that is a physical word about their body — thin or muscular or whatever. But when you get to fat people, the natural, obvious word is something that is so weighed down by moral judgment, and so weighed down with the idea that being thin is virtuous, that we’re not even allowed to use the word about ourselves now. Which is bullshit — why should I have to change to some sort of corporate marketing speak, like “curvy” or whatever, in order to describe my own body, just because it makes everybody else uncomfortable to be reminded of the judgments they make about me because I’m fat?

Hunter: Preach.

Darlene: Yeah, girl!

Amanda: And in the realm of actual corporate marketing, in terms of creating clothes and creating products for people who are different sizes — I’m okay with those words being used in that context. But I’m not going to go around referring to myself as a plus-size person, unless I’m talking about what kind of clothes I buy.

Ushshi: Because even in that, it basically insinuates that there is a baseline and there is a norm. It’s similar to Eurocentric beauty standards, with what we call “exotic.” By saying something is exotic, you’re saying something else is a baseline. And so when you say “plus” in the sense of language or self-description, what you’re saying is there’s only one normal way to be and you’re plus of that.

And what you were saying earlier is that it makes other people uncomfortable because then they have to check what they mean by “fat,” and it’s usually lazy, uncouth, unhealthy, X, Y, Z — just a bunch of ableist, shitty, sometimes classist definitions of how they denigrate people.

Amanda: And that’s the medical term for it! I don’t understand how anybody expects us to find a word that’s more accurate or that should be more devoid of political wrangling than “fat.”

Darlene: Exactly. It is what it is. I know a lot of women who, when I say, “I’m fat,” they’re like, “Oh, don’t call yourself fat, you’re curvy!” or “you’re thick” or whatever.

Amanda: I hate “curvy.”

Ushshi: I hate that too, a little bit.

Darlene: I hate “thick” too. So many women will say that now, like, “No, but you curvy,” or, “You juicy,” or, “You wear it in all the right places.” It’s like, I’m still fat!

Hunter: When I shot Sports Illustrated and that came out, I was the curviest girl — the fattest girl, whatever you want to call it — that they’ve ever had in their magazine. And I came from an eating disorder, at size 16, and I was a size 2, and I’m 6 feet tall. And the comments under that specific photo were like, “Can’t believe you’re promoting obesity,” “Can’t believe they’re promoting this whale,” yada yada yada.

But if you look at my medical records, I am healthier now, at a size 16, than I ever was at a size 2, 4, 6, because I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t treating myself right, I had severe depression. People just equate fat with, like you were saying, “You’re just a lazy POS; all you do is sit around,” and I’m like, “Uh-uh!” You know what, yeah, I eat the slice of cake and I love it, but I’m healthy and I take care of myself and I still work out. Don’t think that I’m just sitting around all day.

Amanda: Also, we don’t require proof of health from anybody else in order to sell them clothes. We don’t require anybody to prove that they’ve stopped smoking in order to buy a dress. But because there’s so much moral judgment on fatness, and on people’s bodies, people think they can look at someone who is fat and go, “Well, you know that’s not healthy, so why should we let you do anything?”

People feel that is the sort of politically correct way to couch their fatphobia, when in reality if you look at society at large, we don’t require health of anybody else. And nobody owes anybody, any strangers, their health. Be unhealthy!

Ushshi: I think it’s something people resort to out of defensiveness, to say, like, “Here, I’m not all the stereotypes you said about me.” But I think it’s inherently ableist to have to even say that you’re healthy, because a lot of people aren’t. I’ve been eating-disordered, and thin and super unhealthy; I’ve also been super healthy and fat; I’ve also had health issues as a fat person not related to my fatness; and I was no less deserving of respect at any of those stages.

Hunter: Absolutely.

Ushshi: There are people that go on steroids, there are people who have eating disorder recovery, there are people who gain health by gaining weight, there are people who also gain weight because they have a back injury, or chronic illness, or fibromyalgia, or so on, so forth, where their mobility is affected — and guess what, they still deserve respect. They still deserve love. They still deserve to be treated just as humanely as someone with perfect health. And so even when people attack the whole health aspect of plus size, I’m like, well, so what if someone isn’t healthy, are they less human?

Hunter: It’s so true.

Ushshi: We should have disabled, fat folks, and have them at the forefront as well, instead of hidden in the corner like, “You’re not palatable, we don’t want you to represent us to the world.” And even with fitness, how is it that even this late in the game, fitness for fat people is automatically equated with weight loss? Why can’t it be mindful fitness? Why can’t it be fitness for the sake of feeling good in our bodies and our overall well-being? Even then, even on like people’s Instagrams you’ll see, “Oh! I see you’re trying to lose weight.” I’m like, “Could someone not be working out just for the sake of working out?”

Darlene: Like, can we have a Transformation Tuesday that doesn’t have to be about how much weight you’ve lost or whatever? How about “I cut out some of the toxic stuff in my life”?

Hunter: That’s what so wrong, though, with this industry — you look at a magazine that’s telling you, “Love yourself! Love your body!” and then the next page is “How to lose 30 pounds in a month.” And you’re like, uh ... we’re literally brainwashing and conditioning our minds, whether we like it or not, whenever we walk outside — because we don’t see plus-size women on the billboards. I want to get to a place where seeing plus-size women is not like, “Oh, my god, wow!” it’s just like, “Oh, wow, that’s another beautiful woman. That’s a beautiful person.”

Meredith: We talked about how we want to talk about it, so how do brands talk to us about it? And what’s missing from that conversation?

Hunter: Brands use words like “body positive” and “inclusivity” as hot-button topics, as trends. And they’ll use it to lure people in and be like, “We’re inclusive, we love everybody!” But take Everlane — they only go up to an XL. I’m the same size as Chloé Véro, who is the plus-size model on their billboard, and I could not wear what she wears. So to me it’s frustrating, because I remember seeing that and I was like, “Oh yes! Something I can go and buy!” And then I was like “Oh, wait, what? Huh? Oh. Okay. Well.” Gorgeous photo, but it just sucks to be lured in and to be disappointed.

Meredith: You know what they’re trying to do? They’re trying to get you, or you, or you, or me, to squeeze ourselves into this XL and then not feel good about ourselves. Because when we get it in the mail and we put it on and we’re falling out of it, and it doesn’t fit the way clothing should fit, we’re like, I need to lose 10 pounds to fit into this underwear that was supposed to be targeted and catered to me, and it’s absolutely not.

Amanda: And I think a lot of it is the fact that there’s nothing capitalism can’t metabolize into a sales tactic. The conversation about what we value in bodies and how that should change has come about very organically in the fat community, and online, and I think that once that reached a certain level of volume, brands looked around and went, “Hi, guys. Would you like to feel good about your body and buy some of our body wash?” Because I think the one thing that brands and marketers and advertisers are really adept at doing is figuring out what people are interested in and inspired by, and finding a way to put that in their ads.

I think that what is a genuine change, or a genuine beginning of a change in our cultural values about bodies, has been co-opted by brands who are just running out of other ideas for ways to make women feel bad about themselves and buy something, so they decided to try making us feel good about ourselves to buy something.

Brands know that they can do very minimal size extension, or cast a plus-size model, or not retouch their ads, or something like that. And across the internet, a zillion women’s interest websites who employ 24-year-old writers who need to put something online that day, that hour, before they have to move on to their next thing, are going to see that and go, “That’s a story. People will click on that; people are interested in body positivity.” So you get brands realizing that they could get all this exposure and all these placements for pennies on the ad spend dollar if they could make things that — this is what my piece for this project is about.

Ushshi: So here’s what I would say to brands, if you’re listening. One, call me. Who is putting together these campaigns? Who’s in charge of these expansions? Do you have a plus-size woman on your board? Do you have an all-white CEO/boardroom? Because that’s where the problem is.

Now, if you’re willing to pay X, Y, Z, directors that have no vested interest in the market, in the politics, in the people and the community, a crazy amount of dollars — why not take those dollars, go to influencers, go to creative directors, go to creatives all across the board that know the market inherently, inside out, as people who are consumers as well, and pay them? ’Cause you’re using our likes and our clickbait anyway, but you aren’t giving us our money. And what you’re doing is just warping the entire process by putting people in the boardroom that don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

If you’re going to do a plus-size editorial, have one plus-size person — be it a stylist, be it a creative, be it the photographer — who knows how to photograph a person, who knows what to bring to the table, who doesn’t leave them stranded with nothing to wear. If you’re expanding a collection and then your marketing goes so haywire that Twitter reads you to filth, maybe it’s time to step back and consider who you’re hiring. And consider who you’re listening to, ’cause you don’t have your ears on the ground. And that’s part of the problem. You can’t just have our money, without actually listening to us — like for real listening to us.

Hunter: So this is not a plug for my swimsuit line, but I have a collaboration with Playful Promises and it’s dropping in June, and we shot it about a month ago, and I, for once in my life, was able to have control over who shot it, who styled it, who did the makeup, and I chose plus-size women. And it was just a great feeling.

I had never had that on set before, where it was like, we all get it. You know how to shoot because you’re a plus-size woman; you’re not going to put me in some pose that you know I can’t do because of my size, and you aren’t going to make me feel uncomfortable because of my rolls, which I have experienced on set before. You’re a plus-size woman styling this; you know how to pin this, you know how this is supposed to look. Have someone who knows it. Otherwise, you’re doing yourself an injustice.

Ushshi: Representation means nothing to me without power. And we’re going to take that power whether you give it to us or not, but it would help you to give it to us.

Amanda: It’d be a less painful process.

Darlene: I don’t get why, when it comes to plus size, it’s so difficult to understand that if you’re starting a business, any corporation, you have your specialists. You have your individual departments; you have people with experience and knowledge. Why is that part being left out when you’re building this business that’s supposed to be for this woman, but you have no one there that understands it?

And on the flip end, I want to talk to the consumer. And I want to tell the consumer, we need to do better on who we support and influence as well. Who are we putting out there? Let’s stop giving companies promotion when they’re not targeting our people. They give two craps if you can fit into their size 14/16 because you’re not their customer. Let’s look at who else is really out there working, who is hiring the plus-size woman within the community, within the board, within the shoots.

We need to be better, smarter, supportive. I’m so tired of seeing, like, “When is Victoria’s Secret gonna drop plus size!” I don’t care about Victoria’s Secret because there’re so many amazing lines that we should be supporting and that go out of business. Small plus-size lines go out of business every year. Sometimes it’s because they don’t understand what they’re getting into, but most of the time, it’s because they’re not being supported.

Hunter: I love Premme because they show all sizes. They show the size they carry. I can’t tell you how many times I have worked for specific plus-size brands, where because I’m a 16 they’re like, “Well you’re just too big for us at the moment,” and I’m the second size up from their smallest size, 14. And I’m like, “Really? Really?” And these are some of the biggest brands in the world!

Amanda: I interview a lot of people who run fashion brands and people who represent fashion brands, and something that frequently strikes me is that just because somebody is willing to sell you something doesn’t mean they think you’re smart, or care about you. So even the brands who are willing to capture plus-size market share, who will deign to sell us something — I think a lot of them don’t have plus-size women or more diverse boards or whatever because fundamentally they don’t think we’re very smart. They don’t think we know what’s best for us.

I think there’s still a lot of disdain and a lot of condescension toward plus-size women because it’s like, well, if we’re all that smart and we’re all that good at anything, then why are we still fat?

Ushshi: Have your values be represented by your actions. If you go up to a size 6X, and you use a 6X model, or you repost an influencer who you gave that shit to, that’s how you speak to that customer. You say, “We value you; you deserve to be seen. We are proud of you as a customer.” Most brands don’t do that, because they don’t want to. Even within plus sizes, they only want to sell aspirational fatness, which is the smallest, thinnest, closest to the standard beauty ideal. Now, if you actually want to care about your customers, change the feedback. Change how you put things out in the world. We’re starved out here for representation when it comes to brands and media.

Hunter: When we all walked in, we knew exactly what we were all wearing —

Ushshi: Literally down to the brand, down to the model.

Hunter: Because there’s only a few brands, compared to what else is out there. I’m like, “You’re wearing Rebel, you’re wearing Premme, you’re wearing Torrid.” There’s not enough for us. There’s definitely not enough for us, even though we’re getting there, inch by inch. But we still have a long way to go.

Amanda: I’m wearing a Torrid top, and I wrote something that was extremely critical of Torrid that caused them a lot of problems, like six months ago, but I bought this top maybe a month afterward.

Meredith: You can’t even do a boycott!

Amanda: You can’t boycott a big plus brand if you’re plus-size — where are you gonna buy your clothes? Like, “I think this entire experience is really condescending, and also next time you send me a discount code, I probably will buy something.”

Darlene: It’s funny because as an influencer or a model, you have so many brands that come to you and they’re like, “Oh, we’ll send you this,” or, “We’ll send you that,” or, “We want to pay you to do this.” I’ve been approached for everything, especially within the wellness space; I’ve been approached with so many weight loss things and diet things.

I remember very early on where a big weight loss company hit me up, and they were offering big money, and I remember telling my partner, “I can’t do it, I don’t believe in that.” I don’t want to tell my reader that if you lose weight, you live a more fulfilling life. You want to lose weight? Go ahead, girl, I’ll be there, your biggest cheerleader, I’ll tell you you can do it whatever the case. And if you don’t, then I’m still there cheerleading for you.

And who are these brands actually giving their dollars to? I’m going to use [popular brand,] for example, which has this whole section called [plus-size arm of popular brand], and they look like they’re totally inclusive and blah, blah, blah — but what you don’t know is they’re paying their straight-size influencers big, big, big bucks, and their plus-size influencers they pay zero dollars.

Ushshi: They’ve also tried to pay people to not talk badly about them.

Amanda: I want brands to pay me to shut up about them.

Darlene: I’ve told everyone I know, do not work for them, please. This is a company where I will never shop, I don’t care — they could have the cutest, most fabulous clothes, they could send me a box and leave it in front of my house, I will not support them. Because to me, it is a disgusting practice that you would take your dollars, and you are clearly showing what you value and what you don’t.

Ushshi: They also never repost [our pictures], and Forever 21 too, they don’t ever repost anyone outside of the very, very standard, kind of small plus-size woman on their social. So I’m like, you have a whole plus-focused social channel, specifically dedicated to plus women, but you never post any images that [break that mold].

Darlene: I’ve had this conversation in many different spaces, at small conferences and things like that, and it just feels like it’s a conversation that keeps repeating itself because people don’t know what to do. If I’m an average girl sitting in the audience, what do I do? And I think that sometimes giving them options and saying these are different ways that you can make an impact or have influence. ... Because the average girl who’s online, who’s home, who might not have the space that we have, doesn’t know! She doesn’t know how she can make an impact.

Meredith: What would we say to her? What would you say to her?

Darlene: What would I say to her? I would say, “You’re beautiful and I love you,” because I feel like people don’t hear that enough, especially within our community. I would say, watch where you’re spending your money, who you’re supporting; be a more active shopper. Don’t just buy a brand because it’s the trendy thing or the hottest thing; see what they’re doing with their money, who are they supporting, who are they really advocating for, is this a brand that really cares for you, or is this a brand that’s jumping on the bandwagon of the body positivity community? And then go and support the ones that are out there trying to do their best. And if you don’t know them, that’s where some of the research comes in.

I think our community needs to be just as savvy as the brands that are coming back to us. They’re thinking constantly about how to get our money, how to get our dollars, how to get us. We need to start thinking on the flip end — how are we going to be just as savvy, just as brilliant as them? We are. If they think we’re fat and lazy and uneducated, and we’re home doing nothing, we need to take that as an opportunity to show you, okay, that’s fine you can think that way, but I’m going to use what I know I have, which is much more than what you think I have, and I’m going to show you that my dollar makes a difference.

Amanda: Amen to that.

Meredith: Maybe for wrap-up remarks, we can all go around and answer that question: What would you say to that girl?

Ushshi: The average plus-size consumer.

Hunter: The average girl or plus size?

Ushshi: Is the average not the plus size, though? In America? Is that not the size 16?

Meredith: The literal average girl, who wants this conversation to actually go someplace and not just be stuck on the same things.

Ushshi: I would say, first and foremost, you are deserving and worthy exactly where you are, not 10 pounds from now, not 20 pounds from now, not a different life from now — treat yourself with respect and care for exactly who you are right now. That’s like the basic fundamental of everything. Secondly, I would say fashion is a great entry point to feeling like you deserve nice things and therefore you go out and present into the world as someone who’s deserving of things, and I think that’s the reason why it’s the entry point for a lot of people. But I think there are much bigger issues outside of consumerism and financials and the business end of it that we were talking about.

Advocate for yourself and for other fat people. Whether it’s against medical bias, whether, it’s against people making comments — if you’re a thin person listening to this and you find yourself making casual fat jokes or criticizing people’s bodies, or have a boyfriend or girlfriend that does, check them on it. That’s how culture shifts. And this is where we really need you to not just stand up for yourself but also defend people that look like and feel like you, essentially. And until you start doing that, you’re not going to stop hating yourself either, so, yeah, that’s important.

Hunter: That was absolutely spot-on. My favorite word is “worthy”; I think that is such a powerful word, and I think that we’re all worthy of being successful, of feeling like we are our own rock star, because we all are. And I’m such a true believer in telling myself this. And I think that especially right now, we’re in a time that women love to say they’re lifting each other up, but truly they’re saying, “Well, they didn’t really deserve that because they didn’t work hard enough.”

Be a part of the movement, but actually be a part of that movement and lift each other up, no matter their size. I think loving each other is, as easy as it is to say, harder to do because of how brainwashed we are as a society. And that all starts with loving yourself, and looking in the mirror and loving who you are, and knowing that you are worthy.

Amanda: I would say, first of all, your body is not a moral failure; there’s no virtue in being thin. Don’t let anybody make you feel like your body reflects on your worth as a person in any particular way.

But also I think, and this is something that my career is based on at this point, is that if you can find a way to needle the brands — whether it’s on Facebook or on Twitter or in Instagram comments, sending emails to whoever — if there’s a brand that you want to be able to shop at, or somebody who you think should be doing better or differently, or you think is representing something poorly, bother them. Bother people until they’re willing to answer the questions you have; bother people until they’re willing to address you; bother people until they’re uncomfortable. Because that’s the only way. Unless people are uncomfortable, nothing changes.

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