Dictionaries define plus size as an “extra large size category of clothing,” although society often regards “plus size” as sizes 12 and up. Technically, the term “plus size” doesn’t represent “extra large” women, but only those slightly larger than the average woman, a size 14. Many women are labeled as “plus size” by the media or identify themselves as “plus size,” when they really belong somewhere in the middle. All this means that the community that was specifically made for plus size women is excluding them, especially in the fashion industry.
Celebrities like Kim Kardashian West have changed body ideals in the past few years, so “curvy” bodies are now considered #goals. But this is a certain kind of curvy: small waist, round booty, flat stomach, and large boobs. The fat has to be in specific places, because curves only look good with an hourglass figure, or so women are told. These curves are being applauded, and are considered plus size by some. The plus size body is getting smaller, closer to what cultural norms say all bodies should look like. “Plus size” is beginning to mean bodies who wear a size 12, or bodies with fat in just the right places.
But plus size includes many other body types. If the average American woman wears a size 14, shouldn’t larger plus size women, like those who wear sizes 20+, get some representation, or at least positive recognition? Glamour named Amy Schumer as an inspiring woman in its Chic at Any Size issue, where it discussed plus size fashion and body diversity exclusively. The magazine claimed it included Schumer because she’s vocal about body positivity (which is true), but critics have called her fat before. This is America in 2016: A woman who wears a size 8 is considered “plus size.” So what does that make women who are actually plus size?
Model Ashley Graham is the most visible face of the plus size fashion industry, although she prefers the term “curvy” to plus size. Despite the labels (or not), Graham, who wears a size 16, still very much represents women’s bodies that aren’t stick thin. While it’s great that a woman of her size is breaking into the mainstream media, gracing the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the plus size fashion industry is barely scratching the surface. Graham and most well-known “plus size” models are on the smaller end of the plus size spectrum, white, and have “curvy” physiques. They are fleshier, bodacious versions of “normal” models. Plus size models have bigger boobs and thicker thighs than straight size models, but their bodies don’t look like the average plus size woman.
Most plus size women have stretch marks and cellulite. Their fat isn’t completely even or toned. They have stomach rolls and fat bulges. Not all plus size women have big boobs or a round butt. They’re not all exquisitely tall like most models. And they sure as hell don’t all have hourglass figures or pear shapes. The plus size fashion industry can claim diversity and body positivity as much as it wants, but the truth is it still adheres to conventional beauty standards. “Regular” plus size women might not have bodies that retailers think will sell their clothes, but they are the consumers, and they should know what clothes would look like on their body.
Torrid, one trendy plus-size clothing company, tried to appeal to the average plus size woman with its “Face of Torrid” model search this year. The winner, 26-year-old Lyanna Lynette, wears a size 16. For a company that supposedly promotes body diversity, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that among its models. If you’re hoping to be the newest face at Torrid, you’ll only get your way if your body is similar to Graham’s or Lynette’s, since “beautiful size 12 to 20 models are in high demand at Torrid.” So a company that sells sizes 12-28, or 0-6X, only features models that wear the smaller half of its clothing.
But the company does deserve some credit. Torrid featured model and #effyourbeautystandards creator Tess Holliday in Photoshop-free photos in its spring preview last year. At a size 22 and 5’5”, Holliday is a refreshingly realistic representation of plus-size women. She’s the largest plus-size model signed to a mainstream agency, and she doesn’t care if people call her fat. Holliday’s attitude is what the industry should be all about: loving your body no matter what society says.
Of course, fashion companies are driven by profit, not by making women feel good about their bodies. All they want to do is sell clothes and make a profit from it. While the fashion conscious might say that clothing simply looks better (and sells more) on smaller bodies, it might be a worthwhile marketing move to include larger plus size models in its advertisements and catalogs. Plus size fashion brands could be more successful if they were more inclusive with their models and showed their clothing at different sizes. Online customers might be more likely to buy clothing if it’s modeled at their own size. Why not have each clothing item modeled by someone who wears a size 14, another at 18, 22, 26? Instead of customers being hesitant to buy products, seeing a model their own size or with similar a body shape might encourage them to buy more. It would be a win/win for money-hungry corporations and plus size women just trying to buy cute clothes and feel good about themselves.
If Torrid and the rest of the plus size fashion industry truly want to advocate for larger women and teach them that all bodies are beautiful, they need to start representing all kinds of plus size bodies. This industry should be about eliminating body standards and promoting positivity, and that begins with showing plus size women of every size and shape that it’s possible to be fashionable no matter what their body looks like. Keep the size 16s, but include some 24s and 28s too. Graham has her spotlight, but now it’s time for size 20+ models to shine, too.
Top photo: Lane Bryant campaign
More from BUST