Are plus size labels just another way for mainstream stores to box out larger customers?
When you hear the phrase “plus-size” you no doubt already have an idea of the size it references, an image of a person you would deem as plus size. When I googled “plus size shaming” google suggested the alternative “plus-size shaping”. For centuries, women’s bodies have been policed by the patriarchy and today it is no different. The creation of the term plus-size seduces its consumers with the pretence of a safe space where all curves are welcome - so long as your curves are the right places. Whilst the term plus-size seems like a heartfelt attempt to include the larger-than-average person in the fashion industry, it seems more like an attempt create revenue out of women’s bodies by censoring the flab, stretch marks, and any “unsightly abnormalities” so that they buy into the label of plus-size. It is creating a culture of false-allowance where women must be in that Kardashian Kategory (pardon the pun) of big lips, big bums, big boobs, but flat stomach, tiny wastes and cellulite-free thighs. Women are not only being told that their bodies are larger than average, they’re also being told that they need to "shape up" and have that minuscule waist and wide hips, but thin thighs and perky boobs.
So why did "plus-size" become a thing and why are we still entertaining the idea that a person can be plus size?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary definition, "plus size clothing is clothing proportioned specifically for people whose bodies are larger than the average person". The average UK women is a size 16, yet plus size clothing starts from size 14 in many high-street stores. So why are we still telling people that they are plus size, if actually they are just the average size? And even if they are larger than average, why denigrate them every time they get dressed and see their label reading “plus” or “curve”. Interestingly, the Miriam Webster definition adds that “a related term for men’s plus-size is ‘big and tall’”. Firstly, why is there even a gendered distinction between the two phrases? Why is it that men’s larger clothing is branded in a factual way: they are bigger and taller, whereas women’s clothing is labelled “plus size”? Is this just another attempt to diminish women to be even smaller in society than they are already made to feel; a way for the patriarchy to control women down to the last dimple? It does make you question the motives behind this difference in labelling and what large corporate companies’ motivation is.
Herein lies the issue with the phrase plus-size: it establishes one acceptable size and then denigrates anyone who isn’t that acceptable size into a demeaning subsection, creating an opportunity for companies to make revenue on other people’s misery and self-hatred. According to a PwC report the plus size market was estimated to be worth £6.6bn in 2017 (of which women and men comprise £4.7bn and £1.9bn respectively), and has been outperforming the overall womenswear and menswear clothing market in the UK in annual growth rate, with an expected annual growth of 7.1% 2019-22. This growth is due to a number of reasons, amongst them is that there is a greater preference for online shopping amongst plus size customers, due to the negative connotations the term plus size generates; shopping from your home means that no-one will judge you for buying plus size clothing in store.
Looking at the websites of Boohoo and New Look, it’s interesting to see that they have separate sections labelled “curve and plus-size”, with Boohoo hiding their plus-section amongst “petite”, “tall” and “maternity”. Similarly, when delving deeper, plus-size models, supposedly portraying the average UK women at a size 16 are actually a size 10 wearing a size 16, with brands like Boohoo and New Look hiding this minute, yet impactful, detail in their product “care” section. If women larger than a size 10 are being put in separate categories, either physically or through virtual representation, why are people constantly surprised that the rate of eating disorders is rising with a seven percent growth in inpatient hospital admissions each year. If this isn’t evidence enough of the "fatphobia" ever-present in the mainstream fashion industry, Nike’s unveiling of their plus-size mannequin earlier this year was met with a wave of fat-phobic hatred, for example, Tanya Gold’s attack in the Telegraph, describing the mannequin as “An immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat. She is, in every measure, obese, and she is not readying herself for a run on her shiny Nikegear. She cannot run. She is, more likely, pre-diabetic and on her way to a hip replacement.” No wonder plus-size women are shopping more and more online than in-store: they’re not being accurately represented and then when they are, there is an onslaught of hatred and ignorance.
Some people argue that by promoting body-positivity and abolishing plus size clothing, we’re actively encouraging obesity. However, body positivity activists define body positivity as adopting a more forgiving approach towards your body with the end-goal of improving your overall health and well-being both physically and mentally; it is “size acceptance”, reducing the triggers of disordered eating and making choices not based on judgment, negative emotions, and defence mechanisms.
These people who argue that it’s not fatphobia, it’s fighting obesity and health seem to forget that health isn’t whether or not you ate kale for dinner, it’s an umbrella term which covers physical health and mental health and all of the subcategories within that, like your relationship with your body, with your family, with food and with friends, the list goes on. Abolishing the plus-size industry and merely creating fashion for all would not increase obesity rates. It would benefit our NHS by reducing rates of body-image related mental health issues and eating disorders. It would mean people would not feel guilty for eating breakfast. It would mean women could stop worrying about their body image and start focusing on more important things. It means models like Kate Moss who once famously said “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” might turn up at 727 at 3am, eating greasy chips after a night of downing pints of fun and not make the rest of the world feel guilty about it. We can only dream.
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