Plus sized models stigmatized despite public support

Kate Spang

Guest Writer

American supermodel and body activist, Ashley Graham, strives to challenge the fashion industry’s use of the term plus-size and dedicates her career to achieving body-equality. In her recent TED talk she spoke against the stigmatizing phrase.

“Plus-size? More like my size,” Graham said.

The fashion industry has made leaps and bounds toward body acceptance and equally showcasing women of all sizes in the media. We have seen an increase in women, like Graham, being showcased in popular magazines such as Vogue and Sports Illustrated. However, the increased media presence of “plus-size” models has raised some questions about the label.

Many plus-size/curvy women have spoken out about feeling stigmatized in the fashion industry and expressed how difficult it is for them to find fashionable, and flattering clothing. In You Are What You Wear: How Plus-Size Fashion Figures in Fat Identity Formation, scholar Lauren Peters says the average woman is a size 14 and that, according to contemporary sizing, a size 14 is considered to be plus-size.

Knowing this you would think the fashion industry would cater more to this market. Yet there continues to be resistance to recognizing, or even respecting, the average size for women.

For example, in their research Scaraboto and Fischer note that when H&M decided to produce extended sizes, one of the designers, Karl Lagerfeld, was, “offended by the chain’s decision to produce the clothes in larger sizes.” He claimed it was not a part of his original vision, which was to design clothes for “slender and slim people.”

Sadly this is a common attitude within the fashion industry. Many designers think that larger women need to wear different patterns and fabrics to suit their figure, and it is not worth their time.

“fat people are often treated as not quite human, entities to whom the normal standards of polite and respectful behavior do not seem to apply,” Amy Farrell writes in her book Fat Shaming.

With many designers refusing to cater to the average sized woman they are essentially telling women that their bodies are problematic and that they should conform to some other body size. Phillippa Diedrichs and Christina Lee note in their research that even as the population has started to gain weight as a whole, the majority of models seem to be getting thinner. In fact, there is about a 10-inch difference in measurement between an average sized woman and the average size for a model (sizes 00-6).

Oddly enough, Diedrichs and Lee’s research seems to indicate that the industry is out of touch with public feelings about body sizes. In their study, where both men and women were shown advertisements with thin models vs. advertisements with average or “plus” sized models, there was no difference in reaction between the two.

“These findings directly challenge the ‘thinness sells’ argument,” the researchers argue.

The “ideal body” is never a fixed thing. Different cultures, time periods, and societal influences play a huge part in what is considered “beautiful” now and what will be deemed “beautiful” in the future.

The problem is that, as Emily Balcetis and her co—authors found in their research, many women seek validation for their body confidence in other people’s opinions. Despite popular attitudes and the negative effects of media imagery on women, women of all shapes and sizes are still striving for equal representation.

While on the surface it may seem like a positive thing, the term “plus-size” comes with a stigma of its own. The problem is best exemplified by a blog post comment about Vogue Curvy that Kevin Almond cites in his research: “Why do you need another, different magazine for the ‘curvy’ women?”

The movement toward body equality and body positivity in the media and fashion industry is slowly starting to advance, but the next step is for us to uncover why we feel the need to use the term “plus-size” and how this label is effecting women size 10 and above. Is it possible that by trying to include every woman in the fashion industry we are actually make them feel even more like outsiders?