From Size to Personal Identity: How Plus-Size Came to Be

Woman laughing

The industrial revolution led to the rise of capitalism as we currently know it, and with it came greed, consumerism, and the need to sell and produce goods in massive quantities. The birth of many “stereotypes” or social norms can be traced back to this socio-economic transition. For example, colors were assigned to gender so that “girl products” could be merchandised using pink, and “boy products” could be merchandised using blue.

The societal pressures women face to shave their legs and armpits, amongst other areas, because it’s been deemed “unsanitary” for women to have body hair, but perfectly sanitary for men to keep theirs, came from the depilatory industry wanting to make women believe buying their products was a necessity and not a preference.

A depilatory ad in Harper's Bazaar,  from 1992.A depilatory ad in Harper’s Bazaar, from 1922. Harper’s Bazaar

The term “Plus Size” which is generally categorized as size 14 and up also has its origins in the early 20th century and was largely popularized by the women’s clothing retailer, Lane Bryant. The retailer’s founder was Lena Himmelstein Bryant Malsin, a pioneer in the fashion industry, who created the first commercially successful maternity dress and one of the first retailers that catered to all size-inclusive clothing. The “plus-size” designation began to contribute to the labeling of bodies when the term gained popularity and more retailers started using it to market the clothing they sold to larger-sized women. Rather than label the clothing, they labeled the women as plus size instead.

And so, the plus-size section became a secluded category in most retailers and the term gained popularity as it was used to commercialize products. It also became something that was used to cement ideas into women’s heads that they should aspire to be a smaller size and avoid having to shop in the plus-size section.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and why segregated areas for larger clothing sizes occurred, rather than just including the clothing in larger sizes for the same fashion. One clue is that larger-sized clothing on its face appears to be less fashionable, generally speaking, and a stereotype emerged that larger-sized clothing was more “modest” and couldn’t be form-fitting or have any structure to it. It’s likely that sheer designer laziness and bias against bigger bodies inspired clothing that resembled tarps with buttons.

A Lane Bryant catalog from 1954.Wikimedia

Not much has changed from the 50’s. While many brands are now trying to be size-inclusive, significant work remains to achieve actual size parity. A quick scroll through social media demonstrates the continued fight for size inclusion and the rejection of body shaming.

Models such as Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser have made waves in the fashion industry, and they have continuously been labeled as plus-size models when they are both a US size 16. Seeing models bigger than a size 6 in fashion shows is still a rare occurrence.

Ashley Graham walking a runway.

Images by: and Daniel Venturelli. gettyimages

After model Stefania Ferrario was featured in an advertisement where she was described as a plus-size model, she took to Instagram to ask her followers: Why is the label necessary? In her own words, “I am a model FULL STOP…This is NOT empowering.” She explained that she is proud of her body but didn’t understand why she had to be differentiated from her peers by being labeled plus-sized rather than a model like the rest. On the other hand, some activists believe the term is necessary until all retailers cater to all sizes.

Movie Star, Melissa Mcarthy has also called for the term to be discontinued. As she successfully launched her own line back in 2015, she challenged the industry by criticizing the use of the term, the segregation of plus size clothing into a separate category, and calling for its ban. In an interview with ABC Mcarthy explained that her vision for her own line was to, “Run the sizes as I make them and let friends go shopping with their friends. Stop segregating women.” she went on, “Women come in all sizes. Seventy percent of women in the United States are a size 14 or above, and that’s technically ‘plus-size,’ so you’re taking your biggest category of people and telling them, ‘You’re not really worthy.’ I find that very strange,” She ended the interview by stating that designers are over-complicating things by creating different categories.

Melissa McCarthy.Style.Mic

More recently, SavagexFenty by Rihanna began producing fashion shows that are truly inclusive of women of all shapes and sizes, and their merchandise runs in sizes up to 3X, proving that there is no need to create a separate category. All brands should take notes from queen Rihanna.

SavagexFenty Show Vol 2.SavagexFenty Show Vol 2.

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