From Labeling Clothing to Labeling Bodies: The Origins of "Plus Size"

From Labeling Clothing to Labeling Bodies: The Origins of "Plus Size"

The way we live today, with all its consumerism and social norms, can be traced back to the industrial revolution. This period of rapid change led to the rise of capitalism, a system that emphasizes profit and the production of goods on a massive scale.

As capitalism took hold, it brought with it a culture of greed and a constant need to sell and produce more. This drive for profit also led to the birth of many of the social norms and stereotypes we still see today.

For instance, did you know that the color pink was assigned to girls and blue to boys during this time? This was done so that companies could better market their products to specific genders. And it's not just colors. Many of the societal pressures that women face today, such as the expectation to shave their legs and armpits, can also be traced back to the depilatory industry's desire to make women believe that buying their products was a necessity, not just a preference.

vintage ad for a hair removal product describing having body hair as "embarassing"Vintage ad for a hair removal product describing having body hair as "embarassing."Wikimedia Commons

Think about it: Why is it considered "unsanitary" for women to have body hair, but not for men? It's because the depilatory industry, driven by capitalism, wanted to create a market for their products. They convinced women that removing body hair was not just a matter of personal preference but a societal expectation.

The term “Plus Size,” which is generally categorized as size 14 and up, has its origins in the early 20th century and was popularized by the women's clothing retailer, Lane Bryant. The company's founder, Lena Himmelstein Bryant Malsin, was a trailblazer in the fashion industry. She created the first commercially successful maternity dress and was one of the first retailers to offer all-size-inclusive clothing.

However, the term "plus size" soon began to contribute to the labeling of bodies. As the term gained popularity, more retailers started using it to market clothing to larger-sized women. Instead of labeling the clothing, they labeled the women as "plus size" instead. The plus-size section became a secluded category in most retailers, and the term gained even more popularity as it was used to commercialize products.

a vintage Lane Bryant ad advertising "chubby-sized" clothesA vintage Lane Bryant ad advertising "chubby-sized" clothes.Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, this labeling has also cemented ideas in women's minds that they should aspire to be a smaller size and avoid shopping in the plus-size section. It's a vicious cycle that reinforces harmful body ideals and leads to discrimination against larger-bodied individuals.

It's difficult to say exactly when and why segregated areas for larger clothing sizes came about instead of including clothing in larger sizes with the rest of the fashion. However, one possible explanation is that larger-sized clothing has often been seen as less fashionable, leading to the stereotype that it must be more "modest" and cannot be form-fitting or structured. This bias against bigger bodies may have also led to sheer designer laziness, resulting in clothing that resembles tarps with buttons.

Not much has changed since the ’50s. 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 US size 16. Seeing models bigger than a size 6 in fashion shows is still a rare occurrence.

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.

image of model Stefania Ferrario with the words "i am a model." Stefania Ferrario called out the fashion industry for labeling her a "plus-size" model.Source: Stefania Ferrario

Movie Star, Melissa McCarthy 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, McCarthy 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.

Clothing companies are taking steps to become more inclusive towards bigger sizes, and one way they are doing this is by changing the terminology from "plus-size" to "extended sizes" or "size-inclusive." This small but significant change is meant to remove the stigma associated with the term and create a more welcoming environment for all customers.

But it's not just about the terminology. Many clothing companies are also expanding their size ranges to include larger sizes, offering a wider range of clothing options to more people. This is a big win for those who have felt excluded from the fashion industry.

Another positive change is the increase in diverse models featured in advertising campaigns and on websites. Seeing models of different sizes, races, ages, and body types is a refreshing change from the narrow beauty standards that have dominated the industry for too long. By promoting body positivity and inclusivity, fashion companies are sending a message that all bodies are beautiful and worthy of representation.

The fashion industry seems to be moving in the right direction toward creating a more inclusive and accommodating environment for people of all sizes. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure that all bodies are celebrated and represented in the industry.

a four image collage featuring queer actresses MJ Rodriguez, Aubrey Plaza, Tessa Thompson and Sara Ramirez

Amid the ongoing push towards equality and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community, the influence of public figures who identify as part of this community is undeniably crucial. They contribute to this narrative significantly, their impact transcending their professional boundaries to create safe spaces and ignite discussions that shatter stereotypes and nurture inclusivity. Today, we shine a spotlight on four prominent Latina trailblazers who are making their mark:

Tessa Thompson

Tessa Thompson, an Afro-Panamanian actress, has earned widespread recognition for her performances in films like "Creed" and "Thor: Ragnarok". Thompson is open about her bisexuality and uses her platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ representation in the entertainment industry. Her role in "Thor: Ragnarok" is considered a landmark as Valkyrie is one of the first explicitly queer characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the explicitness of Valkyrie's bisexuality was contested in the cinematic release, Thompson has confirmed and embraced this aspect of the character. Thompson continues to champion diversity in media, raising the bar for representation in Hollywood.

Aubrey Plaza

Aubrey Plaza, of Puerto Rican and Irish descent, is widely known for her role as April Ludgate on "Parks and Recreation". Plaza publicly came out as bisexual in 2016, and she has since been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. By openly discussing her bisexuality, she has helped increase visibility and eliminate the stigma associated with non-heterosexual orientations. Additionally, her portrayal of queer characters, like in the film "Happiest Season", provides much-needed representation and adds to the authenticity of LGBTQ+ characters in media.

Sara Ramirez

Sara Ramirez, a Mexican-American actress, singer, and activist, is best known for her role as Dr. Callie Torres on "Grey's Anatomy". Ramirez, who identifies as non-binary and bisexual, has been a tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Their portrayal of Dr. Torres, one of the longest-running queer characters on television, has significantly influenced the way bisexuality is understood and depicted in popular media. Off-screen, Ramirez is heavily involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy, serving on the board of organizations like True Colors United, which works to combat homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth.

MJ Rodriguez

MJ Rodriguez, of Afro-Puerto Rican descent, has made history as a trailblazer for transgender individuals, particularly in the world of television. Rodriguez's groundbreaking role as Blanca Evangelista on "Pose" earned her critical acclaim and marked a significant milestone for trans representation on screen. Rodriguez is open about her identity as a trans woman, leveraging her platform to call attention to issues affecting the transgender community. Her achievements, both as an actress and activist, provide a beacon of hope and inspiration for transgender individuals worldwide.

Through their activism and their work in the media, these prominent figures are not only changing the conversation around LGBTQ+ rights and representation but also shaping a more inclusive and accepting future. In honoring their contributions, we also acknowledge the progress still needed and the ongoing efforts of countless others in the fight for equality and acceptance.