The Word “Plus-Size” ~ Guest Post by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of The Beheld.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes about how we form our concept of personal beauty, using essays, histories of words we use to describe women (like “plus-size”!), interviews, experiments, and analysis of economics, sociology, and media at The Beheld.
Here is Autumn…
We use the term “plus-size” so frequently now—plus-size clothes, plus-size stores, plus-size women, and, of course, plus-size models—that it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, we didn’t even have the vocabulary handy to discuss wearing anything larger than a size 12.
“Plus-size” was first used as a technical fashion industry term for sizes 14 and up in the 1970s; plus-size clothing existed before then, but was referred to as “stout sizes,” “larger sizes,” “junior plenty” for Lane Bryant teen sizes, or simply listed by number. The phrase quickly spilled from the fashion world into the modeling industry. As early as 1976, modeling agencies began signing “plus-size” models and calling them just that.
Still, it was an insider term, along the lines of “go-see” and “comp card”—recognizable to people within the fashion and modeling industries, but not to the people purchasing the clothes those models might be wearing. Consumers were referring to “women’s sizes” through the 1980s, and in fact the euphemism for larger clothing sizes still occasionally causes confusion when shopping at the handful of stores that still use the term. (Did clothing retailers only figure out in the past 10 years that a woman with 34-inch hips and a woman with 44-inch hips are both women?)
It wasn’t just consumers who were coming up with weird terms to describe ladies of size. Women’s magazines in the 1970s gave style advice to readers who were “chunky,” “bigger,” “broad,” “big-boned,” “heavier,” and “fat.” Even a lifestyle and fashion magazine devoted to plus-size women, Big Beautiful Woman, didn’t embrace the term until after its 1979 launch. By the 1980s the word choices had become a tad more complimentary: “round” and “full-figured” began cropping up, along with “curvy all over,” particularly a favorite in annual June swimsuit roundups.
In 1989—the earliest instance of mainstream usage I could find—New Woman called out to “plus-size” readers, with Ebony following suit in 1990. From there, the term truly took flight: Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and other major players started using the term in the 1990s. Unsurprising, given the enormous surge in awareness of the needs of 14-and-ups at that time: Pioneering plus-size model Emme was named one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 1994 (and again in 1999!), Lane Bryant went full-on fashionista in 1995 with celebrity endorsements, and Mode magazine launched in 1997.
But some feel that the term might have done all it can. “ ‘Plus-size’ is a word we need to bury at this point,” Queen Latifah told WWD in May when talking about her fashion line, which has a wide range of sizes. “The truth is, we all would like to wear the same clothes. We all want to wear beautiful, fly clothes no matter what size you are.” (Sing it, sister!) Similarly, model Marquita Pring said in an interview this March with New York Magazine, “I think we need to phase out the category ‘plus-size models.’ I’m a model… People are finally starting to embrace us, and we aren’t just being seen for our tits and ass, but for our overall beauty and ability.”
There’s a power in naming a need that’s gone unfilled—like, say, a cute size 18 tank top!—and in relabeling terms that are rather unhelpful. (“Junior plenty”? Really?) As Gloria wrote in 1979 about the progress of feminism, “We have terms like sexual harassment and battered women. A few years ago, they were just called life.” Having the term “plus-size” out and about in the world makes it clear that women over a size 12 aren’t going to quietly sit on the sidelines in navy blue smocks ever again.
Plus-Size Models Unite originally used the term “plus-size” because it made sense at the time of the site’s creation. But the work that is being done here is toward a recognition of all women, in all their diversity, as being whole and beautiful.” The concept of plus-size? Love. The word itself? Eventually, maybe, we can let it go. For wouldn’t it be nice if someday, plus-size clothes were just called clothes, plus-size models were just called models—and plus-size women were just called women, as empowered, confident, and beautiful as they feel?
*Thank you, Autumn!