Plus-size model Madeleine Havell. Photo supplied.
In recent years, plus-size models have increasingly found mainstream modeling success, no longer confined to the catalog shoots many once were. At the same time, the fight against unrealistic beauty standards in the fashion industry has heated up, with many also using the power of the Internet to champion body positivity. No longer are we debating whether plus-size modeling is a good thing, but whether the tag should be used to describe curvier models at all. And while some models have vocally spoken out against what they say is harmful labeling, others are coming out in defense of it as a legitimate industry term.
“The fashion industry may persist to label me as ‘plus-sized,’ but I like to think of it as ‘my-sized,’ model Ashley Graham says in a TED talk that has just begun going viral.
“In fact, did you know, the U.S. plus-size industry starts at a size 8 and goes up to a size 16,” she continues. “So basically what I’m saying is, the majority of this room right now is plus-sized. How does that that make you feel to be labeled?”
The Australian host of the “The Biggest Loser” Ajay Rochester was one person who felt outraged when she saw what she believed was just this kind of mislabeling: a photograph that identified size 14 model Laura Wells as plus-size.
“In fact, if anything, I would probably refer to her on the skinny side of life, and just thought it was absurd that an industry so rife with eating disorders can continue to get away with mislabeling women this way,” Rochester says. “I was an ambassador for The Eating Disorder Foundation for five years, and I dealt with women who had to live with these terrible diseases, so I know too well just how harmful this type of labeling can be.”
Soon after, Australian model Stefania Ferrario took to Instagram to support of Rochester’s message, posting a topless shot of herself with ‘I am a Model’ scrawled across her stomach and creating the #droptheplus hashtag which has now taken off worldwide.
Ferrario says curvier models who are labeled as plus-size face widespread discrimination in the modeling industry.
“They are often viewed as second best and ridiculed by designers and models,” she says. “I hope #droptheplus will achieve more acceptance amongst sizes as opposed to creating such a divide which is currently happening.
“There is so much emphasis on the division between plus and straight size, thus often pitting the two against each other. There is currently such a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality that needs to go.”
Though Ferrario says that she doesn’t care about how she is defined, she has a major problem with the impact that the plus-size label could have on women and young girls who are not in the fashion industry.
“By labeling a majority of women plus-size, it implies they are not normal and not thin enough to be accepted by society,” she says. “A young girl seeing perfectly fit, healthy women labeled as plus-size is very dangerous to her own self perception and body image.”
Together, and with increasing support from other women, the pair is stepping up their campaign in the hopes that they will eventually get the term ‘plus-sized’ removed from the fashion industry altogether. The term is redundant and serves no real purpose, according to Ferrario.
“We already have a useful number system for sizes, so we don’t need a pointless ‘plus’ classification on top of this that spans across most sizes. I think the first step to a more inclusive future, where all sizes are represented and considered normal is to break down barriers,” she writes.
“Modifiers like ‘plus-size’ enforce the idea that only small sizes are accepted and normal. We don’t put up a big ‘Minus Size’ sign in stores for clothing under U.S. size 14, and we don’t refer to U.S. size 0-4 models as ‘minus size’ because that would be absurd, so why label models and most women as plus-size?”
But some models say they are proud of their plus-size bodies and how it defines them in their careers. Plus-size model Madeleine Havell is fighting to #keeptheplus and thinks that removing the term could be harmful to the struggle of body acceptance.
“[T]he reason I want to #keeptheplus is that it is what defines us as models. It is solely an industry term,” she says. “I wouldn’t get half as much work if I was ‘just’ a model.
“It is our niche and what differentiates us from straight-size models. I am proud to be called a plus-size model, to represent and be part of the plus community, to show women who are insecure about themselves that they should be comfortable in their own skin, curves and all.”
“I am surprised that the #droptheplus supporters are happy to take money from plus-size brands and model for them, yet want to distance themselves from being referred to as plus.”
According to Havell, the mainstream media is perpetuating the divide between models and women by overusing the term—making a big deal out it each time a plus-size model scores a campaign or a magazine cover—and need to realize how detrimental this can be.
“Many women who might not be comfortable with their figures find ‘plus-size’ a derogatory term. I find it empowering,” she says. “There is a whole plus community of women who are happy and comfortable with their bodies, who support each other and deserve to be represented in fashion. Whilst I admire the #droptheplus campaign for trying to change the industry, the bottom line is we will still be referred to as ‘plus’ by clients, agents and bookers.”
Virgie Tovar, a plus-size style writer and editor of the book “Hot & Heavy,” says that although she recognizes the #droptheplus campaign is attempting to address a wider problem, she worries that its aim is short-sighted.
“The solution to fatphobia isn’t to erase identity,” she says. “Campaigns like this end up leading to the denial of important differences between people and end up inadvertently becoming a tool to silence protests that things haven’t in fact changed.
“Drop the plus doesn’t solve the problem of size discrimination in fashion. I think it gives people fewer tools to articulate that discrimination.”
Currently a size 20, Tovar says she felt virtually shut out of the mainstream fashion industry growing up. She characterizes the experience by saying she has “residual fashion PTSD” because the only clothes that would fit her felt matronly, as availability of trendy clothing in larger sizes was—and still is—more limited compared to smaller sizes. Now, she enjoys playing with the way her body makes other people react.
“I don’t think the mainstream modeling and fashion industry see the term in a negative light: I think they see bigger bodies in a negative light,” Tovar says.
“In my part of the fashion world plus-size brings up a lot of positive feelings. I think that what is happening in the plus-size fashion scene right now is the most interesting and exciting precisely because we have all this freedom to pursue edgy looks and are forced to be creative.
“Once, I walked down the runway holding a small toy pig and then yawned once I got to the end of the runway. I feel like being plus-sized gives me this incredible freedom to make fun of mainstream fashion sensibilities.”
Psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld, author of “Does Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder,” agrees that the term itself is not problematic, but rather it is society that has the problem.
“I don’t think ‘plus-size’ is the problem but rather the judgments as a society that we have around people who have larger bodies,” she says.
“If we could reduce these judgments then ‘plus-size’ would simply be another neutral descriptor of clothing, like juniors or petites.”
Yet despite the criticisms, the woman who started it all is still fighting for a world where women are not differentiated because of their size.
“I started #droptheplus because I want women referred to as just women, modeling to be all inclusive and for no one to ever feel they are more than or too much of anything,” Rochester says.
“I understand that for now we need the term ‘plus’ to be able to find clothing online, but I look beyond that to a time when you can just type in size 20 clothing and not need the term ‘plus’ to describe it. I don’t want to go to a different section of a website to find clothes my size. Times are changing. I just want them to change faster.”