The One Thing People Forget About The Term "Plus Size"
Much is often deliberated about the pros and cons of "dropping the plus," with one main pro and one main con surfacing time and time again. Alleged pro: Destroying labels that further separate women from other women, and subsequently paving the road to equality. Alleged con: Destroying a sense of identity so many plus size women and fat positive people have reclaimed as a source of empowerment and community.
I understand both sides of the coin, but I err on the side of preserving the reclamation that's gone down, at least until cultural fat shaming is a thing of the past — a perspective that's helped me not only accept my fatness, but celebrate it. But besides the issue of identity — and the discomfort than can arise when non plus size people attempt to define the terms that actual fat people utilize as self-descriptors — there's an issue of practicality when it comes to dropping the plus. Mainly, that it'd very likely make shopping a heck of a lot more difficult for sizes 16 through 30+.
In left-leaning areas, feminist corners of the internet, or fat activist circles, we sometimes talk about all the progress made in plus size fashion since the early 2000s and earlier. Once restricted to tunics in different shades of burgundy and oversized Lepidoptera prints on A-line silhouettes, we now have a sea of plus size indie designers creating all things bold, kitsch, alternative, trendy, "Lolita," rule-breaking, etc. As someone who's always been interested in style, the evolution of size inclusive and indie plus designers has changed my life, and that of many others. But the worlds of indie plus and mainstream plus remain vastly different. Progress in the former does not necessarily indicate progress in the latter.
The truth is that shopping for plus sizes IRL is still an incredibly difficult thing to do. If you're above a size 16, it's not likely that you'll find much at your local mall. Maybe, if you're lucky, there'll be a Torrid or a Forever21+ section. Perhaps Charlotte Russe will carry some of its extended sizes at brick and mortar locations.
There's usually a corner of department stores designated to plus as well, albeit not usually stocked with much that'd cater to fashion-forward, trend-loving, or alternative-dressing Millennial plus sizers. If you're in the UK, Evans or SimplyBe might have some IRL locations, too. In Canada, Addition Elle is likely to make an appearance. But for the most part, you'll be lucky if you find one shop that's to your tastes and carries your size when shopping in the flesh. This is because the vast majority of retailers simply don't yet carry plus sizes.
For those reasons, the majority of plus size women I know shop online. Indie plus designers are arguably doing the most radical work in terms of plus fashion, but that work is often reserved to the web. As for the bigger stores like Forever21, they tend to carry infinitely more options on their e-commerce websites than they do in stores — which are easy to find because there's a plus-specific section. ASOS Curve is another excellent example.
Even so, comparing the myriad of sartorial options available to straight size women, or even those who fall on the cusp of straight and plus, to that of the average plus size consumer will, time and time again, reveal that we're only starting to crack the surface of fashion equality.
"Dropping the plus" implies that the term "plus size" has run its course, and is no longer needed on any level — identity-based, practical, or otherwise. It implies that plus size women don't need it in order to gauge where they can and cannot shop, operating under the assumption that brands are inclusive enough circa 2016 that it'd be far more beneficial to drift away from segregating terminology and instead opt for unification.
When Forever21 recently chose to run a separate Instagram account for plus size consumers, the decision was met with a lot of debate. Was this a safe space for plus size women — free of arguably unnecessary imagery of clothing unavailable in their sizes? Or was it further alienation?
As writer and plus size indie brand owner Alysse Dalessandro told Bustle, "I'm always in favor of mainstream brands that carry both straight and plus sizes having separate accounts and the main reason for that is that if they don't, you will typically see one plus size image for about every 10 to 15 straight size images. Quite frankly, I'm tired of people complaining about dropping the term plus size or wanting to be included alongside straight size because it really fails to illuminate all of the work that still needs to be done for any of that to happen."
Because of the lack of plus options out there, even among brands that carry some extended sizes, Dalessandro felt that having a plus-specific account would prevent actual plus women from having to dig through straight size piece after straight size piece before finding something in their actual size. It was a sentiment I heard echoed all across Twitter.
While looking at clothing of any size can be inspiring to lovers of style, a plus size woman who actually wants to see what's out there in her size and proceed to shop has no practical use for a barraging of straight size merchandise imagery. Personally, I know that F21's separate account means I can see clothing that I can actually buy, without being reminded of the many things I can't.
By conducting a poll on Twitter, it became pretty clear that a lot of plus size women (at least the ones who follow me) feel the same. When asked how much more difficult shopping for sizes 16 and above would be without the appropriate labels telling you what stores carry what sizes, 43 percent of the 256 voters answered, "May as well give up," with a close second being, "Digging would be needed," at 39 percent. Only 18 percent opted for, "No more than now."
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Because there is no size-based equity — not in fashion, not in the workforce, not in the healthcare system — getting rid of this term from a retail perspective could very potentially result in the following: Plus size woman wants to shop, plus size woman has no way to differentiate between the brands that carry her size and those that don't, plus size woman spends hours looking through clothing that doesn't fit her, plus size woman feels drained and fed up and ready to forsake fashion altogether. This is not a particularly desirable scenario.
Chances are, more brands would make searching by size accessible on their e-commerce sites should "plus size" be removed from the conversation entirely — á la ModCloth's eschewing of the term in favor of an "extended sizes" search feature. But this would still mean endlessly searching both the web and brick and mortar shops for inclusivity, when at the moment, finding plus size options is achievable through the use of Google or a quick check on a brand site to see if there's a plus section or a wide range of sizes sold. In the plus-free process, we'd be even further reminded of the lack of actual options available to us.
I'm sure a lot of people would still be willing to sift through the options, or lack thereof. That's entirely their prerogative, of course. And the idea of less "divisive" terminology, in general, is a nice one. But to "drop the plus" before there's way more sartorial inclusivity than there currently is also feels belittling to the many folks who have worked towards, and are still working towards, filling the gaps.
I think of Re/Dress, of Society Plus, of Ready To Stare, of Zelie For She and so many others: Brands that have chosen to celebrate plus size women and carve out spaces that are exclusive to them. Straight size women undoubtedly have the majority of the fashion industry creating clothing that fits their bodies. But there are plenty of plus size women and plus size designers who have taken up the task of giving us those safe spaces, celebrating our figures, designing with curves and rolls and particularities of fatness in mind.
I don't know what "dropping the plus" would mean for them. Re-branding? Extinction? Irrelevancy? But to say it's an unnecessary term — an "outdated" or "alienating" one — feels incredibly callous to the folks doing all they can to de-stigmatize actually being plus size: Something they do largely through providing fashionable plus size garments for us.
To "drop the plus" ultimately means to assume that equality has been achieved: That there's nothing left to fight for or work towards, at least when it comes to fashion. It denies the fact that plus size individuals still can't decide to go shopping on a whim one afternoon after work. It denies that shopping as a fat person is still hard AF.
I get wanting to promote the notion that women are women, and that they are more than label in their tutu skirts. But the retail landscape still doesn't treat us as such. That's why the best hope a size 26 babe has of finding a cocktail dress last minute is usually clicking "express shipping" on an e-commerce site and hoping it arrives in time.
Until every size of human can shop at every store, the plus size label continues to eradicate a whole lot of uncertainty. It tells us who caters to us, and who doesn't. And it means that if we don't want to click through 'gram after 'gram of straight size dresses unavailable in size fat, we simply don't have to.