What about plus-sized, curvy, full-figured, chubby? The words describing women's bodies can be painful or powerful, depending on how you feel about them
Jennifer Lawrence says she's been called "curvy," "plus-sized," "obese by Hollywood standards." Amy Schumer was upset recently when a magazine cover implied she was plus-sized. J.Lo sees herself as "chunky." Every time one of these labels is used to describe celebrities, we lament our own bodies. If this beautiful star is overweight, what the heck am I? (Check out 12 Celebs That Get Body Positivity Totally Right.)
These words are seized upon because they make us feel annoyed, upset, ashamed. Labels—especially when referring to our bodies—matter. "Curvy" is a euphemism, because all bodies contain curves. "Full-figured" sounds like something a nice Southern granny would say, with a knowing look. "Chubby" is for babies; "husky" is for lumberjacks. "Fat" is just nasty.
Connie Levitsky, 24, didn't think "fat" was so bad, not until recently. She was fired from her job at a clothing store in Canada geared toward plus-sized women for calling her customers fat—arguably, not in a derogatory way. "Conquering the world, one well-dressed fat lady at a time," read her job description on Facebook. Her manager asked her to remove it, then fired her anyway.
Growing up as a self-described "fat kid," Levitsky only recently became comfortable with her own body, after learning about the body-positivity movement through Tumblr. "I realized that, for me, fat didn't have to be a bad word," she says, "and that my body had nothing to do with what kind of person I am, or the contributions I can make to the world."
What Does Plus-Size Really Mean, Anyway?
It's funny that women have to claim words to describe themselves, because the label "plus-sized" is essentially arbitrary. Clothing sizes weren't standardized in the United States until the 1940s or so, because clothing itself wasn't standardized yet; poor women made their own clothes, and rich women had clothes made for them. The introduction of pre-made (still known now in the fashion industry by the clunky phrase "ready-to-wear") clothes demanded national guidelines for mass production, so statisticians measured 15,000 women and the National Bureau of Standards introduced an official system of sizes in 1958. The standard was based primarily off a woman's bust size, assumed a basic hourglass shape, and placed all women into a series of ascending even numbers, beginning with 8 as the smallest.
The federal government, though, did not hold the fashion industry to these numbers, and in fact withdrew involvement entirely in the 1980s. Fashion brands then massaged and inflated and changed sizes, which is how you might find yourself a size 10 in one store and a petite 2 in another. Plus-size, by definition suggests a body that is larger than the standard, but a standard doesn't exist...especially in a country where average weight continues to climb. (In fact, There Is a Serious Global Obesity Problem.)
Re-claiming the Label "Plus-Size"
There's no arguing with the fact that the term can come with a negative connotation, no matter its arbitrary beginnings. "Most people, even those who are of normal or below normal size, let alone living in larger bodies, have been told over and over being 'fat' is a horrible thing. It connotes being lazy, stupid, undesirable, and worse," says Andrew Walen, a psychotherapist and founder of the Body Image Therapy Center in Washington, D.C. "Reclaiming that word to simply mean carrying a large store of fat tissue under your skin, or to take it a step further say it's a source of beauty and pride, requires a major psychological shift."
But more and more people are embracing the label plus-size, especially due to the increasing popularity of plus-size models like Ashley Graham, Robin Lawley, and Tess Holliday. (But here's why Model Ashley Graham Has a Problem with the 'Plus-Size' Label.)
Holliday calls herself plus-sized, though at her modeling agency, her division is simply "curve." "They don't say plus-sized. And I don't say I'm curvy, because we're all curvy! Men have curves," Holliday points out. But representing women of a larger side is hugely important to Holliday, who says the existence of plus-sized models saved Holliday from her hometown in rural Missouri, a judgmental family, and school bullies who called her "Rhino" based off her given name, Ryan. "Seeing Mia Tyler and Emme and Crystal Renn in magazines, I felt like, oh! There are women who look like me! I wouldn't be talking to you today if it weren't for them," she says. (But one study recently asked, Are Plus-Size Models to Blame for the Obesity Trend?)
Thanks to the popularity of "plus-size" models, fashion bloggers and influencers—equally as important as bold-faced names today—are using the label to advocate for themselves and ask the fashion industry to accomodate their needs. "I prefer to refer to myself as plus-sized," says Jaye Gipson, the blogger behind Curvatude. "It's just one of the ways I choose to describe myself, but it is definitely the one I've held close, near and dear, because I feel it describes me, my body, my life. It's always been my word." But she integrates the term "curvy" into the title of her blog: "My blog is called Curvatude because it's a play on the words curves and attitude, both of which I have plenty of," she says. (Forget "Plus-Size"—Curve Models Are Embracing a More Body Positive Label.)
"Plus-size is a descriptor, and people take it as a judgment," says fashion blogger Gavyn Pickens, AKA The Curvy Cutie. Pickens prefers to use the term "straight-size" for women who are smaller than her, as opposed to seeing them as the normal default—it's another way of erasing the negative connotations of "plus"-sized. "Plus-size is a shopping navigation tool. It helps you to know where to shop at the mall," she explains.
How Labels Can Hurt
Even as a successful adult, Holliday is still not completely rid of sizeist bullies. "I'm the largest working plus-sized model," Holliday says, which makes her an inexhaustible target for Internet trolls. "They tell me that there's no way I can be healthy." (What's a Healthy Weight, Anyway? The Truth About Being Fat But Fit.)
The belief that plus-sized bodies must be unhealthy is a popular refrain. And that leads to a downward shame spiral that hardly helps. "There are far more women of size who are ashamed of themselves than women of size who are proud of themselves," says Caroline Apovian, M.D., a professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Vice President of the Obesity Society. "It's damaging to allow this disease to affect your self-esteem." Yes, there is a correlation between size and health (most people with a BMI over 30 have metabolic risk, Apovian notes), but research shows that fat-shaming doesn't help someone's health; in fact, it typically makes someone gain weight. (Another study found that Body Shaming Leads to Higher Mortality Risk.)
Apovian believes that people who find pride in their bodies are more likely to treat them well—through healthy diet and regular exercise—than people who are caught in a cycle of shame. "Men and women who are bigger earn less, get married less, are more socially discriminated against—it's devastating," she says. "I am all for women being proud of their bodies, whatever the size."
Walen tries to help his eating-disorder patients by guiding them away from words, terms, and labels. "We typically don't play with words, because it gives them too much power," he says. "What we want our patients to understand is that this is the body you were meant to have." The Body Image Therapy Center teaches that each person's wellness is independent of their size. "Your body is not your billboard, it's your home," Walen explains. (And How You Feel About Your Body Has a Huge Affect on How Happy You Are.)
Holliday, for her part, simply ignores the haters. "I work so hard, I have long hours, my life is 12- to 15-hour days," she says. "People assume that just because we are bigger, we must be constantly eating. It's the opposite! I have to take care of myself, just like every other model."
But Why Do We Care About Labels So Much?
"Our current culture is obsessed with women's appearance, and body size has emerged as a hugely (pun intended) salient aspect of beauty," says Kjerstin Gruys, Ph.D., author of Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love my Body by Not Looking at It for a Year. "This makes clothing size standards more than practical guidelines for finding clothes that fit—they become labels that mark identity, both for the self and for how we see and treat other people."
So maybe you see a size-2 woman as adorable, and a size-16 one as lazy (and are even less kind to yourself). Either way, size has become one of the major ways that we identify others—and ourselves in comparison to others. (Make sure to read Why America Hates Fat Women, the Feminist Take.) And that sort of comparison can lead to totally unrealistic body standards, which can take your self-esteem and start that body-shaming cycle Apovian and Walen both cited.
Luckily, a major cultural shift is already under way, with landmark moments like Sports Illustrated featuring Robyn Lawley in their Swimsuit Issue and Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty or Lane Bryant's #ImNoAngel campaign. Then there are the smaller moments, the blogs and Instagram hashtags and thousands upon thousands of posts tagged "body positive" on Tumblr.
"Words are as powerful as you make them," Pickens says. Or, to recall a childhood rhyme, sticks and stones may break bones, but words will never hurt. They could even help.