This week, Madeleine Oakley explores the complex issues surrounding the labelling of models as plus size.

We are a generation of label rejecters. We embrace fluidity regarding categorisation more than ever before. We might check before assuming someone’s gender pronoun or may find ourselves on a spectrum when it comes to our sexuality.

If this is the case, then is labelling a model as ‘plus size’ an arbitrary term and unnecessary when it comes to our modern inclusive world? Or is it necessary to classify models for ease in the fashion industry? Embracing these labels could actually be empowering and, therefore, rejecting them may not be the only answer to the debate.

The definition of the term plus size in the Collins Dictionary is “a clothing size designed for people who are above the average size”. Considering that the mean dress size in the UK is a 16 and also the size where most plus size clothing starts, it seems strange that anything above a size eight is classified as plus size in the fashion industry (although this is sometimes contested). For the average woman, these body measurements are unrealistic and not a reflection of true life.

Reflecting on this dictionary definition, the most straightforward answer to the debate would be that plus size should begin at least at a 16 to match the UK’s female bodies. However, the fashion world is a creative sphere and not a direct reflection of our society.

Therefore, it may be necessary for them to adopt a new term in order to differentiate from the technical plus size definition.

High-end labels usually do not cater for sizes beyond a UK 12. Therefore, fashion houses have to have some sort of terminology referring to above a size eight, be it plus size or not, for them to group their models. Karl Lagerfeld once said “No one wants to see curvy women,” a comment which is an extreme example, but does echo the fashion industry’s unease in showcasing their clothes on models bigger than their norm or on a variety of sizes.

In a 2018 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, the designer Tom Ford gave the explanation: “There is a practical reason that most models are the same size… You make a sample collection [according to] a standardised selection of measurements for models… This is an industry thing. Whether we all decide to start making all of our clothes in the next size up, that’s a different thing.”

This conveys that it is the ease and custom of using the same size models on the runway which dictates the lack of ‘plus size’ models. Hence, we should not see it as a personal rejection but as a frank business decision.

Moreover, the terminology used to describe them is required to differentiate them from the routine catwalk size. Compared to industry standard, a size 12 model is plus-size and perhaps we need to separate this from real life and not relate it to a person’s identity. Fashion is about “dreams and illusions” according to Lagerfeld, and thus should not cross over into the real world.

Some fashion houses have started including what they call plus size models in their runway shows. Fashion Spot’s New York Fashion Week Fall 2018 Diversity Report showed that an average of 0.4 of the models cast per show that season were plus sized, a number which disappointingly was on par with Autumn 2017. Moreover, the majority of the models were hired by only two fashion houses:Christian Siriano and Chromat. Models that were defined as plus sized and walked included Ashley Graham (UK size 14) and Candice Huffine (UK size 12), both of which are larger compared to industry standards, but do not reflect the size 16 and above regarded as plus size on the UK high street.

Plus size model Ariel Pierre-Louis comments “I feel like some brands only decide to add plus-size [models] at the very last minute, to be ‘inclusive’, and they usually only hire the non-double digit ‘plus’ [models] or under-a-size-14 [models]. I guess it’s nice they are being more inclusive, but they still aren’t serving authentically plus-size models.” If it is diversity which the fashion houses want to promote, then the token use of these smaller-than-average women seems to have greatly missed the mark.

Arguably, including these women makes the issue worse as it publicises fashion’s idea of a plus size body and therefore places even more pressure on the average woman to fit a certain ideal. Runway shows should either be unequivocally inclusive or stick to showcasing using their customary dress size to stop this amplification of the problem. Some may view the presence of these select ‘plus size’ models as a publicity stunt for the designers’ own monetary advantage, rather than a promotion of body positivity. The lack of diversity within the ‘plus size’ models chosen may also confuse the issue more as people may think that they should look like these glowing, flat-stomached women whilst wearing their high street plus size clothes.

At a UK size 22, Tess Holliday is one of the only unmistakably plus sized models to work in mainstream fashion. She has published a book on body positivity, started a viral hashtag “#effyourbeautystandards”, and her 1.9 million Instagram followers are regularly updated with photos and captions promoting inclusivity and selfconfidence. She was the first plus sized model to grace the cover of Cosmopolitan – an appearance which came with celebration and criticism in equal measure. Individuals argued that her body positivity campaign was promoting obesity and the journalist Piers Morgan proclaimed the magazine’s coverage to be “dangerous” and “misguided”.

Holliday is not afraid to address herself as a plus size model however, and argues that it is important to be able to express your body shape using specific terminology. She says that it is helpful for women as when “they look online, or look in magazines, they see that label, or see that term, they feel like they’re not alone”. This shows that the phrase plus size could and should be used to encourage involvement as opposed to marginalising a certain group.

Holliday’s position as a woman who is larger than the average female means that she fulfils the dictionary definition of plus size and could indicate that she is the embodiment of what a plus size model actually is. Moreover, her unashamed Instagram posts showing cellulite and natural rolls of flesh emphasise that women come in many forms and this does not stop them from being involved and even thriving in the fashion world.

However, some argue that Holliday should not be defined as a plus size model as her BMI categorises her as obese and therefore, her body should not be promoted positively in the mass media or linked to modelling. Holliday notes that initially she felt obligated to discuss her health and provide evidence of her healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. However, in more recent times she has refused to rise to the abuse masked as concern; instead deciding that her health is of no one’s business but her own. Perhaps, her health should not factor in whether she or others of similar stature are classed as plus size, as fundamentally if a body is above the average size, then it places it in the category.

What is the ideal definition of the term plus size? What do we want to see in the media labelled in this way? Plus size should be a size above the average. Therefore, for the UK we should recognise above a size 16 as the meaning of this terminology.

If models are happy to classify their size 12 figures as plus size, then this is their decision, however in order to reflect our current society, it may be wise to rebrand them using new words; as lifesize or perhaps middle models. They still need a space to occupy, as it is important for diversity and inclusivity to showcase all shapes and sizes and not discount them for not being on an extreme end of the spectrum. However, it is confusing for the public and simply untrue to brand a size 12 fashion model as plus size when her body is smaller than the average women.

It is time for the fashion world to acknowledge that women want to see realistic representations of themselves and this broad showcasing of body shapes may actually promote sales as women can imagine themselves in the garments more easily. The fashion industry has a long way to go when it comes to diversity and thus, we should continue to demand change. We should also refuse to let what or what isn’t plus sized define us.

It is important to be as happy in our bodies as possible and appreciate the beauty of variation in the human race. Currently, the world of fashion is not a representation of real life and their idea of plus size should not define our identities or affect how we feel about ourselves. We should wear exactly what we want and refer to ourselves how we wish (as long as it is positive of course!).

Stay up to date with Madeleine on Instagram @madeleineoakleytextiles

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