Learning Curve: How We Talk About Plus-Size Women

We're welcoming more body diversity on runways and in pop culture, but the vocabulary for plus-size women is still tricky.
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We're welcoming more body diversity on runways and in pop culture, but the vocabulary for plus-size women is still tricky.
Ashley Graham modeling during New York Fashion Week

Photo Credit: ELLE

When talking about plus-size women, certain words come up over and over. "Plus-size", of course, is the most popular, followed by "curvy," "voluptuous," and the reclaimed "fat". As plus-size visibility is trickling on to the runways and fashion editorials, it's worth taking a closer look at the words we use to describe anything other than so-called "straight-size" fashion.

Writers were covering this issue long before I rolled up on the scene, but I wanted to touch on some of what's been published already and bring part of the conversation here.

The discussion of women's weight (unfortunately) surrounds us as it is, but it's come up prominently in the last few weeks: NYMag just posted a story on the impossibility of talking honestly about weight and both the UK and US versions of Women's Running Magazine featured plus-size cover models. I cover plus-size fashion alongside "straight fashion" in my Outfits Under $100 column and use the term "plus-size" by default, at risk of being repetitive.

The Euphemisms We Choose

So, the question of what words to use and the significance (good and bad) of having euphemisms for larger women is an ongoing issue. The link between the words we use and the attitudes they promote about plus-size women is worth exploring as we all work on covering fashion without disrespecting or treating plus-size women as an audience we "have to" cover in the name of political correctness.

Bustle wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in January on bizarre euphemisms like "husky" and "above average" that succeed in not saying "fat" but still manage to insinuate plus-size women are abnormal. The discussion over language sometimes produces hideous results (buffered with plenty of shaky science) aimed at shaming women for wanting to claim labels that humanize them.

Euphemisms can be empowering when women choose them for themselves, but they can ring insincere in other contexts. Those well-intentioned magazines that aim to cover a wider range of body shapes are often the same publications dispensing subtle guilt trips about your eating habits. Then there are the writers, plus-size women themselves, who eschew euphemisms altogether and use "fat" as part of their identity.

Plenty of fashion and health magazines write about "curvy," "full-figured," and "plus-size" women, but I sometimes wonder if fashion and health writers use these terms as a form of incorporating body positivity while avoiding difficult conversations about how we view plus-size women. 

I think talking honestly about weight and different body shapes requires sincerity. True body-positivity needs to include a willingness to confront why we use euphemisms, and whether that's good, bad, or somewhere in between. It takes more than gushing over "curvy" women and occasionally spotlighting plus-size women. It's also important to temper that discussion by acknowledging that words like "fat" remain a harmful adjective to some women. 

What do you think?

I know there's far from a consensus on what words people want to use for themselves so I'm wondering what you think. Part of the weirdness of euphemisms for plus-size women is that many of those terms were not coined by plus-size women themselves. The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating history of "plus-sized," which came from some women not fitting the slender ideal of the Roaring Twenties. And so on.

Of course it might be an issue of culture, too. College Fashion writes for girls in high school up to women heading off to grad school. Using "plus-size" in past posts may have been the simplest way to acknowledge and welcome body diversity without wrangling with the issues around other words. When so many of our readers are already bombarded with arbitrary notions of who they have to be and what they have to look like in order to be considered worthy, do we really want to throw out words like "fat" in fashion posts? 

I wasn't sure what vocabulary I should use in covering plus-size fashion while maintaining a safe, body-positive environment, so I wanted to post some initial thoughts and open up the discussion to you guys. Please let me know what you think in the comments! I hope we can continue this discussion there.