BY CARLISA JOHNSON
Over the past few years, the visibility and acceptance of larger bodies has been on the rise. With this has come more discourse surrounding the notion of body positivity as well as the variant in what “healthy” looks like. Like many touchy subjects, there has been much debate on every single facet of this topic, right down to the terms used to describe these larger bodies. What is an acceptable word? Is Plus Size acceptable? Do we want to call ourselves Plus Size? Does Plus Size create further “othering?” Can we reclaim the term fat? Who get’s to have a say in the words allowed to describe our bodies? Is there a distinction between Plus Size and Plus Sized? Truthfully, as a Plus Size Woman of Color I am truly torn on the word. However, in the discussion of terminology there is so much to take into account.
Firstly, we must look at who should be determining the word that is acceptable to describe our bodies. The retailer Lane Bryant seemingly developed the word Plus Size in the 20s. However, I think it is very important to note that there was a distinction between Plus Size and Plus Sized, one describing clothes and the latter describing the person. But this still doesn’t explain why the word is necessary. Who deemed this distinction in women’s clothing necessary? Was it the Fashion Industry as a whole that made the use of the word a necessity? Well then that brings us back to my initial question, who should be allowed to determine what word we use to describe our bodies? I think looking at the phrasing of that sentence answers my question. Who should be allowed to determine what word we use to describe our bodies? It is the body of the women who fall within the sizes 12 and up who should determine what they want to be called. Some women are comfortable with the term Plus Sized; while others are perfectly fine being called curvy, chubby, pleasantly plump, or even fat. However, I don’t think simply addressing terminology on such a simplistic level even scratches the complexity of our bodies.
Connotation. No matter what we as larger women choose to call ourselves, the connotation behind many of these words have become associated with so many hurtful and bigoted things. As is expected, the number one thing is larger bodies equates to poor health, a sentiment that is simply not true. I cannot tell you how many times, since my teenage years, I have gone to the doctor and been tested for high cholesterol, diabetes, and so much more, all the be given a clean bill of health in the end. Now, this can also be partially credited to my status as a woman of color, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this was a smaller contributing factor in comparison to my size. There are no more or no less examples of Plus Size women who are active than there are women who fit into straight sizes. So, how do we go about addressing the connotation that has come along with so many of the words used to describe us? I guess this is where the reclaiming comes into play. I think we are in the wake of a Body Positivity movement addressing this very thing. With so many plus size bloggers, celebrities, and models making themselves visible, we have actively begun to address this. The simple act of being a happy Plus Size woman who is unashamed and unafraid of her body is an act of defiance that works to shatter preconceived notions. Now, I personally have no problem saying I am fat. However, when I say this around many of my smaller friends their palms get sweaty, eyes bulge, and pulse quickens as they leap to my defense and assure me that I am pretty and not fat. However, I quickly assure them that I am aware of my personal beauty and my fatness. This is when things get trickier. Why can’t my acceptance of my large body and my acceptance of my personal beauty go hand in hand? Why are these two things such polar opposites? I think beginning to break down backwards beauty ideals is one way to address this. While we continue to confront and oppose Eurocentric standards of beauty, we must do the same with standards of physique.
When addressing the visibility of Plus Size women in media I don’t think we can go any further without addressing the single most used phrase that is utilized in hopes of making us internalize body bigotry, “glorifying obesity.” Anytime I see this phrase, mostly under Plus Size Fashion Blog Posts or Videos, so many questions spring to mind? How can existing in my body be glorifying obesity? How can simply refusing to hide your body in shame be glorifying obesity? I have come to realize that in the end the underlying message behind this overused and overstated phrase is that Plus Size women don’t deserve happiness, don’t deserve nice things, and most importantly don’t deserve to be accepted by anyone including themselves. This simply reinforces the idea that Plus Size women not only have something to be ashamed of but collectively owe an apology to anyone who has to gaze upon our bodies.
This simply reinforces the idea that Plus Size women not only have something to be ashamed of but collectively owe an apology to anyone who has to gaze upon our bodies. As mentioned, Plus Size visibility in the media is on the rise. However, as our visibility grows so do the backhanded and bigoted remarks. Most recently was the debacle between Amy Schumer and Glamour Magazine. If you don’t know the details here’s a simple recap. Glamour Magazine teamed up with Lane Bryant to create a so-called “Plus Size Issue” with model Ashley Graham on the cover with Melissa McCarthy, Amy Schumer and Adele named as “Women Who Inspire Us.” Amy Schumer, who is a size 6/8 took offense to this as she was not consulted beforehand to be asked if she would like to be included in the issue. Amy believes that this sends the wrong message to young girls if they think her body is Plus Sized. Glamour thinks that they were just applauding Amy’s efforts of body positivity. Now this whole thing is one big mess because firstly, like many issues the Body Positivity movement, and many news outlets discussing it conveniently forget that intersectionality is a thing. Secondly, Amy Schumer has dug a nice hole for herself by implying that she has a ‘normal’ body and it should be seen as such, while the Plus Size women being mentioned in the magazine along side her have different bodies, which much like Amy is problematic in its nature.
This idea of the Plus Size body as different is why many others and I have such variant feelings towards the term Plus Size. Simply put it is because of the terms “othering.” That is to say, by utilizing the word Plus Size we are saying that there is something different, something that makes those categorized as Plus Size unworthy of respect and so much more. Don’t get me wrong, I love celebrating our differences as they are what make us individuals, but othering is a whole different ball park. Why is this distinction so necessary? To determine the inflation in prices that comes with larger sizes? In creating a separate term to describe larger bodies, society has worked to create ideals of superior bodies and inferior bodies. Once again inflicting unnecessary negativity on another minority group.
The last part of this loaded subject I want to unpack is the way that the word Plus Size impacts Women of Color, specifically Black Women. Firstly, I would like to pose this question. If Plus Size women are generally being presented as others, how far are Plus Size Black Women being presented down the “othering” spectrum? The negative connotations that go along with the terms Black and Plus Size combine to create a holy grail of backwards-archetypal stereotypes. From lazy, to sloppy, to attitudal, to overly sexualized, the intersectionality of Black Plus Size Women has created a cesspool of horrendous labels that should have died with minstrelsy. However, like many other causes, Civil Rights, Feminist, and now Body Positivity, Black Women are constantly forgotten. It’s almost as though Black Women have some sort of autonomy over which part of them gets discriminated against at a time. As I mentioned earlier, Plus Size Women are gaining visibility in the media, however these Plus Size Women tend to adhere to more Eurocentric beauty ideals. Take Adele and Melissa McCarthy, they are being praised for their unabashedly outlook on their bodies, as they should be. However, in the same vein why aren’t Danielle Brooks, Gabourey Sidibe, Jill Scott or Jasmine Sullivan getting the same praise? I think it is important to quickly note that in no way do I see this as a competition or race, but rather believe that representation matters and diversity should be addressed across the board. At the end of the day, I want beautiful Plus Size Black Women to get just as much positive reinforcement from the media as White and Lighter Skinned Plus Size Women.
With all of this considered, I’m sure you can understand why I have such a hard time strictly defining my feelings towards the word Plus Size. I am comfortable in who I am and how I look, but I do take offense to the active process of othering and bigotry that comes along with created terms to define larger bodied women. Much like my digestion of images in the media, I have worked to remain unaffected by terms that only go as far as to address superficial aspects of who I am as a person. I work daily to generate self-love as an act of defiance. Each day as Plus Size women we are told our very existence is wrong, but each day we must work to celebrate, support, and love each other to confront these backwards notions.