There is the hot debate in recent weeks about the rise of those in the modeling and fashion industry desire to discard the word “Plus”. This way of thinking is certainly not the new. Ashley Graham and Melissa McCarthy are just a few of the growing voices in the fashion industry who wants to get rid of the plus category. We should try to keep it in its fashion context, but we have made it impossible for them to.
The term “Plus” was created by Lane Bryant in the 1920’s to make their brand more marketable; the word “stout” was growing out of favor apparently. It was adopted by other brands and began to be used not only in the fashion industry but by the people who purchased their products. Its origin had nothing to do with the fat acceptance social justice movement that would come 40 years later but everything to do with how to sell to our fat bodies. The commodification of our bodies has always been the context. We have blamed the plus fashion industry for co-opting the language of the fat acceptance movement to sell more products when it is us who co-opted their language to identify who we are as a subculture. It is natural that Lane Bryant is at the forefront of redefining the term since they are the ones that created the fashion category. In a Jan. 2015 article in BizWoman Journal, Lane Bryant CEO Linda Hesley said that she wanted to redefine the term both internally as a company and externally as we see plus size fashion. “….Fashion is what you buy; style is what you do with it. We’re very much about no judgment. Internally, as a brand, we call it, ‘her size.’…The demographics are changing, and that is all the more reason to change perception and talk about it as ‘her size,’ not ‘plus size, I wouldn’t want to call myself ‘plus size.'” I don’t have a problem with her stance on the way her brand redefines how they sell to us; they should seek ways to rebrand and market, that is how you remain on top. So it should be no surprise that their main model Ashley Graham also wants to do away with the term. That is the context that we should keep this discussion, but it is difficult when the term defines so much of who we are.
We now use the term “Plus” to describe us, our lifestyle our oppression, our liberation and in some cases our activism. When we see people in the fashion industry wanting to do away with the word we want to be angry and lash out at them for also doing away with the people who use it to describe who they are. This discussion has more to do with the category they find themselves in as a commercial brand and less to do with social justice as a whole. That is the context. What is troubling is when the louder voices in plus fashion attempt to take the discussion out of the context of commerce and try to place it neatly in the body positivity movement.
As Feminist and body image activist Melissa Fabello stated in 2014
“… Body-positivity is about understanding that we need a basis of knowledge for how ableism, racism, colorism, cissexism, and heterosexism play into our concept of beauty and how those forms of oppression deeply affect the way that we experience our bodies. And we can’t just put a “Love Yourself!” band-aid on that, much less a “We Are All Equal!” one. I propose diversifying the discussion – and diversifying it, in all of its nuances and challenges – because understanding hierarchies of power and how they affect our daily lives needs to be central to our work..”
Body positive activists should encompass the discussion that Melissa mentions and advocate in a way that addresses the needs of who they are advocating. That should be our context in this work. When we have someone that claims to be an activist who is void of this discussion and relegates it to how they market themselves or their brand completely diminishes the work that activists do. The fashion industry is now co-opting our language as we have done to theirs and trying to place it within their context.
As our Editor in Chief Stephanie so eloquently stated, What are we to do about it now? We exist in a society that doesn’t care about a history lesson in fat oppression. We just want to feel beautiful, live free, be valued and visible instantly. Maybe the visual, instant impact of fashion makes this happen in short bursts, and that is why we are so happy to support powerful and privileged celebrities that can redefine who they are without consequence. Unfortunately, our collective fat activism is also in short bursts and lies dormant until the next news cycle offends us.
I want to challenge more of us to create think pieces that go beyond the moment. I want all of us to look closely at the context of what is said and who is saying it. We applaud those who rise to stardom in the plus fashion industry because we have to, we feel the need to support our own. When they don’t mirror our message, we can’t be angry about what they say, especially if they never spoke within our context to begin with.