By LAURA FRENCH
Whether they prefer to be called curvy, full-figured, or simply “normal,” plus-size women say they still face unique challenges in the fashion industry.
Difficulty shopping and lack of representation in the media are two of the problems plus-size women face in a “straight-size” world. However, with increasing numbers of people identifying as plus-size and the rise of the body positivity movement, the fashion industry in the United States is starting to embrace “curviness” and become more inclusive, observers say.
“Many women find themselves plus-size and that’s normal for them. Why should they be ostracized for it?” says Cara May, a woman who identifies as plus-size.
Curvy vs. plus-size
Sonsi.com, a plus-size retail website in affiliation with Lane Bryant, recently released a poll which found that 28 percent of women size 14 and up prefer to be called “curvy,” while 25 percent prefer the term “full-figured” and another 25 prefer just “plus-size.”
“I think it’s a preferred word because the term ‘fat’ is seen as a bad word,” says Diana Atalla, a New Jersey woman who identifies as plus-size. “So I think it is, for many women, a euphemism.”
“‘Fat’ is definitely a word that can be used vehemently, like, against someone, as an insult. But someone’s not going to say, like, ‘Oh, you’re curvy,’ like, it’s not going to be really used as an insult ever.” she says. “It’s not a bad word in, like, any context of the word, so I think that’s why people prefer it – because it is a comfortable, not ever harmful way to define yourself.”
Atalla herself says she has no real preference in what she’d like to be called, although she feels strongly that “fat” is not a bad word and that she tries to make it “less of a bad word” in her personal life.
“I can call myself, like, fat, but if other people say it to me, it depends on how they’re using it” she says.
Cara May also does not necessarily identify with the word “curvy.”
“I’m plus-size more in the sense of being extra tall, so while I do have curves I wouldn’t necessarily term myself curvy” she says.
May believes the preference for the word “curvy” over “plus-size” comes from negative societal standards. “In my opinion, the reason that most of these women prefer to be called ‘curvy’ is that plus size has a connotation that there exists a quote unquote ‘normal’ and the fact that these woman and their sizes are not ‘normal’.”
An underrepresented majority
Plus-size women may not be seen as “normal,” but they are the majority. According to a report by Business Insider, plus-size people make up 67 percent of the US population, and the average size for U.S. women is a 14. Size 14 and above is typically considered to be “plus-size”, while sizes 0 to 12 are “straight-size.” Despite the majority of female clothing shoppers being plus-size, plus-size fashion only accounts for about 10 percent of the $108 billion apparel industry. This disparity makes it difficult for plus-size women to find comfortable, affordable clothing.
“I think there’s definitely less options,” says Atalla. She says many plus-size people face disappointment when they find “cute” clothing that’s only available in a “quote unquote ‘normal’ size.”
“It’s like, ‘I wish that that was, like, in my size, and it’s not'” she says. She also says that plus-size clothes is often more expensive than straight-size clothes, causing problems in both availability and affordability.
May also has trouble finding clothing at mainstream outlets. “In my shopping experience, ‘real-life stores,’ so to speak, are basically out of the question – I simply will not find an article of clothing in a real life store that fits me. So I really befriended online stores, things like that,” she says. “And in terms of plus-size, you definitely see, like, it’s always relegated to, like, the back corner – that doesn’t feel so good when you find yourself like ‘Ah, this is the tiny space in the world where I belong.’ That’s not fair.”
Lack of representation in the media can also be discouraging for plus-size women and girls.
“On television advertisements, in magazines, most of the models are white, thin women and you don’t necessarily see a presence of quote unquote ‘average’ or ‘curvy’ people, or at least the range of sizes,” says May. Atalla agrees, saying “There are much more people who are overweight in real life than there are in the media.”
However, Atalla says there are still many positive media figures for plus-size people to look up to, such as singers Adele and Beth Ditto, and actress Gabourey Sidibe. Both women also say they follow body positive blogs, which can help women feel happier and more confident about their bodies.
“It’s like, ‘Well, that body looks like mine, like, I feel differently about mine’,” Atalla says, describing how it feels to see plus-size women represented in a positive light. “When you see it more knowing that it’s not really that different, it’s not, like, grotesque if you see it more.”
“I think in this day and age of technology people are really turning to plus size bloggers and internet role models,” says May.
Working the curves
Plus-size women working in the entertainment industry can be a part of improving the representation of larger women in the media. However, curvacious women will often faced mixed reception and some discrimination when working in such a competitive and thin-dominated field.
“We have to accept the fact that some people actually like to be thick and curvy,” says Tahir Register, an actor and photographer who has worked with plus-size women. Register, who started Tahir Coleman Photographi in 2005, believes the word “curvy” can have a highly positive connotation.
“When you say curvy, curvy really describes women who are thicker in size than a woman who is not.” he says. “And also curvy is directly linked to a sexual connotation. It’s good to be curvy. Curves are sexy. Curves are interesting, and people, men more than anything, like curvy women. Whether they are fat or skinny or medium build, a curvy women is seen as good because no one wants someone who doesn’t have any curves.”
Still, Register recounts some of the discrimination he has seen plus-size women face while working in the entertainment industry.
“The discrimination is latent discrimination that is accepted because of society’s standards,” he says. “And what I mean by that is you can get a casting call and the casting call can say ‘looking for a tall, African-American, curvy woman from size 16-24,’ but next to that will be the description of what they are playing, and that’s where the discrimination lies. The description will say something like ‘we need someone of that size to play a fat woman eating hamburgers in a coffee shop’. That’s where the discrimination lies.”
Register notices not a lack of representation, but a lack of positive representation, for plus-size women. “It’s not that it’s hard for people in the industry entertainment industry to get work as a curvy woman,” he says, “but the kind of, the integrity in the work, is discriminative. As if only curvy women can only play a funny fat girl or a fat girl who eats or a fat girl who has low self-esteem. So that’s where the discrimination lies.”
Register himself has photographed plus-size models, which he recalls as a very positive experience. He recounts one project he worked on with plus size women modelling vintage-wear in the outdoors. “These women were vivacious and curvy and happy and proud of taking pictures outside – half naked, some of them – and it was a great shoot,” he says. Register also talks about a woman who he photographed who later went on to land a modelling job and participate in a plus-size model fashion week.
“That was my particular favorite time because she came to me and she needed help. She said she’s a plus size woman it’s hard for her to get the pictures and I was like ‘I have you, I trust in my vision.’ And I had a vision and I executed it, and she ended up getting work and more work and more work because of that photo I took of her. And that was favorite part,” says Register.
Although more women are embracing their curves and feeling more comfortable pursuing appearance-centric professions like modelling and acting, many plus-size women still have self-esteem issues, as shown by the 31 percent of women who responded to Sonsi.com’s poll saying that they are hesitant to dress fashionably because they feel “uncomfortable in [their] skin” and “don’t want to be noticed.” Cara May says this statistic is upsetting, and hopes that plus-size women can be encouraged not to hide themselves.
“You don’t have to take total pride in your body, you don’t have to be an activist, but the acting for invisibility makes me sad,” May says. “And I would challenge people, if they feel comfortable, to make themselves, to some degree, visible.”