What does plus size actually mean? What is the definition of body positivity? Read up on the words, phrases, and ideas that shape our community’s experiences.
What Is Plus Size? (& Other Need-to-Know Terminology)
Even though countless brands have entered the plus-size fashion industry and plus-size women are seen in media more than ever before, there continues to be discrimination and judgment against larger bodies. It can be seen at the doctor’s office, in the workplace, on the dating scene, or even on airplanes. But finally, it seems society is beginning to wake up. As you fight to take up space in the world and continue to prove that every body is equally valid, knowing about the movements that got us to today, deciding how we want to describe our own bodies, and educating ourselves about plus-size fashion history can only embolden us to challenge long-held beliefs or false assumptions. So, we’ve compiled an arsenal of all the terms and concepts you should know.
These are just some of the many ways women of size like to describe themselves. Whatever word you like to use best is up to you!
Many women of size prefer using “curvy” because it has fewer negative connotations than “fat” or “plus size.” Some take issue with it, though, because not all women above a size 12 are curvy or have curves. “Curvy,” for some women, reinforces the idea that only the hourglass shape is acceptable, when there is so much variety from body to body. Curvy is also commonly used by retailers to indicate to customers that they sell sizes 14+.
Once a word used to hurt people of size, “fat” has since been reclaimed by some. While choosing how to describe yourself and your body is totally unique to the individual, the argument for the word “fat” suggests that it’s simply an objective description—by using it neutrally and without judgment, we’re taking the power out of how it can be used against us.
“Full-figured” is a descriptor that means “having a rounded body shape.” Like “curvy” or “voluptuous,” this word is not often seen as negative. Many people of size use this term as a way to describe their body as well as retailers who use the term to describe their product offering in sizes 14+.
Based on women featured in the paintings of the 17th-century artist Peter Paul Rubens, some women like to call themselves “rubenesque.” When Rubens was active, women of size were “fashionable.” The term has since come to mean “plump or rounded, usually in a pleasing or attractive way.”
“Voluptuous” is often used interchangeably with the word “curvy,” and is defined as “suggesting sensual pleasure by fullness and beauty of form.” The connotation of this word has always been positive.
This Yiddish-inspired word has been borrowed by English speakers to mean “having a full, rounded figure.” Its origin is “zatfik,” the Yiddish word for “juicy” or “succulent.”
These are the ways the fashion industry has referred to our size category throughout history.
Big and Tall
Men’s plus-size fashion equivalent is frequently called “big and tall.” But, sadly, the industry still has a long way to go before it can catch up to the progress plus-size women’s fashion has made in recent years.
The girls’ equivalent of plus-size fashion was called “Chubby” from the 1950s to the 1970s. “Chubby Clubs” were organized throughout the country to give girls of size a sense of community. Decades later, “chubby” is still a term sometimes used to describe larger body types.
Often used to describe non-standard-size models, “curve” is a descriptor also used by some retailers to differentiate size-14-and-up collections.
Brands that expand their size range into larger sizes often refer to that section as “extended sizes.” When sizes are marketed this way, it’s because they’re in addition to “standard,” smaller sizes.
Similar to “Chubby,” “Husky” is how some clothing for boys of size has been marketed since the 1950s and continuing into today. While the word is still used at some brands, some argue that the categorization has a negative connotation and can be damaging to boys’ self-image.
So, what is plus size? What is considered plus size? Though some women are fighting to eradicate this term altogether, “plus size” continues to be the most common way to reference sizes 14 and up in the retail industry. The “plus” refers to being outside “standard” sizing—as a result, some argue that it further separates and other sizes women sizes 14 and up.
Many brands these days are touting size-inclusiveness, but some are truly missing the mark. Plus-size fashion consumers suggest that at least going up to a size 24 is necessary before claiming to be inclusive, but since inclusivity in all realms is a popular choice these days, some brands may be prematurely cashing in on the moment.
In the early 1900s, retailers started producing ready-to-wear styles in larger sizes and called it “stout wear.” This was the first example of what later became known as plus-size fashion.
These are the many movements in fashion, food*, or social media that have fought against size discrimination and for inclusivity.
Body neutrality came to be in response to the body-positivity movement. Instead of requiring us to love our bodies no matter what at all times, body-neutrality supporters believe we should simply accept ourselves as we are. It’s about not beating yourself up if you have a low day or forcing positivity on yourself at all times. It’s about removing value from our appearances entirely.
According to “Bad Fat Broads” podcast producer Ariel Woodson, body positivity is “about removing the structural inequities that make some bodies worth more than others.” It’s about celebrating all bodies, regardless of size, color, or level of ability. Even though the movement is hugely popular today, some detractors say it’s disconnected from its roots. They fear that it’s now being used to turn a profit and that too much of the media’s representation of the movement features conventionally beautiful, mostly white, thinner, able-bodied women. Some even argue that it’s a watered-down, more palatable version of the fat-acceptance movement.
Fat Acceptance/Fat Activism
The fat-acceptance movement was born out of the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s. Instead of the “be-ins” of the Vietnam resistance, early demonstrators staged “fat-ins.” Those activists eventually formed the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a volunteer-based group devoted to broadening the rights of and fighting discrimination against large-bodied people. The movement has been seen as having a first, second, and third wave, reaching a crescendo with the evolution of fat-activist blogs and the “fatosphere” in the mid-2000s. (We have this movement to thank for many of our favorite influencers and bloggers!)
Health at Every Size
The Health at Every Size movement, or HAES, was pioneered by researcher and educator Linda Bacon, Ph.D. The central tenet of HAES is challenging the assumptions we’ve made about how weight and health are interconnected—and understanding that diet culture profits off of our weight-related fears and insecurities. Bacon’s approach is focused on learning to accept your body, whatever the size, and trust that listening to our body yields in what’s truly healthy.
Similar to HAES, Intuitive Eating is about acknowledging the inherent problems with diet culture, neutralizing our relationships with food, and listening to when our bodies are hungry and full. The movement also reminds us that some bodies are naturally larger than others and that striving for a size that’s smaller than that will ultimately hurt us and be impossible to sustain.
Victorian Dress Reform
This movement from the mid-to-late 1800s is considered by some to be a precursor to today’s body-positivity movement. Middle-class feminists fought against restrictive corsets and overwhelming petticoats, which altered the body’s natural shape. The movement eventually led to a shift in fashion that gave women the freedom to wear different silhouettes.
*We included food-related movements because so much of the discrimination against people of size uses what we eat as a weapon against us. These movements encourage us to look at food and weight as neutral, rather than as good or bad.
These are the ideas that have either helped or hindered us loving ourselves at any size.
Anti-diet expert Christy Harrison writes that “diet culture is a form of oppression, and dismantling it is essential for creating a world that’s just and peaceful for people in ALL bodies.” It’s something that’s so ingrained in so many of us that we don’t always even realize it’s taking hold. It’s rooted in the false belief that health and weight are intrinsically linked and that achieving a thinner body will give us more value. Though many dieting programs purport to know the secret to being thin, they profit from the cycle of losing weight, gaining it back, then returning to the diet to start again. If they truly “worked” in the way they promise, then how would they stay in business?
Though the term “fatphobia” isn’t in any official dictionaries, FEM Magazine defines it as “the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies.” This fear and hatred is what fuels diet culture, weight bias, and the size inequities we see in the world. Historically, fatphobia has targeted women, notably women of color, in an attempt to make bodies simultaneously more conventionally “attractive” and not overtly sexual. Since then, misinformation about health and dieting, alongside the unfair scrutiny of women’s bodies, has continued to be the norm.
This word means exactly what it sounds like—showing love to your mind and body and going after your own happiness. (Yes, shopping for clothes you love totally counts.)
Sizeism is defined as “discrimination or prejudice directed against people because of their size and especially because of their weight.” A future without sizeism would mean that everyone, no matter their size, has equal access to clothes they love, equal access to professional opportunities, and equal quality of life. Unfortunately, weight discrimination isn’t illegal—in fact, in 49 states, employers are allowed to discriminate against their employees based on weight.
Simply put, “weight bias” is discrimination against someone based on their weight. It can be used interchangeably with “sizeism.” This discrimination is firmly anchored in fatphobia.
Did you discover a new word or concept that you think your friends and family may be interested in? Share this post and spread the knowledge!