What is “Plus-Size” Anyway?

A Calvin Klein ad featuring model Myla Dalbesio.

Calvin Klein recently made headlines when it featured model Myla Dalbesio in its “Perfectly Fit” campaign. In an interview with Elle, Dalbesio (who is a size 10), referred to herself as the biggest model the company has ever worked with—a point which Calvin Klein confirmed. Naturally, this ignited discussion online about the modeling industry’s narrow definition of female beauty. Perhaps the conversation point which has gained the most traction is the opinion that Dalbesio should not be considered “plus-size,” which these days falls between a size six and a size 14.

Reducing women to their measurements is troubling on its own. Numerous studies have shown how exposure to images of female models and celebrities has a toxic influence on women and girls’ self-esteem. Equally troubling is how the modeling industry keeps scaling back the number on what it considers “plus-size”—a frankly meaningless term used to define body types which fall outside of an industry-defined norm.  “Plus size” makes it seem like women who are size 10 and larger are different than the “standard” size smaller women, making more petite women the norm. But claiming that a size 10 is “plus” is bizarre when the average American woman wears a size 14. When online clothing retailer Modcloth surveyed their customers this year, they found that at 57 percent of their shoppers wear at least some clothing in size 16 and above.  This idea that “normal” women are skinny and petite helps reinforce a culture where 97 percent of women have at least one negative thought about their bodies every day.

modcloth survey

In her initial interview with Elle, Dalbesio said that booking the Calvin Klein campaign was a “surreal moment.” But what struck me is where she describes herself as “a bigger girl.” Although she used the term “bigger” within the context of Calvin Klein’s hiring practices, “big” is a word batted around all too often by most women regardless of their size. Women are routinely taught that our bodies are not good enough, that we must take any means necessary to never be big. When it comes to facing this kind of pressure, Dalbesio is no different: she has battled Adderall addiction and disordered eating in order to maintain her figure, an all too common story among women.

What’s interesting to note is that when the story of the “size 10 Calvin Klein model” hit the internet, multiple media outlets used the term “plus-size” to define Dalbesio’s body, yet Calvin Klein never described her as such, nor does Dalbesio see herself in that way. Calvin Klein touts “Perfectly Fit” as an inclusive line “created to celebrate and cater to the needs of different women,” which Dalbesio explains as one of the reasons she is proud to be working with the brand: “It’s not like [Calvin Klein] released this campaign and were like ‘Whoa, look, there’s this plus size girl in our campaign.’ They released me in this campaign with everyone else; there’s no distinction. It’s not a separate section for plus size girls.” Dalbesio is what the modeling industry calls an “in-betweenie”—women who are not small enough to join the “standard” models and not large enough to join the “plus” models. Given that the “biggest” model in the company’s history wears a size 10, I’m hesitant to applaud Calvin Klein for hiring Dalbesio, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. More body diversity, especially from a globally recognized brand such as Calvin Klein,  is always a good thing.

In an older interview with Fashionista, Dalbesio suggests that the modeling industry should drop labels altogether: “I think that this division between straight and plus is really harmful. The term ‘plus size’ is outdated. To get rid of the term ‘plus’ would be a step in the right direction. Ideally there would be no division—it would just be models are models and we’d be on the same board as girls who are size two.” As Modcloth’s study showed, at least half of their shoppers wear a mix of plus-size and “standard” size clothing. Since sizing differs so wildly between clothing brands, women vary between sizes as they pick and choose the clothing that fits them best.

This is not to say, however, that Dalbesio eschews criticism entirely. After the initial internet firestorm, Elle reached Dalbesio for further comment and she had this to say: “I love that after working in the fashion industry for nine years, I have finally found my place, right in the middle. Neither plus, nor straight size, I love that I can be recognized for what I am, a healthy size 10.” While it’s good to see Dalbesio embrace her body shape, it’s unfortunate that she perpetuated the wrongful correlation between waistlines and one’s physical health. Fortunately, in a more recent interview with Access Hollywood, Dalbesio corrects herself, stating that women can be healthy at any size.

So maybe we should get rid of the term “plus size” altogether—instead, selling clothes in “healthy sizes” seems like an idea I can get behind.

Related Reading: Sized Up — Why Fat and Queer is a Feminist Issue. 

Ariana Vives is the new media intern at Bitch, a graduate student at Portland State University, and still learning to love her body.

by Ariana Vives
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Ariana Vives is a former Bitch new media intern. She finally got into The Walking Dead and hopes some good will come from this.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Plus size isn't a look. It's

Plus size isn't a look. It's a size. A tall woman can be slim to average and still need size 14+ clothing. All this emphasis on size is counterproductive.

Plus size shouldn't be an insult. It's a statement of fact--someone who wears a certain size range.

MisIdentifying Plus Sized

Most of what is advertised as plus sized isn't.

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