I remember the first time my mom took me to a plus-size-clothing store. I’d resisted that threshold for years even though I had clearly sized out of the “regular” stores, because shopping in the fat-lady department, as I called it, felt like admitting defeat. It meant acknowledging that I was fat, and fat was the worst thing a teenage girl could be. None of my friends had to shop in the fat-lady department. I’d be marking myself not just as undesirable and grotesque but also different, which was somehow even worse. Every instinct told me there would be no turning back. This wasn’t just sartorial practicality; it was a new identity.
Fat people aren’t supposed to think of themselves as fat. We’re supposed to think of ourselves as thin-people-in-progress, as archaeological digs, as prisoners of our own flesh, as temporary failures who will someday chase down our “real” bodies. If I started buying clothes that fit my fat body, I’d have to come to terms with the fact that it was real. The thought was unbearable.
I mostly got by on thrift-store corduroys and Microsoft promotional T-shirts my dad brought home from work, but once in a while my mom and I would go to the mall. She always wanted me to be a little less shabby, a little prettier. These outings invariably went the same way: After a skeptical glance or two from the salesgirl, I’d get myself hopelessly trapped inside a too-small baby-doll dress, sweating and weeping from the claustrophobia and shame of it, and my mom would have to come in and liberate me while the stitches tut-tutted their displeasure. On our way out the door my mom would beg me, “Can we please just try the women’s department?” “I can’t,” I’d think. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. What if somebody saw me?”
Finally, after one particularly miserable episode at the Gap, I relented.
Our local Macy's kept its plus-size clothing in the basement, next to the furniture. In the mid-’90s there was no junior-plus section, no designer collaborations with cool fat celebrities, no Torrid even—just rack after rack of billowing slacks, dusty rose peasant blouses, bedazzled boot-cut jeans, and poplin button-downs. I hated every single article of clothing in the place. And I was in heaven.
I could try on anything I wanted, and I didn't feel like four bowling balls stuffed in a condom. There was no sweating, no crying; I heard no groaning seams. I became adept at ferreting out the handful of pieces each season that could plausibly be worn by a teenager—and, once in a while, I found something that even passed for self-expression. Best of all, I got to shop in the company of other fat people. The saleswomen were fat. Even the mannequins were fat. I knew we were being treated poorly—acting out a sad pantomime of a “normal” woman’s trip to the mall—but it was better than nothing, which was what I’d had before.
According to Ben Zimmer in The Wall Street Journal, the term “plus size” was coined by retailer Lane Bryant in 1922. In the intervening century the plus-size market has grown in both scope and cachet but still functions separately from the straight-size market—it’s as though there are real clothes, and then there are those people’s clothes. Plus-size garments cost more, are rarely on-trend (let alone fashion-forward), and are harder to find. Even companies that manufacture plus sizes often don’t carry them in their brick-and-mortar stores. The rare retailers that do sell young, fashionable clothes to fat people reserve their best designs (and a far wider selection) for their straight-size collections. Fat celebrities struggle to find investment pieces and red-carpet dresses, the message from designers transmitting loud and clear: Your body is so undesirable that we do not want your money. Even capitalism cannot overcome fatphobia.
So it’s not surprising that this arbitrary and artificial gulf between plus sizes and straight sizes has faced some backlash in recent years. Wouldn’t it be better, some ask, if we were all just people? Well, yes and no.
Ashley Graham is the latest high-profile plus-size model to announce that she’s done with the term “plus size.”
VIDEO: Ashley Graham's Plus-Size Swimwear Brand
“I just think it’s divisive,” Graham told the Associated Press. “I think labeling and putting a name on women in certain categories because [of] a number inside of their pants isn’t really getting us any farther in life.”
I agree with Graham: The term is divisive. “Plus size” was never a designation I connected with emotionally or politically, but it serves an invaluable purpose on a practical level: It tells me where I can and can’t shop. It lets me know whether I’m walking into a space where I’ll feel like a human being or a galumphing pariah.
Eliminating the term doesn’t accomplish anything unless we actually normalize fat bodies and meaningfully expand fat people’s access to clothes (and, by extension, a full and vibrant public life). Dropping “plus size” would only make it harder for fat people to find the few places open to us in an already sparse and demoralizing landscape.
Yes, in a perfect world, every clothing store would carry every garment in graduated sizes from very, very small to very, very large. In a perfect world, a woman who wears a size 32 would be able to browse every store in the mall and find something that thrills her and expresses precisely who she is for her job interview tomorrow. But we don’t currently live in that world; we live in this one. I’ll stop calling myself a plus-size woman when the world stops treating me like one. Until then, I’ll be with the fat ladies in the Macy’s basement.
West’s memoir, Shrill, is out now in paperback.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Aug. 11.