Nothing inspires the use of angry caps lock on social media like the combination of women’s bodies and the fashion industry – and Twitter outrage around the term “plus size” has recently been in boundless supply. To wit: many campaigners have been calling for an increased use of larger models. Others have complained that plus-size models are not plus-sized enough. Still more have accused those initial campaigners of “skinny shaming” and promoting obesity while, apparently, “curve” models and “inbetweenies” are on the rise. All in all, the bodies of plus-size models are becoming as much a source of debate and ire as those of their “straight-sized” counterparts. Progress, eh? And if you have no idea what any of those terms mean, here’s a quick guide.
As diversity of size in modelling has become a hot topic so, too, has this US phrase. Most “straight size” models are a UK 8 – that’s the dress size designers usually send out as samples for photoshoots – but it can refer to “those who are likely to be below a size 10 who work on a company’s main board, women’s board, image board or new faces board,” says Anna Shillinglaw, owner of Milk Management. Those “boards” all have nuanced definitions of their own. “The main board, or the women’s board, are the girls you see in Next and Marks Spencer’s campaigns; they are size 8-10 and quite established,” she says. “The ‘image board’ girls look more, unique, less commercial, and do editorial in high-fashion magazines.” And then there are “new” or “future faces”, who, like a Tom Cruise passion project, are currently “in development”: often unable to work properly, being under 16 (another bone of contention, of course) and preparing their careers with look books and test shots. Another term that might stick in the craw here is “girls”: one seasoned model agent admits they have “never heard anyone call a model a woman, even if they are 30”.
Oh, it’s complicated. This is the term the fashion industry has traditionally used for models who do not conform to what Joan Rivers called the “does my tampon make me look fat?” look, but are often nowhere near the average size of a British woman (a 16). “I used to be a straight size model myself, then my agent suggested I did plus-size modelling,” says Shillinglaw. “I was shocked – I was only a size 10 or 12, very small for plus size. But then I chilled out a bit, I wasn’t dieting, gained a bit of weight and it was fine. In fact, it was great going to castings and not having to worry about whether I would fit into samples.” Although Shillinglaw recently signed Tess Holliday, a size 26 model, the most in-demand tend to be a UK size 14 to 16. That makes them significantly smaller than the clothes they are posing in, as size 22 model Olivia Campbell told The Guardian in September: “It’s very common for e-commerce brands to use size 12 models to showcase ranges that don’t even start until a size 18, and then pin the clothes to their bodies,” she said. In reality most powerhouse London agencies have few plus sized models on their books, even if disproportionate media coverage would suggest otherwise. Says Richard Storer of fashion PR and management agency Eleventen: “There are of course plus-size models, some of whom get a lot of buzz; it’s something for the media to grab and make a story out of without genuine purpose or conscious debate around the issues that surround the subject as a whole. Another guaranteed story, every season, is that a perceived ‘too thin girl’ will get hounded by the press for being unhealthy, even though she may be naturally that shape. I’m not sure that is very helpful, either.”
The agencies who do have models above sample size now tend to use the word “curve”, instead of plus size. “Curve is a nicer term and it can mean anything and anyone – including someone slim with a bigger bust,” says Shillinglaw. That word still gets some people’s goats because it suggests a differentiation is required from the size 6 to 8 fashion “norm”. But it is “plus-sized” that has become a truly dirty word for some: those calling out for the term to be consigned to the annals of fashion history include Australian model Stefania Ferrario, the woman behind a social media campaign urging the industry to #Droptheplus. Bridesmaids actor Melissa McCarthy – whose own size 4 to 28 clothing line has been so successful it has been credited with inspiring a revolution in US fashion retail – has also spoken out against the “segregation” of shoppers, and is calling for simple “inclusivity”. For Shillinglaw, curve is a necessary business distinction in modelling, not least because many designers only send out size 8 samples: “If the samples came in bigger sizes, that’s when you would see a change,” she says.
Myla Dalbesio, a UK size 14, calls herself an “inbetweenie” model: “We’re not skinny enough to be straight size, like these [US] size zero and size two girls, and we’re not big enough to be plus size,” she explained. Similarly, Robyn Lawley, a UK size 12, has been described as “the queen of the inbetweenies”. Seemingly, this is a sign of evolution in fashion, suggesting that models need not conform to either sample size or plus, but, for most, the reality is less cheering. Rosie Nelson, a model who was asked to lose weight at size 8, says: “In my experience, the inbetweenie model isn’t something that reflects the demand for skinny models on a day-to-day basis with clients,” she says. “To me, it seems like another label being used by designers and retailers to appear more inclusive of a wider range of body types. The harsh reality of the industry is that the thinner you are, the more work you will get.” And if your figure nudges over a size 6-8, she says, “your agency will definitely notice and tell you to ‘fix your measurements’.”
With celebrities posting photoshopped “thigh goals” photographs to millions of followers on Instagram every day, do fashion images still have much influence? Fashion commentator and diversity campaigner Caryn Franklin believes they do: “We make social comparisons between ourselves and the models we see; body image anxiety can occur because of the repetition and authority fashion has in our lives,” she says. “Fashion has normalised an appearance that is not the norm, so this is affecting body confidence of both women and men.” Franklin is another critic of the term plus size, which she says is an unhealthy label to put on a model with an average BMI. “Students in Liverpool came up with the term ‘life-sized’ as a more honest label for models who are larger than straight fashion models. I love it,” she says. Those whose Twitter thumbs are primed for examples of skinny shaming would probably object to super-slimness being differentiated from the size of life, of course – with the battle for serene, blanket body-acceptance likely to remain a work in progress.