Does the “Mid-Size” Fashion Label Hurt Your Body Image?

Does the “Mid-Size” Fashion Label Hurt Your Body Image?

Standard sizes for women’s clothing have always been widely available, and the plus size market has increased rapidly over the past several decades, resulting in more wardrobe options for those in larger bodies. But it has become clear that some women are feeling lost in the shuffle.

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These self-identified “mid-sized” women report that standard-sized clothing doesn’t fit them because it is designed for people who are thin. But plus-sized clothing doesn’t fit either because it is designed for people who are in larger bodies. Who is looking out for those who are in-between, the mid-sized women ask? These women have taken to social media to highlight a need for representation of those who are mid-sized by posting shopping and style tips, along with funny and relatable displays of fashion misadventures. Their posts have received a lot of positive responses from women who feel seen and heard.

The movement has also faced criticism, however, so it’s worth asking ourselves some questions about whether this new label serves us well. As women, we face unrelenting cultural messaging about how our bodies should look, so it is important to recognize that we have the power to decide if internalizing these body labels works for us individually.

On the one hand:

  • Categories can be useful for relating to others. When something is important to us, we give it a name or a label so that we can communicate about it with one another. We use words to capture the noticeable, noteworthy, and socially relevant differences between people (Uher, 2013). This communication aids social connection, which is vital to both psychological and physical health.
  • The representation of diverse bodies is a good thing. We tend to identify with people who look like us, and to the extent that the mid-sized label makes some women feel seen and appreciated as they are, it will likely benefit body image. For example, some research (e.g., Clayton et al., 2017) suggests that viewing larger-sized models (i.e., average- and plus-sized) is associated with greater body satisfaction and less social comparison than viewing models who are thin. A great deal of research shows that social comparison is significantly linked with body dissatisfaction (Myers & Crowther, 2009).
  • Labels can provide resources for those seeking help. Many women appreciate guidance on how to look their best and which fashions are especially well-suited to their bodies. From a practical standpoint, when a woman struggles with this task, or needs some inspiration, a label such as “mid-sized” can signal informative, tailored advice. Mid-sized influencers who model this clothing with confidence and style, and who provide information about where to find it, can be a positive influence and a useful resource for women.

But on the other hand:

  • Who determines what “mid-sized” means? The range of body shapes and sizes that fall into the mid-size category is large. Some women use “mid-sized” to mean U.S. sizes eight to 14, while others use it to mean sizes 10 to 16, or 12 to 16. The label can be confusing when we don’t agree on what it means. Even if we could agree on the boundaries, why are we letting others lay claim to how we should see our own bodies?
  • The mid-sized label is still rather general. In reality, categorizing oneself as mid-sized only considers body size or weight and not really shape. Bodies differ greatly in proportion and musculature, so the advice doesn’t suit everyone who self-identifies as mid-sized.
  • The mid-size label could actually increase social comparison. Because the mid-size category is loosely defined and captures a wide swath of women, applying one general label to all these women may serve to highlight differences and inadvertently encourage more social comparisons among members of the group.
  • Some have argued that the label casts more stigma on people who are fat. Some women with larger bodies have pointed out that declaring oneself mid-sized can be a way of distancing oneself from being categorized as plus-sized. Further, some fat people find it insulting to hear mid-sized women voice complaints about their size. Emphasizing the similarity and shared experiences among mid-sized group members may highlight contrasts (and biases against) both the thin-sized and plus-sized categories of women.
  • Labels can lead to essentialism. Branding ourselves based on body type could also be self-limiting. When we categorize ourselves, we may “essentialize” those labels, or take them to represent something that is fixed and stable about ourselves. Life events—ranging from pregnancy to the stress of a new job to menopause—can have profound effects on our physical appearance. A healthier perspective is to see body size less rigidly, as dynamic and changing across the lifespan.

So, where does this leave us? We, as individual women, have the autonomy to decide what is best for us. For some women, categorizing themselves as a particular body type and seeing other women with similar body types may lead to positive feelings about themselves. For others, the labels may feel self-limiting or lead to unhealthy thought patterns. Ultimately, we may find it best to reference the role models that contribute to our own healthy body image without labeling ourselves. For example, we can take helpful style tips from relatable sources irrespective of how they refer to themselves. Given both the benefits and costs of body labels, taking the time to reflect on what serves us best personally is a worthwhile investment in healthy body image.

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