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'Fatphobia is a systemic issue': Fat liberation activists take issue with offensive term used in mainstream movement

For people whose clothing size lingers somewhere between straight-size and plus-size, feeling represented in stores and in media can be a challenge, even though the average American woman wears between a size 16 and 18.

The term “midsize,” which is typically used to describe the nebulous zone between a size 12 and a size 18, has exploded with popularity in the past few years — especially on TikTok. Midsize creators, who have generated more than 1.1 billion views on that one platform alone, explore the realities of shopping, styling and navigating the world with an average-sized body.

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“In-betweeners have been overlooked due to the costs and time associated with getting the fit right for a wide range of sizes,” Eugena Delman, who co-founded premium clothing brand Ava James, told Vox back in 2019. Combine that with a lack of standardized sizing across the fashion industry, and you’ve got a tricky situation for midsize shoppers.

Though the rise of midsize creators has given people a chance to see their body size reflected through influencers more than ever before, the movement still has its share of shortcomings. The term “midsize” itself has been criticized by fat activists.

In interviews with In The Know, several creators who consider themselves to be part of the fat acceptance or fat liberation movements highlighted some of the problems of the label “midsize,” which have been slipping through the cracks on social media.

The “midsize” label may be perceived as an attempt to distance oneself from fatness, which is fatphobic.

Though it’s enticing to find other people who share similar experiences with you because of their body size and type, some activists find that there’s a touch of fatphobia implied with the term “midsize.”

“The word midsize often feels like a way for people to deny their thin privilege and/or distance themselves from fatness, all while cozying up to body positivity — a movement created by fat women and intended to center fat bodies,” TikTok user @thebeccamurray told In The Know.

Linda Dianne, a social strategist and TikTok user, told In The Know that she has noticed an influx in “smaller fat” people claiming they are midsize in a way to alienate themselves from their larger, plus-size counterparts.

“What you see a lot, as a result, is, ‘I’m not fat, I’m midsize,’ which really just further splinters any efforts the plus-size community as a whole has for increased representation and respect,” she said.

Whether or not it’s intentional, there’s an implication that people who call themselves midsize are trying to point out that they are not sample size, but they’re still actively distancing themselves from fatness. It may be internalized fatphobia, but it’s still fatphobia.

“The ‘not wanting others to think they’re fat’ part is important because that’s where some of the fatphobia sits. It is purposefully distancing itself from fatness,” TikTok user @waitwhatsorry told In The Know.

Malarie Burgess, an exercise physiologist, has worked in the health and fitness industry for about a decade. In a TikTok post, they noted that the body acceptance movement has gone from fighting deadly discrimination and harassment to celebrating cellulite and showing off jean hauls.

The “midsize” movement may be a symptom of that, Burgess told In The Know.

“Midsize feels like a way for average-sized people … to continue to distance themselves from fat and plus-size. I know many folks who use this term believe it does less harm because it is helping them “stay in their lane,” but, unintentionally, it has created a new way for smaller bodies to say, ‘Well, at least I am still not plus-sized,’” they explained. “Truthfully, more people claiming the term ‘plus-size’ and ‘fat’ only lends itself to the terms being more accepted. Do away with midsize.”

Ultimately, the struggle to figure out which clothing size actually fits you — which is what the midsize movement is based on — should be second to the movement for fat acceptance, activists say. Finding that you are a size 14 at some stores and a size 10 at others, though frustrating, is not a form of oppression.

The fat liberation movement described the concept of “midsize” years ago using a different term.

Multiple TikTokers indicated that the term “small fat” has been used to describe the concept of “midsize” years earlier. It’s just not as popular, presumably because the word “fat” is involved.

The “small fat” tag on TikTok has a mere 16.4 million views associated with it — just 1% of the 1.1 billion views garnered by its more widely accepted counterpart, “midsize.”

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The fatness spectrum, which was born of the fat liberation movement in the 2000s but hasn’t been attributed to a single creator, attaches different adjectives to the word “fat” to differentiate the different levels of privilege and oppression that fat people experience.

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Small fat, or size 18 or lower depending on body type, can face medical discrimination and poor interpersonal treatment, but can generally find clothes in stores and face few restrictions based on size, according to a graphic made by the Fluffy Kitten Party blog.

Body size and body type aren’t always equal, @thebeccamurray said.

“There are plenty of fat folks who wear straight size clothes and plenty of nonfat folks who wear plus size clothes. Folks can and should identify however they feel most comfortable,” she explained.

From there, the terms ”mid fat,” “superfat” and “inifinifat” describe the varying levels of privilege and oppression faced by larger body sizes. In some circles, the highest level is known as “death fat,” which is a reclaiming of the offensive term “morbidly obese.”

Linda Dianne said the fatness spectrum helps “all of us unpack the way in which marginalized groups still have privilege even amongst one another.” With that in mind, we can work toward making sure fat bodies are loved, accepted and upheld to the same level as any other body.

User @waitwhatsorry added that a person’s body type or height could also determine how they are treated.

“The point in opting for liberation and even the fatness spectrum is to build solidarity against harmful systems while acknowledging the vast diversity of experiences,” she said.

In rebuking the term “midsize” and embracing the term “small fat,” people can acknowledge that they still maintain thin privilege while destigmatizing the word fat at the same time. Using “fat” as a neutral descriptor — merely an adjective used to describe body composition and not an insult — is liberating.

Using proper labels is crucial when it comes to identifying privilege.

As previously mentioned, “small fat” or “midsize” individuals don’t experience all the benefits of thin people, but they don’t face the same oppression as fat people either.

Though it’s irritating to walk into a designer store and be told to head to the back, that cannot compare to the real-world discrimination faced by fat people.

Exercise physiologist Malarie Burgess listed a number of potentially deadly forms of oppression that fat people face. They can struggle to get the proper diagnosis from health care professionals, face discrimination in the workplace as fat people are less likely than thin people to get hired or promoted, encounter challenges navigating places in public like restaurants and airplanes and face negative attitudes and assumptions about their health and laziness from friends and random strangers on the street.

“The double standard leads to [the] cycling of weight loss and gain, which is documented as a higher risk of death than being overweight in the first place,” Burgess said.

User @waitwhatsorry acknowledged that small fat people face personal hardships, but they still benefit from privilege.

“[People are] putting so much energy into defending the term ‘midsize’ rather than combatting fatphobia,” she said. “One of the best ways to illustrate the difference between body positivity and fat liberation is that it is essentially an issue of self-esteem on the one hand and (at times deadly) discrimination on the other.”

If we are going to add a new term to our vernacular, why not pick the one that is liberating?

There’s no denying that people who consider themselves to be “midsize” have struggled when it comes to representation and fatphobia, though it’s not necessarily morally wrong to identify that way.

TikTok user Kiera Breaugh said that using the term “midsize” can make it seem like you’re “fighting for a spot inside that hierarchy” instead of “destroying the hierarchy that is bulls***.”

“I don’t feel the need to find a label within the hierarchy that I don’t believe in,” she said, simultaneously addressing the fact that clothing sizing can be confusing and inaccurate anyway. “Why do you want a seat in the hierarchy? Why don’t you just wanna destroy it?”

Pushing the entire clothing industry to utilize universal sizing is a noble mission, but it’s a massive undertaking. Changing the language you use to be more inclusive — and liberating — is easy.

“That does not undercut my lived trauma or insecurities, but it’s important to distinguish between individual and systemic issues,” @thebeccamurray said of the concept of abandoning the “midsize” label in favor of a more impactful term. “Fatphobia is a systemic issue.”

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