It’s a hot-button topic, too. The ultimate problem: Who is “allowed” to consider themselves “midsize”? As Sole-Smith writes, many creators are claiming the label just because they aren’t a size 2, and they refuse to hear criticism from people who live in larger bodies about the harm.
Before we dive in, it’s important to note this is a complicated topic. “Not every fat person thinks alike, of course,” wrote Sole-Smith in her new book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture. “We each bring our own context, our own set of privileges or other intersecting identities, and our own unique experiences of our bodies and the world’s treatment of those bodies.”
Keeping that in mind, here’s what different experts and self-described midsize people have to say about this controversial label.
The definition of “midsize” differs based on who you talk to
As mentioned, people have different definitions of what being “midsize” looks like. While The New York Times reported that the modeling industry says anyone above size 2 is midsize, various other people and outlets say the range is more like sizes 10 to 16.
When we all have different perceptions, it’s nearly impossible to say there’s one real definition. So how might an expert describe it generally? “‘Midsize’ is describing a group of folks who simply don’t experience the stigma or limitations in navigating the world that fat folks do, but are carving out a space to highlight their body image concerns and feelings of inadequacy compared to the thin ideal,” says Meredith Nisbet, MS, LMFT, the national clinical response manager at Eating Recovery Center.
These individuals may feel excluded from people in larger and smaller bodies. “Throughout my entire life, I have always had to look for larger sizes in stores and socially not be seen as ‘skinny’ by my peers,” says Brianna Sheridan, LPCC, a regional clinical director with Thriveworks in Cleveland who specializes in life transitions, stress, coping skills, women's issues, and self-esteem. “However, many of my larger-bodied friends and associates make a point to say and share that because I am not as large as them, I cannot fully belong to the large ‘fat’-bodied group.”
The tricky problem with having no real definition is when use of the descriptor “midsize” gets out of hand. “Smaller and smaller folks have identified with this term on social media and use it to refer to being larger than the cultural ideal of thinness, but also not fat,” says Heather Clark, a licensed counselor and the clinical director at Rock Recovery. People may see that in TikTok videos, for example, and feel upset that the creator is (in a way) claiming to not have privilege when they do.
Another point Sole-Smith makes in her upcoming book is possibly the most important one in this discussion: “It’s never our job to label other people, and especially not people who live in bigger bodies than we do.” Nisbet adds that focusing more on image perception, or how people feel, than tangible difficulties, is “further marginalizing the already-marginalized.”
Sheridan has witnessed this among friends. “I often hear them throw shade at plus-size models (that are “midsized”) as not being body affirming enough as representation in media, etc., for larger body populations,” she says. She compares it to seeing more representation of people of color, but typically only ones who are light-skinned.
How the ‘midsize’ conversation can be problematic
This conversation revolves largely around numbers, from weights to measurements to clothing sizes—and that doesn’t help. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, sharing these types of personal metrics can be harmful, potentially triggering people with eating disorders to relapse or invalidate their experience. It’s also just generally fruitless. “Sharing weights/sizes and arguing about size categories is really unhelpful because it’s so nuanced and because there is significant privilege and marginalization at stake in these conversations,” Nisbet says.
We must also ask the critical question of why someone is posting those details in the first place. “Is it for validation? To have someone say something nice? To receive a different response from what is experienced in person?” says Wendy Schofer, MD, a board-certified pediatrician. Again, it comes down to moralizing body sizes, not giving actually helpful information. “When we are posting and labeling strictly by weight, we don’t understand a thing about the health of the person,” she adds.
Plus, have you ever noticed how people who carry weight in their stomach are seen differently from people who carry weight in their thighs, hips, or butt? I've heard people who identify as the latter be referred to as “thick” (which has positive connotations) whereas people who identify as the former are described as “chubby” or “fat” (said in a negative way). This could be because thighs, hips, and butts are sexualized, especially for people assigned female at birth. This issue pops up in clothing stores, too, as many plus-size items are made for hourglass-shaped bodies. This is rooted in the fact that we still live in a society where diverse bodies aren’t celebrated or respected.
Why the term ‘midsize’ may be hurtful to some
To some degree, whether or not you consider yourself to be “midsize” comes down to the difference between how you feel and what you experience, as Nisbet mentioned above. And that, like many other aspects, is tricky, considering the wide range of experiences people can have. This emphasizes how the term “midsize” can be hurtful.
“I think it’s important to highlight again here that this is based on a feeling—not feeling good enough or thin enough—and not on actual difficulty navigating the world in their body,” Nisbet says. “This alignment with the thin ideal pushes fat folks even further down the spectrum of body size and will only lead to increased stigma experienced by folks in larger bodies.” So in some ways, “midsize” can be hurtful as it centers the narrative on people who aren’t facing discrimination, aka not people in larger bodies and distracts our society from fighting for body liberation.
Can ‘midsize’ people still have ‘thin privilege’?
ICYMI, thin privilege refers to the unearned advantages people of a smaller size have.) And Sheridan, who considers herself to fall into this category, says yes, someone who is “midsize” or at least “not thin,” can still benefit from the privileges afforded smaller-bodied people. “I definitely have experienced skinny privilege in the clothing that I can find, the ease at finding jobs or being socially accepted in public, the seats that allow me to sit, the airplane seat prices that don’t get increased because I need a special seat or belt expander, the medical field providers not lecturing me based on my habits, etc.,” she says. “There is no doubt ‘privilege’ in having bodies that society designs and caters to. However, no one looking at me would ever call me ‘skinny.’”
We also have to ask this: Are people using the term “midsize” to avoid being called fat?
“The term has been somewhat co-opted by folks who wear sizes 8 to 14 to distance themselves both from fatness, and from their own thin privilege, by refusing to identify with thinness,” Clark adds. While “fat” isn’t a bad word, many people still judge and discriminate against people who are fat—which is why that urge to distance is understandable. However, the true point is to address fatphobia in ourselves and in our society so people of all bodies can be at peace.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of gray area. On one hand, the term “midsize” divides us further, taking us away from the true point: celebrating body diversity (and not putting so much focus on body size). Sheridan agrees: “I feel calling bodies like my own as ‘midsize’ is just another way to say us versus them.” Otherwise, she says, we’re causing “those of us ‘passing’ as midsized bodies to be alienated against and not find solidarity with any group, but still having a larger body and experiencing similar, if not the same, pain points.”
But on the note of the latter, the word “midsize” can be helpful in that it draws attention to the specific issues people in that size range face despite their thin privilege. “At long last, there is much-needed attention on this body type that has been previously overlooked,” says Marian Kwei, a celebrity stylist, editor-at-large, and creative consultant. “The midsize sector has nothing being tailored to them; clothing available to them has never been given pre-thought or any specialization.”
Where do we go next?
With many various (and valid!) viewpoints, it’s hard to have a definitive, “right” opinion. Given that, how can we navigate the conversation in a helpful way with loved ones? Nisbet suggests flipping the script, being objective, and considering the circumstances.
“It’s difficult for the person who’s straight-size, but the largest person in their family, to understand they still receive and benefit from thin privilege in the general world,” she explains. “However, if we base body size categorization on how easy or difficult it is for us to navigate the world or access different things, there’s a tangible divide that highlights the privilege and marginalization folks experience.”
“At the end of the day, I wish we, as a society, would stop playing this game and recognize the more we can all accept each other regardless of size, the better,”—Brianna Sheridan, LPCC
She acknowledges how this can be easier said than done. “It is an uphill battle to argue someone’s identity with them,” she adds. “We all exist in our own individual context and systems, and therefore our image of ourselves isn’t always easily understood by others.”
Sheridan urges continuing to fight for inclusivity. “At the end of the day, I wish we, as a society, would stop playing this game and recognize the more we can all accept each other regardless of size, the better,” she says. This could look like making airplane seat belts longer so extenders aren’t needed, creating more fashionable options for people of all sizes (that are also affordable!), and educating family and doctors about anti-fat bias, to start. “We do not realize that the person on the other side of the screen is not the problem, per se. It’s the society that envelops our day-to-day that tells us that beauty and our bodies are not good enough.”
In The Fat Studies Reader, fat activist Marilyn Wann says it well: “If we imagine that the conflict is between fat and thin, weight prejudice continues. Instead, the conflict is between all of us against a system that would weigh our value as people.”
TL;DR: Be open to having critical conversations (and maybe even changing your mind) about the term “midsize,” acknowledging the gray area and respecting people’s lived experiences—especially if it includes oppression. Lastly, continue the hard fight of body liberation for all.
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