The size structure of autotroph communities – the relative abundance of small vs. large individuals – shapes the functioning of ecosystems. Whether common mechanisms underpin the size structure of unicellular and multicellular autotrophs is, however, unknown. Using a global data compilation, we show that individual body masses in tree and phytoplankton communities follow power-law distributions and that the average exponents of these individual size distributions (ISD) differ. Phytoplankton communities are characterized by an average ISD exponent consistent with three-quarter-power scaling of metabolism with body mass and equivalence in energy use among mass classes. Tree communities deviate from this pattern in a manner consistent with equivalence in energy use among diameter size classes. Our findings suggest that whilst universal metabolic constraints ultimately underlie the emergent size structure of autotroph communities, divergent aspects of body size (volumetric vs. linear dimensions) shape the ecological outcome of metabolic scaling in forest vs. pelagic ecosystems.