Here’s What You Really Think Of Other Women’s Bodies

Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
It shouldn't be this complicated, all this body stuff: size discrimination, weight bias, the multi-factioned movement fighting to reverse it. At its core it seems so simple — bodies are equal just as people are equal, and should be treated as such. Three months ago, I asked activist and speaker Virgie Tovar why she thinks that's not the case. She paused before replying: “Even though it's not articulated, there is a vague notion that there's a limit — an upper limit.” As a culture, we support the ideas of acceptance and body positivity, but to a point. Once you cross that threshold of acceptability, said Tovar, “it stops being okay and it starts being something else.”

It may indeed be a vague notion, but take a look around and it’s clear this threshold exists. Why else do we celebrate the "curvaceous" Ashley Graham but flag Tess Holliday as obscene? The line falls somewhere between these women, and I wanted to find it. So, I turned to Refinery29 readers.

Last month, we polled 1,000 women, ages 18 to 34, to find out what kind of bodies they found acceptable — and in what contexts. We gave them 24 words, first asking them to identify the words as positive, negative, or neutral. When then presented images of 12 different female bodies, asking participants to assign the words to each of them. Following that, we presented scenarios, like: “Would be her friend,” “Would trust her with my children/future children,” or “Would follow a brand if she were the spokesperson.”

I admit it: This poll was partly driven by my own curiosity. As a plus-size woman, I wanted an unvarnished look at how people saw me. But as a writer working in women’s media, I also wanted to know what it is that you, our reader, want to see when you come to a website or scroll through your Instagram feed. Because, this week, we at Refinery29 have changed that landscape just a bit. And we intend to make that change permanent. But without readers, there’s no website. So, we need to know your threshold. We may cross it, make no mistake (given our findings we most likely will). But we needed to know who she is — the plus-size woman who is accepted by you — and we found her, and much more.

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1. The larger a woman is, the more negatively she is seen.
The first and most obvious result from this poll was sad, but not surprising. Plus-size women were more often associated with words the users deemed negative: lazy, embarrassing, ugly, unhealthy, sloppy, and loser.

Thin women, on the other hand, were most commonly associated with positive: aspirational, elegant, stylish, intelligent, beautiful.
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Photographed by: Winnie Au
2. Thinner women are criticized, too — but with different words.
While thin women dominated in most of the positive word and phrase associations, there were three specific exceptions: annoying, mean, and bully.

These words were most often applied to the visibly thinnest women in our range. These were also the women most associated with words like: aspirational, beautiful, and leader. When it came to scenarios, users said they would “pick her first in gym class.”

Whether it’s out of envy or anger, it’s hard not to see the picture of the middle-school mean girl painted here. One user commented, “I have the tendency to assume thin, blonde women are mean or shallow, and that larger women are kinder, intelligent.”
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3. Neutral has a body type.
A few specific women turned up most frequently with neutral/positive words: healthy, normal, content, strong.

These women were neither the largest nor the smallest in the range presented. These “mid-size” women were larger than typical models, but would likely not be categorized as plus in a retail context. This is where the threshold began to emerge. “I realize that everyone is not the same size, and there isn't anything wrong with that, BUT I prefer to look at mid-range bodies,” said one user. “Not overly large and not too skinny.”
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Photographed by: Christelle DeCastro
4. Context makes a difference — but not all the difference.
Faces were cropped from the photos in order to draw focus on the bodies alone. Still, right off the bat we noted a certain amount of results skewed by things like styling, physical stance, and other elements in the frame. For example: One thin woman was photographed lounging on a beach towel with a book. She was associated with both lazy and intelligent.

Still, body size and shape seemed to trump these influences. The more visible the body was in the shot, the more users seemed willing to judge it either way.
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5. Plus-size women of color are the least accepted.
If you ever need an intersectionality wake-up call, here you go: In another not-so-surprising finding, plus-size women of color were most commonly associated with negative words and least associated with positive scenarios.

These women were the most associated with: ugly, unhealthy, sloppy, and embarrassing.
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6. The less we see of a plus-size body, the more acceptable it becomes.
There was one plus-size woman (also a woman of color) who was the exception to the rule. Users associated her with words like: capable, content, friendly, strong, and leader. Thin women still outranked her on most positive words, but she was rarely ranked as negative.

In trying to determine the reason for this standout, we first assumed it was her confident stance and her traditional hourglass shape. On closer look, however, an obvious fact emerged: Nearly all the other women were in swimwear or lingerie. She was fully clothed.

This factor appeared in other photos to a lesser degree, with a greater association of positive words to plus-size women who were more covered up. It seems the more these bodies are obscured or shaped by clothing, the more willing we are to accept them.
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7. We want to be friends with people we see negatively.
When it came to specific scenarios, one finding did surprise us. Remember those plus-size women of color who users associated with overwhelmingly negative words? They’re the ones everyone wanted to be friends with.

This woman, for example, was deemed ugly, embarrassing, lazy, and sloppy. But, when asked who they would choose as a friend, she was one of the top picks. In fact, all the least acceptable women were the ones most people chose as friends. Is this the opposite side of the mean-girl coin? Do we want these women as friends because they’re non-threatening?

In photos, these women were rejected outright. No one wants them on their screens. But in real life, it seems, we want to surround ourselves with women we claim to disdain.
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Photographed by: Kristiina Wilson
8. Not just size, but shape changes our perspective.
Size and skin tone evidently played the largest roles in determining acceptability. But body shape came into play, as well. Plus-size women with an hourglass shape and smoother skin (or simply less visible skin) were basically neutralized. They were less associated with both negative and positive words.

Overall, a sense of trustworthiness emerged with these women. Users said they would follow a brand if she were the spokesperson, would watch a show if she were the host, and would trust her with children. As with the mid-size women, people deemed these women as neither aspirational nor repellent, but normal.
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Photographed by: Kristiina Wilson
9. Meet the least acceptable woman.
This woman was the most associated with negative words. She was the number one choice for: embarrassing, loser, unhealthy, and ugly. She was also the top pick for friendship. That was the only scenario in which she was popular. Users did not want to follow a brand for which she was the spokeswoman. They did not associate her with intelligence. But they very much wanted to be her friend.
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
10. Meet the threshold of acceptability.
Here she is: the threshold. Out of all 12 photos, this woman’s body emerged as the evident turning point, after which neutral becomes negative. She is the smaller end of plus size, she is white, and she is blonde. She has curves in all the so-called right places. She doesn’t have a thigh gap, but she doesn’t have visible rolls, cellulite, or stretch marks, either. She has conventionally feminine features: long hair, large breasts, and visible wrist and collar bones.

She, too, was chosen as a potential friend, but users also said they’d watch a show if she were the host or follow a brand she represented.
“The pendulum has swung too far,” one user commented. “There is a point where one should say, ‘That is too fat not to point out.’ The thigh gap is also too far. Not every body is equally beautiful.”

This woman wasn’t associated with the same negative words applied thinner women (annoying, mean) or larger (ugly, loser). She wasn’t a standout with positive words either. She was extremely neutral in users’ eyes.

Overall, this was the largest body the majority would accept. It could be a sign of progress or failure, depending on who’s looking or on if we consider whether her skin color played a role in her acceptability. Either way, a line was drawn here.
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Photographed by: Christelle DeCastro
11. Don’t want to talk about this? Too bad.
This survey taught us a lot about how people really judge bodies (ourselves included). It revealed surprising intricacies within old and evident biases. But it gave us another vital piece of information: Body diversity and size discrimination may be popular issues, but no one wants to talk about them.

“This had to be the worst survey I have ever participated in.”

“You obviously have fallen victim to the thoughts of the media regarding body image and shaming.”

“This survey forces people to judge each other just on how they look. That is exactly what is wrong with today's media. Disappointing.”

This is just a sliver of the angry responses we received. A huge percentage of users “boycotted” the survey by refusing to associate negative words with the photos. However, far fewer had a problem associating images with positive words. I get it: No one wants to be mean or negative. But when we stripped away these boycott results and looked at the core data, it was clear that we do have these negative opinions. Some users owned them, too:

“This survey made me super uncomfortable and definitely made me realize that I have some inherent biases that relate to how people look. I feel gross now.”

Me too. I’m sure we all do, deep down. But refusing to engage with our own judgment is only going to perpetuate the problem. Bias doesn’t disappear just because you ignore it. It goes unchecked, running rampant through every choice we make, every comment we utter, and every human interaction we have.

Just look at the difference between those whom we admire and those we want as friends. Look at how narrow our concept of “acceptable” has become. Those things don’t change unless we look at where they live within ourselves, and challenge them. It’s not a pleasant task, but it’s not a complicated one, either. You might simply start by asking: Is this threshold itself acceptable to me?
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