In April, I ran a story called “The Medium-Sized Woman Problem.” The “problem,” of course, was not the women themselves, but the way in which we frame them in media. Actresses like Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham are often called “plus-size,” whether the context is positive or negative. In fact, they fall far from the traditional range of plus-sizing. As such, I argued that they played an important role in the movement toward a more body-diverse and positive culture: For one thing, the reaction to their presence on screen reveals just how few body types we see represented and, therefore, how narrow our perception has become.
For another thing, body diversity means thin, fat, and everything in-between. We have a long way to go and we’ll get there a lot faster if we stick together. Certainly, these so-called “in-betweeners” aren’t subject to the same biases that larger women are, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be glad for their increased visibility. If Winston Churchill were speaking about the battle for inclusive body representation, he’d say, “Lena Dunham is not even the beginning of the end. But she is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” We should recognize this as a step in the right direction — and keep going.
At least, that’s what I thought I said. But somehow, many readers seemed to have read a very different essay.
“I’m all for the medium-sized acceptance movement!”
“Us average women feel abnormal because we don’t fit in anywhere even though as a percentage we probably make up the majority!”
“It seems both sides of the spectrum are becoming overly represented and [medium-sized women] are being alienated for being a healthy size.”
The story got picked up by several outlets, generating comments, emails, and response posts on other sites and blogs. That’s great. Every writer hopes to generate a meaningful discussion, even if many of those talking disagree with your work — which some people did, in this case, for many different reasons. But that’s not what surprised and dismayed me so much. Ultimately, criticism makes you grow. Responses like the ones above — the ones that are still landing in my inbox five months later — make me put my head down on the desk and groan at the floor.
By sheer accident, I’d revealed another problem. And unlike the other, this wasn’t about perception or labels. It emerged from several medium-sized women (or rather, those who identified as such) who seemed to think this piece was about the great, unspoken struggle of the medium-sized woman. There was a sense of indignation and even victimhood. No one came out and said #AllBodiesMatter, but that was the tone that seemed to underscore these responses.
The story ran during our Take Back The Beach initiative, a huge summer series focused on body image. We featured stories from women with disabilities, stunning photos of women in Bangladesh and Ghana, pregnant women, trans women, celebrities, athletes, women of so many sizes, shapes, and backgrounds. “The Medium-Sized Woman Problem” got the second-highest number of readers in the entire series. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that I sincerely doubt it’s because I’m just that good a writer. If I was, this wouldn’t have happened.
Of course, not every self-proclaimed medium-sized woman responded this way. But enough did to make me realize just how many people still don’t get it — or maybe don’t want to. Sad and frustrated, I kept wishing I could text these women and invite them out for coffee so we could talk in person. The internet is great for blasting a message out into the world, but there’s nothing like personal conversation to humanize an issue. Unfortunately, I don’t have all their numbers. Instead, I’m writing this note. Only you’ll know if it’s addressed to you, but if it is, I hope like hell you’ll read it.
You, my medium-sized ladyfriend, are no different from me in some important ways. We’re both women. That means we’re subject to a scrutiny so constant and insidious that often, we don’t even notice it. To say we are “defined by our bodies” is too small a phrase; our bodies are treated as public property, available for commentary, critique, and much worse. Furthermore, we’re both exposed to a culture that warps the definition of An Official Good Body into something highly specific, digitally manipulated, and utterly arbitrary. Whether or not you’ve been shamed by parents or peers (as most of us have) you get a daily dose of compare-and-despair every time you walk out the door or even look at your phone. We both live in a world berates us with the same message, no matter what size: Your body is not good enough and neither are you.
But in at least one way, we are different — at least our bodies are. (To state the obvious: Our bodies are likely different in a number of ways which influence our experience. For these purposes, I am specifically looking through the lens of size.) There is no industry standard range for “medium-sized” the way there is for plus, but judging by those who came forward to proclaim themselves as such, it’s somewhere in the 6-12 range. In other words, “in-betweeners” fall between sample-size and plus-size.
To my mind, neither of our bodies is better or worse than the other. Certainly, the difference in our shape and size has no bearing on who we are as people. I’d hope you’d see it that way, too. But regardless of our individual opinions, it’s quite clear that our bodies — and therefore, our selves — are perceived quite differently. Because of your body, you are more often presumed to be responsible and intelligent. You are more likely to be accepted to college than I am, even if we have the same grades and test scores. If we applied for the same apartment, you’d be more likely to get it (and be charged less rent). Statistically, your salary will be at least $9,000 more than mine.
Because of my body, I may be fired on the basis of size, with no law to protect me. I may be rejected as a juror because of my weight. On the other hand, if you and I were convicted for the same crime, I would be subject to almost two years more in prison. I would be described more often as the “type of person” to commit a crime. If I try to adopt a child, I am more likely to be turned down on the basis of being an unfit mother.
These facts are not your fault and they don’t negate the cruelty and judgment you have suffered on the basis of your body. Again, we have that and so much else in common. It’s not you, but society that divides us, simply because of this one difference between us. I know that. That’s why I am calling to you from across this ridiculous divide. We should be allies pushing back against these biases — not just those which harm me, but those which harm you, too. We all have them and we are all hurt by them. But we can’t do anything if we don’t first recognize that biases exist and acknowledge — without defense or caveat — both the groups that are subject to them and the groups that are not.
It is true that medium-sized women are absolutely underrepresented in media. I do think it’s worth celebrating the increased visibility of women with bodies like Amy Schumer’s. It does not follow that the body-positive movement should become the “medium-sized acceptance movement.” The fact is, you are accepted. By that, I mean you are seen as normal and within the scope of average. In fact, the statistical norm size is 14 or higher. Of course, they are underrepresented, too. But frankly, they have bigger problems — like earning a living and renting an apartment. Never seeing a body like yours on television is unequivocally damaging. Being seen by adoption authorities as an unfit mother is an unspeakable wound.
All this because of size. When people damn the use of labels, like “plus” or even “medium,” I feel both anger and panic rise, whether the speaker is a plus-size supermodel or a well-meaning commenter. Plus-sized women are already barely visible. If we throw out the term “plus-sized,” we could easily stop talking about her altogether. You, medium-sized woman, are well-established. Forget the shattering facts above and get down to basics: You can go to a store and find clothing for yourself. I don’t mean it will fit perfectly; I mean there will literally be enough fabric to cover your body. Food, shelter, and clothing are considered basic human needs, and there is a bone-deep fear that stirs when you go to one, 10, 20 stores and literally cannot find clothing that will cover you. It’s not rational. It’s instinctual. And when it happens every time you walk into a store, for your entire life, there is another irrational, instinctual part of your brain that begins to believe what the world is telling you: You are not exactly human. You do not fit the size.
This is not to say that you, the medium-sized woman, have no role here. Of course you do. Your body, your visibility matters just as much as mine — and vice versa. I see that, and I bet you do, too. But the rest of the world does not. Let’s change that, and then keep going, together.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter andInstagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.