The Medium-Sized Woman Problem

Photo: Courtesy of Pirelli
Two weeks ago, Amy Schumer's name appeared on Glamour's "Chic At Every Size" issue and everyone — Schumer, us, that one cousin on Facebook who's mad about everything — had something to say about it. The issue arose primarily because seeing Schumer's name sandwiched between those of Melissa McCarthy, Adele, and Ashley Graham seemed utterly incongruous. Those other women — they're Officially Plus-Sized. They're the current go-to icons of body diversity we like to point to and pat ourselves on the back for accepting so warmly, so graciously into our cultural sphere of relevance. Amy Schumer's not one of them (not that there's anything wrong with them!). She's something, it's just...well, darn it, what is she? She's a medium-sized woman. There. Done. Can we move on? This recent Schumer incident is just the latest in a series of hand-wringing episodes over medium-sized women in the last few years: Size 10 model Myla Dalbesio appears in a Calvin Klein ad, Robyn Lawley turns up in the Swimsuit Issue, Lena Dunham wears shorts. "And, they're plus-sized!" we crow, in shock or triumph. Then, the eyebrow-raising: "Not really, though." Maybe Lena Dunham's not thin, but not-thin doesn't mean fat. She doesn't count. I admit, for a long time I was subject to this mass befuddlement, looking at women like Mindy Kaling and feeling a kind of pleasant confusion. Even as I joined ranks with the body-positive movement, I didn't know if I could be Team Mindy as an Official Plus-Size woman myself. I understood the ire on both sides; Kaling's body was being picked apart even more than most actresses and it was somehow more offensive with all those self-congratulatory euphemisms like "real" and "pleasantly plump." At the same time, if she was real and her plumpness pleasant, then what did that make me? Bodies like mine, it seemed, were still too unpleasant to be spoken of — let alone seen. Still, it couldn't be a bad thing, having plump of any kind represented in media. One day, I stumbled upon Isabel Foxen Duke's "Ode to the Medium-Sized Woman" and the headline alone made me understand why: Body diversity doesn't just mean more plus-size bodies. It means more bodies, period. We need everything on the spectrum of size and shape. So no, these women aren't plus, but they are progress. "I absolutely think we're making progress," Duke agrees. "Adding medium-sized women into the media mix is a hell of a lot better than continuing to limit ourselves to straight-sized images only. That being said, we have a long way to go before the most oppressed populations of size start to see any relief in how they're treated in media (or for that matter, in society in general)."
Photo: Courtesy of AERIE.
Duke, an eating and body image coach as well as a body-positive activist (and a medium-sized woman herself), wrote her piece in 2013. Since then, the movement has become more mainstream (at least as a concept, if not in practice). We've got brands like Modcloth and Aerie featuring a broader range of models and vowing not to retouch them. Ashley Graham leapt out of the ad spaces of the Swimsuit Issue and landed on the cover. We've even got a word now for women like Kaling and Schumer: "in-betweeners." (Why that became the buzzword instead of just plain "medium" I'll never know.) But for all this big talk, we're still not doing much walking. "I think a lot of media outlets are trying to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to body-positivity," says Duke. "Everyone wants to appear to be pushing the envelope as far as body diversity is concerned, but not push it so far that our commonly held beliefs about ‘health' are called into question. Mainstream body-positivity right now basically includes women who are bigger than straight-sized models, but are not so big that they challenge the obesity-epidemic narrative." Indeed, these are both topics on which most people have a strong opinion, but far fewer have a truly informed one. As consumers, we naturally know a good deal more of obesity as a narrative than we do of its actual scientific and social ramifications. Daily we're fed the message that "fat is bad," so it makes sense that we'd look at plus-sized people as bad too. Of course, it doesn't actually make sense if you take a step back and really think about it. But few are going to bother with true critical thought. And that apathy is the foundation upon which bias is built. We know we're not supposed to be bullies though (another buzzword still bouncing around the zeitgeist) so we no longer point and laugh at the fat girl, at least not as willingly. Fat Monica for example, would never fly today because she's a cruel caricature defined only by her love of full-fat mayonnaise and inability to get laid. Mocking or rejecting a woman because of her size would be mean, and we're not mean. Now, we're concerned. She's not funny or gross — she's unhealthy.
Photo: Courtesy of NBC Universal.
The issue of unconscious bias around size is, of course, a much bigger can of worms (one that encompasses everything from the legal system to housing authorities, in addition to media). Either way, this false fretting over health is utterly transparent as it's only used when discussing physical appearance. But when it comes to the bodies we see on screen, it's fairly simple: Thin is normal, fat is bad, and anything in between is confusing. Confusion leads to questions, and that's why the medium-sized woman matters so much. She highlights the enormous scarcity we've gotten used to not seeing on our screens. She forces us to confront the exact size and shape we find acceptable and unacceptable (ugly, unhealthy — whatever you want to call it). She walks us right up to the edge of the waistline and asks, "Is this okay? Is this too much? Should this body stand with the thin women and be granted all their rights and privileges, like sexuality and personal depth? Or is this body more best-friend material?" Finally, our confusion over where to put women like Amy Schumer begs the biggest question: Why do we need to put them somewhere? There's a simmering debate at the moment over whether or not we should eradicate terms like "plus-size" entirely. Some influencers, like Ashley Graham, argue that the label is both fraught with stigma and unnecessary, given that most people fall into the size-range associated with plus. "The majority of the people in this room right now is considered plus-size," she noted in her 2015 Tedx Talk. "How's that make you feel, to be labeled?" Others point out that if we don't stop talking about plus-size bodies, they may become even more marginalized than they already are. "There are plenty of things to get offended about, but taking a term that's never been used in hate and is merely a descriptor, and trying to take away OUR community is not cool," model Tess Holliday tweeted, adding: "#plussizeandproud." Schumer herself concluded the Glamour fracas by declaring herself in the anti-label camp: "Bottom line seems to be we are done with these unnecessary labels which seem to be reserved for women." Perhaps it's a cop-out to say they're all right, but I can't see how any of them are wrong. Again, we're in a confusing situation that begs for answers. Here's mine: Yes, if all bodies are equal then labels are pointless. But at this moment in history, all bodies are not treated equally. Words like "fat" and "skinny" are just an arbitrary collection of letters, but they bear meaning far beyond their definitions — and we gave them that power. First, we must acknowledge the way we wield those words, how we treat the bodies we assign to them. We've got to find answers to all those uncomfortable questions we face when Lena Dunham does a nude scene or, damn, even wears a pair of shorts. "While I understand why many people want to eliminate terms like ‘plus-size' entirely," says Isabel Foxen Duke, "I fear that this will be as ineffective, from a social justice perspective, as attempts at ‘color-blindness' were at eliminating racism."
Photo: Courtesy of Craig Blankenhorn/ HBO.
Words do matter, but representation matters more. Filling the pages of our magazines, the screens in front of us, the ads that nestle daily into our peripheral vision with as much body diversity as possible — that's what will make meaningful change. To be clear, an individual should call themselves anything they want. Personal identity and cultural labels are two different things, and whether or not you're #plussizeandproud doesn't matter as much as the "proud" part. In fact, it's heartening to see that women like Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham — arguably, the two greatest icons in their field — disagree on this point. Labeled or not, they both transcend the stigmas our society associates with women of size. In that sense, Amy Schumer and all the other medium-sized women do stand alongside their plus-sized peers, whether they know it or not. They too push boundaries and shine the light into the untouched corners of our prejudice. They stand in the middle of a blood-red battleground, showing us just how much ground we've gained and how much farther we must press on.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.

More from Pop Culture

R29 Original Series