We Let You Down & We're Going To Fix It

Illustrated by Isabel Guijarro.
I remember the very moment I first saw a plus-size woman in a magazine. I was on a flight from New York to Washington, D.C.; the magazine was Marie Claire, and the woman was fashion blogger Nicolette Mason. Technically, of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a not-thin body in a mainstream context. I’d seen plenty of fat bodies, heads bluntly cropped out, to illustrate some harrowing new statistic about fast-food consumption. Then there were the solemn women staring out of the “before” pictures, their “after” counterparts bouncing lithely beside them. Editors and advertisers used plus-size women as needed, holding up their bodies as a wordless cautionary tale, before quickly yanking them out of the frame. So, no, Nicolette Mason wasn’t technically the first plus-size woman I’d seen in a magazine — but she was the first I’d ever seen more than once.

Mason began writing Big Girl in a Skinny World in 2011, the same year I started writing for Refinery29. The site was considered an innovative new spark in media, a publication that strove to speak to all women — a reputation we took pride in. And as our audience grew larger, that mission became only more firm: Diversity was non-negotiable. Sexuality, faith, ethnicity, nationality, political affiliation, economic bracket — we had to consider all with equal respect, regardless of the challenges. Breaking a mold is difficult, but it’s not exactly complicated. If you want more Black women in beauty stories, you hire more Black models. If you want same-sex couples in a wedding feature, then go to City Hall and take some pictures. That’s it — just do the work yourself. Sure, it takes effort, but what’s the alternative? 13.3% of Americans are Black and 3.4% identify as LGBT. You can’t just sidestep millions of people and pretend you didn’t see them, minority or not. Not if you want to impact an entire generation.
I took pride in writing for a company that pushed itself to represent each percentage of its readership. It was in this wide-open environment that I launched The Anti-Diet Project in 2013. Along with its push-back against diet culture, the column was built on a premise of unconditional body positivity, and illustrated with photos of my own not-thin body. It was thrilling to watch our readership respond, and even more exciting to see the rest of our site — and soon enough, the media landscape — push for more inclusivity. Body positivity became a buzzword, and for many publications, a mandatory practice. Simply by making my body and other plus-size bodies visible, it felt as if both I and Refinery29 had staked a new, vital claim for representation outside the norm.

Somehow, I didn’t realize that I was the norm.

As of 2012, it is estimated that 67% of American women are plus-size — size 14 or larger. The CDC currently reports the average American woman’s measurements equate to a size 14 (though other studies put her between a 16 and 18). Yet, plus-size women account for, on average, 1 to 2% of the bodies represented in mainstream media. Even Refinery29 — the site that banished weight-loss rhetoric years ago, promoted the #fatkini, and includes body-positivity training for all staff — falls short here. On a good day, only 5 to 8% of the bodies we show are plus-size. For all our work in representing women, we have thus far failed to reflect the majority. Once we recognized this gap, we could not un-see it. And we knew it would take every one of our departments — editorial, sales, creative, product, tech, and so forth — to close it.

This week, 67% of our imagery will feature women size 14 and above.

Which is why starting today, you’ll see a change on Refinery29. We have spent the past three months shooting new stock imagery featuring plus-size women in all areas of our coverage: career, tech, beauty, and all the parts of living that make up a lifestyle publication. The plus-size woman is not the exception but the average, and we intend to represent her as such going forward. And we’re beginning this initiative with a bang: This week, 67% of our imagery will feature women size 14 and above.

Look at our homepage and our Instagram feed, and the difference is evident at first glance. We’ve applied this rule to every story we can feasibly illustrate with an original photo or design, and have curated the content so that 67% of the people you see are plus-size. Looking at our site today (and comparing it to yesterday) it looks as if we’ve launched a new plus-size platform. But make no mistake — this isn’t R29 Plus. The very concept of a plus-size issue underscores the message we’re trying to spread: Plus is not niche. It is the norm.
Illustrated by Isabel Guijarro.
Pulling this off meant scouting our own models, and calling in special requests to agencies and showrooms. It meant getting turned down by photographers who worried about what their other clients might think. It meant recognizing that certain people might not be on board with our new look. This week is intended to reveal just how vast this representation gap really is, how much work is needed to fill it, and above all, that we cannot do it alone. To that end, we’ve made these images available via Getty, hoping other publications will use them to join us in this effort. The fact is, you need stock photos to run a website, and there aren’t many normative stock photos of plus-size women out there. So yes, the solution is hard, but not all that complicated — at least not for us.

Then there’s the other “us.” It would be easy to lay the blame for this problem solely at our own feet, but media has two sides: The creators and the consumers. This invisibility problem has an obvious solution, but we cannot make meaningful change without simultaneously addressing the underlying cause.

Here’s a term to get familiar with: “Unconscious bias.” This is not the overt, cross-burning prejudice you see in the headlines, but the language in between the lines. It’s the surprised, back-patting tone when we call a Black woman “articulate.” It’s the judgment we reflexively withhold when a woman reports abuse at the hands of her famous husband. It’s the distaste for fat people that we dress up as concern. Unconscious bias clings like a cloak to every plus-size body in this country and it translates into very real injustices in everything from the legal system to education to housing. It is estimated that plus-size women earn $9,000 to $19,000 less than their thinner counterparts. Fat students are found “significantly less likely” to be accepted to college than their thinner peers with equivalent academic performance. One study showed that jurors sentenced fat or “unattractive” people to an average of 22 months longer in prison, and described them as more like the “type of person” to commit a crime.
Even in progressive conversations in which all bodies are purported to be equal, unconscious bias creeps into our mouths and onto our pages and screens. In nearly every interview I’ve given, I’ve been asked a variation on the question, “How did you find your confidence?” The assumption being that “someone like me” (another phrase I hear a lot) should have none to begin with. But how could I blame these interviewers? It was an assumption I made, too. Unconscious bias is poison in the well from which we all drink, myself included.
Illustrated by Isabel Guijarro.
That’s the other goal of this mission and one we can’t accomplish on our own. All of us who create and consume media need to reckon with unconscious bias, uncomfortable though it may be. We’ve created this space as a kind of mirror, and we hope you’ll challenge yourself to look into it. Ignoring is, after all, an act of willful ignorance. Running from our own biases only adds fuel to the fire. The best thing we can do is run toward these dark corners in ourselves, turn on the lights, and look.

Rest assured, you won’t be alone in there. In developing The 67% Project, we’ve stumbled into our own biases again and again. It’s more than just the knee-jerk responses that crop up in any conversation about size (“Are we promoting an unhealthy lifestyle?”). It’s the worry that, in shining a light on plus-size woman, we’re somehow excluding the thin ones. (All women matter!) This is the choke-hold of unconscious bias. Of course, the goal is inclusivity — that’s why we’re including thin women amid all the other bodies on our site. But to correct an imbalance, you have to focus on the other side of the scale. If you’re worried this is taking something away from thin people, you’re simply wrong. If you’re worried this is upsetting the norm, you’re damn right. There are a lot of norms that need upsetting.

That’s why the success of this project, more than any other, relies on you as much as us. Mainstream media is meant to reflect mainstream values, and right now, it’s doing just that: People find fatness as a concept and an image unacceptable. And they feel in the right to say so.

The bodies you see on Refinery29 today are no different than what you’d expect to see on the average American street. So, if you are surprised by these images or put off in any way, just pause. It is shocking. I am shocked by the effort and expense it took to make this change. I am shocked by all the wary questions it incited, some from my own mouth. But even more than shock, I feel a sense of greatness in its most literal form. Whether or not you are part of the 67%, all of us are part of The 67% Project. We believe that every person is capable of acknowledging the inequality they see and the biases they feel.

No, it won’t be easy. But it’s still not that complicated. Today, we invite you to join us in the first, most simple step: See the 67%. Do not look away.

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