Musing: When Shaming Masquerades As Body Positivity

Kinsey and I are in near-constant communication, discussing everything that interests or compels us – – be it videos of demanding lemurs or a fascinating, whip-smart article examining the racism, or lack thereof, behind Beyonce’s “Becky With The Good Hair” lyric. While both of these were thought-provoking in their own way, the source of much of our musing this week was a recent Refinery 29 article by Kelsey Miller entitled “The Medium-Sized Woman Problem.”

At Be Your Own Muse, we advocate for unconditional body positivity. While practicing what we preach can be more difficult than we’d like to admit, we do our best to focus on the positive. We practice expressing gratitude for the functionality and health of our bodies, and remind ourselves that numbers and sizes (although seemingly objective) actually carry very little real significance. We reaffirm our own worth, and the worth of others, as independent of our bodies, as we strive towards healthy body image and consistent self-love.

AMYSCHUMER

Refinery 29’s article seemed to be a valuable opportunity to spread a similar message, but from our perspective, it actually did just the opposite. That’s why this article is so detrimental – it flies in the face of that self-love, while supposedly being a message of body positivity. It was a slipshod attempt at a think-piece, but in a way we’re glad it was published, because it reminds us how much work is left to do.

In “The Medium-Sized Woman Problem,” the premise is that the debate around women who are neither “fat” nor “thin” is essential, that it highlights an essential boundary in our weight-obsessed culture. Not a bad starting place. But the logic derails quickly, devolving into a kind of “how fat/thin is too fat/thin” debate, promoting and catering to this false binary, and subconsciously assessing women only in terms of the value they provide to men – even going so far as to equate being a medium-sized woman with being “friend material.” The debates over the use of “plus-size” labels and vanity sizing, while pertinent to a degree as they show the illogical nature of sizing in general, seem to miss the point if we are to truly overcome the stifling, disabling habit of quantifying and defining our bodies. Putting a size or a number on a living, existing thing, for any reason other than determining the right fit so that you can feel and look good, seems wrong. Rather, imbuing these numbers and sizes with significance or worth is really the problem.

Discussing weight and size with women, even with the most positive of intentions, can be tricky. More times than not, it provokes comparison and uncovers our most entrenched insecurities. The R29 comments section following the article is essentially just commenters saying “if she’s a six, then what am I?” (or worse, “there’s no way she’s a six because I actually am”). The transparency here is unbearable – what commenters are really struggling with is their inability to reconcile another woman’s size (read: worth) with their own, and the saddest part of all is that I’m sure we’ve all felt similarly before. The familiar insidious thinking essentially goes, “if we are actually the same size, how am I to feel superior? If I can somehow prove that I’m smaller than her, then I’m somehow better and can be assured of my own self-worth.” If these comments tell us anything, it’s that we, as a society, have assigned worth and significance to clothing sizes and weight in a hierarchical manner, with size 0 being the ultimate goal.

Just consider this line from the R29 article:

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?’

Why is the writer blatantly asking for social acceptance in a piece posing as body positive? The core question is not when we accept or reject a woman for being her size – it should be why we feel the need to. To us, it seems like we should be rejecting the culture or desire of requiring external validation for our bodies, and for literally EXISTING.

Furthermore, why is there a hypothetical group of thin women standing off to the side, apparently a part of some elite skinny girl club where they eat pieces of lettuce, share bagels with the trash can, and mock anyone who wears anything larger than a size 4? Sorry, we only carry sizes 1, 3, and 5. You could try Sears. Not only is this a horrible scenario to imagine, but it merely pits women against each other and reinforces the “Mean Girls” stereotype.

There is no absolute threshold for being fat, no absolute threshold for being thin, and no absolute threshold for being medium-sized. We can officially let that go. And besides, if being a zero is the perfect size in our culture, then being perfect is essentially equated to being nothing.

Striving for size zero is like striving for perfection, a la Brene Brown – it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the physical, it’s all about avoidance of shame. Theoretically, if you believe in the size- and weight-based assignments of worth, then when you finally achieve the goal of being a size zero, you can never feel inferior. Right?

Wouldn’t it be easier (and far healthier) to just reject these scales of judgment rather than ascribe to something that gives us no room to live, to indulge, or to accept?

If we’re focused on avoiding the fear of another woman behaving condescendingly towards us because of our size, we are that much more likely to act condescendingly to another woman who may be larger than us. It creates a cycle and environment of insecurity, competition, and just straight bitchiness. And as a former BYOM contributor explained, the expected invincibility that is believed to accompany that size zero body type is not at all the reality.

By refusing to engage in this flawed way of thinking, we can confidently walk in the direction of not only loving ourselves, but being able to truly love and accept one another.

MIRROR

It’s not the presence of medium-sized women that is confusing or wild – we all know and interact with plenty of medium-sized women every day – it’s the fact that it’s taken so long for them to gain visibility in film, television, music, and in print. From my experience working as an apparel buyer, the majority of sizes stocked in mainstream department stores are mediums. Given this knowledge, it’s safe to say that being a medium-sized woman is not a rarity, although using “medium-sized” as a label seems to be a new thing.

Most women we know, size zero to size 14 included, don’t want to be or need to be identified by their body weight – it doesn’t have to be a major feature of our lives and identities unless we want it to be. But if the non-fashion media, and the non-celebrity woman, still adopts and then uses and propagates that kind of thinking and language, then it will stay around. It’s our choice to accept the terms, or reject them. To love ourselves, including our bodies, and to let go of its supposed relation to our worth. (For the record, it’s the fashion industry’s choice, and we would argue that it’s also their obligation, to represent a broader spectrum of women – and there’s some evidence that it may be happening.)

Lastly, R29’s discussion of medium-sized women seems to serve as more of an explanation for these women than a celebration. Expanding society’s notions of what is beautiful is definitely important, but providing an explanation, however well-intentioned, seems to pander to this binary notion of size – that as a woman, you can be only one of two things: skinny or fat. Not only that, but it implies that the medium-sized woman’s inability to be categorized makes it difficult, even impossible, to truly digest and appreciate her existence. As if you can’t be beautiful if there isn’t a label (or in this case, an explanation) attached.

That being said, true encouragement of body positivity requires that every type of body be visible and celebrated, and that in turn, this exposure will eliminate our desire to categorize or assign significance or worth in a hierarchical way. This revamped way of thinking about our bodies is not only beneficial for ourselves as women, but for our friends and loved ones, our future daughters, and for society as a whole.

+ DID YOU HAVE A STRONG REACTION TO THE R29 ARTICLE? SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW. 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan Mowbray says:

    Very good points! It is the measuring, judging and assigning labels (=worth) that is the damaging part. Why is the size and shape of our bodies of any importance except to ourselves for health reasons? Would the article make sense if written about men?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michelle says:

    I am sick and tired of hearing my heavier friends tell me to eat more. I don’t care what you weigh, that’s your business. You shouldn’t care what I weigh. When my niece recently was fixing herself a cup of cocoa, several family members seemed to have an opinion about how much mix she should use. Why? I suppose because she is a bit on the heavy side and they felt they should regulate her intake. When she looked at me I said, “You’re thirty years old. I think you can decide for yourself.” I don’t think heavy people need to be told they’re heavy, they know it. I don’t think less heavy people need to have people tell them to eat more. Mind your own business, it’s their body.

    Like

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