When Refinery 29 launched its ‘The 67%’ campaign, I, along with many women were excited about the platform-wide acknowledgment of the erasure of plus-size women from mainstream media. It’s no secret that body preference across magazines and the Internet is a real thing, as we are constantly bombarded with images of women who, frankly, just don’t look like most of us. Even with a couple of our champions, from Gabby Fresh to Ashley Graham, a few names representing a large segment of the female population just isn’t enough.
According to the campaign, 67% of American women are size 14 and above, yet they only represent 1% of the body types actually present in media.
The difference between Refinery 29’s push for plus size women and other similar campaigns, is for once, a publication took responsibility for the part they played in perpetuating the invisibility of certain body types on their platform. In their launching op-ed, they made a vocal commitment to restructure their on-site representation to be inclusive.
This celebratory effort turned painful when the site released a tone-deaf survey, intended to point out the implicit bias of their audiences. The survey asked for readers to associate certain adjectives and attributes to specific body types. Titled ‘Here’s What You Really Think Of Other Women’s Bodies,’ the questionnaire asked 1,000 participants questions like “Would you be her friend,” “Would you trust her with my children/future children,” or “Would you follow a brand if she were the spokesperson.”
The findings were expectedly cruel and superficial. Skinnier white women had positive associations; however, the thicker and darker in complexion the models got, the more crass the word associations became.
As a final culminating point, a plus-size Black woman was labeled the ‘least acceptable woman’, ranking low on desirability, attractiveness, intelligence items.
The model, Brittnee Blair, whose image was used to represent this body type, posted the photo on Instagram. She captioned the photo with a heartbreaking note–asking how celebration turned into condemnation so quickly:
The image is triggering given the historic discrimination against black bodies–particularly female bodies within our society. The idea that Black women are ‘least acceptable’ substantiated centuries of rape, ‘othering’ and exploitation. I immediately took to Twitter to address the issue head on. Tweeting to Kelsey Miller, Senior Features Editor at Refinery 29, I opened up a dialogue on why this image and language was so problematic and hurtful to women of color:
What was impressive was her response, and openness to having the conversation between women:
The survey and the subsequent backlash served as a reminder that even when we are trying to have representative conversations, if there is no intersectionality involved to color the discussion from a racial, socio-economic, sexuality and gender perspective, then there will always be sink holes. As the adage goes, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ There needs to be women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds in the ideation room to have a rich conversation about imagery.There are nuances within every community that have to be acknowledged.
You can’t erase bias by just telling people, ‘Hey, you are biased.” You have to constantly reinforce images that are routinely linked to negative associations with positive word reinforcement. You have to do this repeatedly,until the ugly roots of bias are pulled out and replaced with understanding. Hopefully, involved conversations like the social media talk above will begin to take place more often, so no site has to issue retractions for something they would’ve known if they had just asked us. The website has since adjusted their language to convey their core point without ostracizing plus size Black women.
A campaign about representation begins with representation. Go figure.