Size Matters: The Thing About Average

Tasha Fierce
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Tasha Fierce is a writer living in the occupied Tongva territory known as Los Angeles. You can follow them on Twitter at @tashajfierce and read more of their work on their website.

Sorry, y’all, but this blog has got two posts left! So you’re not rid of me yet. I wanted to explore a subject related to FA that Alyx brought up in the comments on the last post—how do we determine what isn’t fat? Where do we draw the line? And what exactly does “average” mean?

What’s interesting about the “average” USian woman is that she’s actually a size 14/16, which would make her plus sized, a euphemism for “fat”. However, average is usually used to describe any woman who isn’t “thin,” but also not “fat.” Of course, words mean things and we can’t just apply any word to any situation. But with a term as nebulous as “fat” gets on the margin, it’s hard to decide exactly when we can apply it. Fatphobes tend to apply the term to people whom they know nothing about at random, depending on body composition, shape, height, etc. rather than any specific size or weight. When we get close to the middle of the body size spectrum, the subjectivity of the viewer becomes a huge factor in how others perceive a woman’s body as fat or thin. There’s no real clear cut way to answer this question except to state that at the margins, self-identification is key.

This ties in to another question asked: How do nonfat people decide when to use the word “fat” to describe someone? I touched on this in the last post, but let me expand on it. If someone doesn’t use the word “fat” to describe themselves, as with any ally you need to respect the words they use. Although we should seek to normalize the word “fat”, on an individual basis, those who would consider themselves allies need to be conscious that not every fat person is ready to embrace being called fat. Support them in loving their body, affirm their beauty, expose them to positive representations of fat, but let them come to their own conclusions.

So what is average? It seems like more of a statistical term than something to describe bodies. Even if you are the fabled size 14/16, all size 14/16 bodies are not built the same. I don’t think it’s offensive to use the term “average” if you really are referring to a statistical average of dress size. But we should not confuse “average” with “normal”, because that implies that anything else is deviant. This is one of those gray areas that must be navigated with care.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

It's difficult

I often struggle with this when having to explain to two people who have never met how they might identify each other. I would never say "fat" about anyone for the reasons you mentioned, but at the same time, if it's not an insult, why should I avoid it? I can easily say "he's a hearty fellow" or "she's curvy," but some fat women aren't curvy, and some fat men aren't hearty. I don't want to offend anyone, and as someone who is health conscious in earnest, I believe a move away from external indicia of "health" would do wonders for the malnourished on both ends of the spectrum. The question remains: how do I describe, for instance, my friend's 300 pound mother to the authorities if she went missing, or to a friend seeking her out? She's one of my favorite people in the world and has no problem saying she's overweight, but if I said she were "fat," my friend likely would take it as an insult. I'm just trying to keep it real, here. Conversely, if someone were grossly thin, I don't think people would be as quick to shy away from "she's anorexic-looking." Thoughts?

Re: Its Difficult

Wow. Where to begin? Fat said as an adjective such as one may intonate "short" "blonde" "freckled" seems acceptable but we live in the culture where fat is said with a sneer. . . I have been on both ends of the spectrum and appreciated it when my Dr. explained morbidly obese to me without judgement. Now, living on the other end, the pals who once shyed away from calling me fat, using overweight, plump, heavy, chubby almost gush when describing my now skinny, healthy athletic, anorexic (which I hardly am not) body now. Point being Its difficult post hit me like a gush of wind thinking about how in our society we value the reed thin, "she's anorexic looking" is a coveted compliment by many. As to how to describe your friends mother - I read: "my friends 300 lb mom" without judgement ironically. . .

Anorexia compliment

Interesting... I have never encountered "anorexic-looking" as a compliment, and I used to be "anorexic-looking" in high school. All I got was bombarded with "disgusting anorexic" making me very self-conscious about being thin and craving to be heavier. Within the context of this blog, I think "anorexia" and "fat" are different and should be applied differently. While "fat" is a description of someone with more of the actual word, "anorexia" is a disorder. In my opinion, "fat" is a more apt and positive description than "anorexia."

Re: Anorexia compliment

Yeah, I've never heard "anorexic-looking" used as a compliment in my social circle (though communities can definitely vary). From what I've seen, very thin people do get a lot of negative judgment, a lot of "eat a sandwich" comments, just as fat people get ignorant comments on their weight and eating habits.

I've been guilty myself of making judgmental comments about thin people; I'm fat and as a teenager, after being frustrated when trying to buy clothing for my body shape, I thought to myself that thin women must have an easy time shopping for clothing and that they didn't get criticized about their shape. I was envious out of ignorance and made some bitter comments, but luckily I was called on them, and after hearing firsthand accounts about it I realized that pretty much anyone can get (and probably has had) criticism based on their size and shape, and that nobody can go shopping for clothing and have everything fit and look the way they want.

I agree with the original article that "average" is a very nebulous concept when it comes to body shape and size, especially if you mix up "average" with "normal." It's definitely true that a woman can wear the "average" size 14-16 clothing and yet have a body shape that's not considered "normal." Depending on the woman's height and general body shape, size 14-16 can encompass a large range of weights, body fat percentages, and BMI measurements.

It's like if you tried to say somebody had "average" hair. There's so much variation in hair texture, color and style that there's no one "average" or "normal" type of hair. It's funny, though, that even without a concept of "average hair," I've still heard judgmental comments about peoples' hair being abnormal. Some people will judge anything.

You're so right. I used to

You're so right. I used to get those rude "you look anorexic" comments in high school a lot, even from "friends" who were only 10-20 lbs heavier than me! I didn't have an eating disorder; my height and weight were (and are now) a reflection of the genetic traits I inherited from my parents. It's ridiculous they way we feel entitled to judge each other's bodies in this culture; it seriously needs to stop.

How responsible of the

How responsible of the nonjudgmental doctor. During my last visit to Planned Parenthood, I was informed that I have an "obese" BMI score. I knew this already and was insulted when the nurse told I need to lose weight and handed me a diet tip pamphlet. It instructed me on how to eat more wholesome foods, the majority of which I already choose, and some basic workout tips. I'm sure she had to give me the pamphlet because of her job, but I didn't see why I needed it at all, since my vitals are in the healthy range and I do not have diabetes. I'm not sure how to feel about the experience, especially since the nurse was fatter than me. Has anyone else here been told to lose weight by someone fatter than them?


yes, i have. it was while i was a teenager and she (a gym teacher) managed to humiliate me and completely baffle me at the same time. and people wonder why i have issues with authority...

Getting to the root of the problem

This question - how do you decide who is fat (and who gets to make that decision) - gets to the root of the size oppression in this country.

Fat is relative. To the teenagers who fit a size 2 and have been fed a constant media diet of fat=ugly/unhealthy/disgusting, someone who wears a size 12 is fat. To the 400 lb fat activist, someone who wears a size 12 is thin. "Fat" is definitely relative.

Clearly though, we have a range of body sizes and no standard way of identifying them. We can try to use clothing sizes, but they are variable (sometimes even from store to store). The medical community tried by creating the BMI, which has proven to be a complete failure. So why is this so hard?

The problem is that fat and thin are so reflective of the oppression and judgment within our culture that we don't even know how to use them. When we look at a similar body stat (like height for instance), we see some discrimination, but only at those who fall far outside of the normal range of variance. We don't struggle too much in identifying tall and short people. But the hatred and fear of fat is so strong in this country that we are left with words that can only be used as insults or compliments.

I'm proud of the fat activist community for working to take back this word. In the process of de-stigmatizing and normalizing "fat", they are slowly but surely lessening the label's social weight (pun intended).

I agree

I agree completely with your entire post. Especially the part about the BMI being a complete failure lol. I'd also like to add that "fat" is a relative term amongst different cultures. I am 5"8, size 10 with a large butt. White kids used to call me fat but when I went to a black college, I was considered to have an amazing figure. Having a "fat" ass was a great thing. Boys didnt like the "skinny" girls. The mainstream white media calls Khloe Kardashian fat although ask any Black person and shes a normal, healthy size.


I was interested to find out that statistically, the average size of a woman in the U.S. is a 14/16. Does that make all those women who are below that size but are not extremely thin only average in a social aspect? What is the consensus on what is considered fat and thin? I feel that recently the media has strived away from displaying women in the typical male gaze of being exponentially thin and has stopped applauding peoples' appearances who look like they have an eating disorder.

For instance, Tyra Banks' urging of girls to join her Beauty Inside Out Campaign and recognize unrealistic media images or Dove's Real Beauty ads that include larger women than what is commonly seen in advertising. Both combating the skewed female body images that the media constantly displays. The social norm is definitely moving away from supporting rail thin women. But now the concern is how big is too big?

The words fat, average, or normal are all words that can only be determined appropriate by the speaker. It is in the eye of the beholder. The truth is that people use fat and anorexic as a joke at times, light heartedly. And as we all know other times it can be malicious. The point is that sadly, until popular culture as a whole decides what it wants to portray as "normal" and provides us with a strict outline on what is considered fat and what is thin, many of us will not know how to think.

ahh, norms!

i've been really enjoying your series of posts here on bitch, and just started to read your other pieces over at
this one in particular resonated with me as i've been discussing what norms are and who sets them in my classes (working on an m.a. in counseling psychology). norms are--in the u.s.--set by cis, wealthy, white males (and some stalwart status quo enforcing valkyries) and the rest of us have to fit them, regardless of how impossible a task it might be.

what i find even more pernicious is the fact that if we don't fit these arbitrary norms, we should <b>want</b> to fit them. that, to me, poisons one's own thoughts. i like my body the way it is, generally speaking, but i have moments where that old sweet song of self-loathing runs through my head. i find it especially true after i've read a mainstream magazine aimed at women like glamour, or allure. even if i spend a mere five minutes flipping through it, the images and messages affect me and i find i'm more critical of my body.

i realize i seem like i'm going off on a tangent, but it relates to this: "self-identification is key". deciding what the "norm" is is a way to invalidate one's own experience and identity. when we are told the norm of beauty is a tall, leggy, white woman or a buff, white man with a six pack we are being told that our experiences of attraction to other body types are abnormal and invalid, and that our own self-esteem is invalid if we do not fit this mold; we do not deserve to feel good about ourselves. it makes us distrust ourselves, our bodies and our desires and it is hard work to regain that trust and faith, and to listen to our own voices once again.

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