3 Unfair Ways Being Perceived as Physically Average Privileges and Protects You

Person sitting on a commuter train

Person sitting on a commuter train.

Editor’s Note: This article specifically discusses the ways that sizeism defines what kind of body is “physically average,” but ableism also privileges some bodies while marginalizing others. For more information on this, check out these articles: 1 | 2 | 3

I feel like the whole world can be divided into three groups: those who’ve never heard of the concept of privilege, those who are aware of their privilege and do what they can to unpack it, and those who feel personally attacked whenever the concept of privilege is discussed.

I want to reach out to that last group.

I’ve been where you are.

It’s really challenging to take on board this information and not feel like you’re being told you’re a terrible human being for something you didn’t choose, and that you can’t change.

But the key thing about privilege, and what I want you to keep in mind when reading this article, is that having privilege doesn’t make you a “bad” person, just as living under oppressive forces doesn’t necessarily make you a “good” person.

Everyone still faces struggles in life no matter what.

However, those struggles are different. And by refusing to acknowledge the struggles others were facing, I was helping make them harder, or at least make them harder to bear.

For example, I can remember a bunch of times where I’ve been pissed off when I’ve been made to walk at a slower pace than I wanted to because the people in front of me weren’t walking at my speed.

For years, I thought, “Argh! Just hurry up. Walk faster, and we can all get where we’re going faster.” It honestly never occurred to me that I was assuming that just because I couldn’t see an obvious mobility issue, then they should have no problem walking at a fast pace.

If you looked “average,” then I assumed you could do anything that I could (as I would have considered myself to be “average” looking, too), and that lead to me being pissed off. A lot. And for no damn good reason!

Let’s face it, with the state of the world right now, there are a lot of good reasons to be pissed off. But this sure wasn’t one of them.

And it probably made many people around me feel like crap when I was constantly trying to push past anyone who dared to walk slowly in front of me.

It’s not often that we unpack the concept of “average” when it comes to physical appearance.

In many feminist spaces, we make time to unpack the often idealized images we see in the media, and one thing I’ve noticed is that we often call out idealized images and media that demonizes or shames certain groups (for example, larger bodies), but we have yet to get to what it means to be seen as “physically average.”

Where I live, what is portrayed as “physically average” is not a true representation of the range of people who make up the society I live in.

To get an average, you need data from everyone in a group, then you divide the total by the number of people in the group, and voila! You’ve got the average of that group’s specific set of data (yay using math in real life!)

So, for me to be seen as “physically average,” first I need to define my “group.”

Let’s go with geography. The other people in my “group” live in the same country where I reside, Aotearoa (New Zealand), specifically Auckland.

Auckland is one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities with the fourth most foreign-born population, according to the 2015 World Migration Report from the International Organization for Migration.

I’m a white, cis, able woman with blue eyes and light brown hair, medium/short height and medium/slim build. Many people, when asked to describe an “average” woman from Auckland, New Zealand would describe someone like me.

But if you look at the whole group, you can see that a lot of people in my community aren’t being counted, or the data from people like me is seen to be more favorable. This leads to me being portrayed as a “physically average” woman, despite that not really being the case.

Over the years, I’ve changed my appearance a number of times: different hair styles, hair colors, styles of clothing, tattoos, body sizes. I’ve worn different types of make-up, opted out of wearing make-up altogether. I’ve shaved and opted out of shaving.

Over the course of all of these changes, I come back to the same realization: The more “physically average” I look, the more privilege I hold, and the easier it is for me to live in my community.

The way my society is currently set up – and I’m sure a lot of people live in societies just like mine – every product on the shelf, every building, every public area has been created with someone in mind. The choices of what is being made and who can use it is important to think about.

So with that in mind, let’s talk about being “physically average.”

1. The World Around You Was Designed for Your Body to Easily Access It

When you’re seen to be “physically average,” you have the ability to access public spaces. You can fit into seats on public transport. You aren’t given a few choices of places to sit, park, play, or move about.

The people who made the town you live in had you in mind when they did city-planning. Other people get some access ways, some seats, some reserved car parks, but those are after thoughts, extras on top.

As a physically “average” person, you’re who people are designing everything for.

It’s not just about being “physically average” either. I can read the signage around my neighborhood, and if I’m in trouble, I can call for help, and if I do most people will understand what I’m saying. We have three official languages in my country: Māori, New Zealand Sign Language, and English.

Yet, if someone was calling for help in either Māori or NZSL, I know that a large section of my community wouldn’t understand those cries for help.

As a physically average person, you can access healthcare professionals who will listen to your needs and not assume your appearance is part of the issue (seriously, this happens all the time.)

Imagine putting petrol in your car, and when you go to pay for it, the service station employee starts telling you that you need to work on your driving skills because the way you drive is obviously impacting your fuel consumption.

Umm, that’s not what I came here for, and maybe you can’t judge my whole life by the five seconds it took me to drive into the station? Back off, buddy.

If there’s an event that I’m keen to go to, I know that I’ll be able to access it, no matter where it’s being held concert hall, beach, stadium, theatre, paddock.

Events in my community are designed so that I can attend, and if others can participate, that’s a bonus, not a requirement.

The whole concept of unpacking privilege revolves around realizing things like this that other people are treated as optional extras through no fault of their own, that they’re some small additional quota to be maybe catered to if space and cost allows.

That fact doesn’t make you, as the person with privilege bad, but it sure as hell doesn’t make the situation good for society as a whole.

2. A Variety of Products and Media Cater Specifically to Your Diverse Needs

As a physically “average” person, I can shop at a variety of stores, and I know they’ll all have things designed for me.

I can easily find things in non-specialty shops that are branded “nude,” which pretty much accurately represents my skin tone (make-up, pantyhose, sticking plasters, and so on).

I can use and easily find products that say “for all skin/hair types,” which normally have people who look like me on the packaging and advertising (albeit an idealized version), and they work just fine for my skin or hair. I can fit pretty much everything that is said to be “one size fits all.”

When looking for toys for my kids, it’s easy to find a doll or book that has children the same shape, size, ability, and color as them. Our play represents our world and all our toys represent us.

When we play tea parties, none of our toys have a G-tube, oxygen tank, or any mobility issues. Toys like that do exist, but they can be hard to find, and sometimes have to be specially made.

It’s hard to encompass all the different body and ability types that exist in the real world in the mass market, but that shouldn’t mean there isn’t any attempt at genuine diversity in toys for kids to play with. Representation matters.

Because my kids are “physically average” looking, they can see themselves represented in the toys they play with and the media they consume. They get to see themselves represented in all sorts of adventures, and they’re shown a world of unlimited options for people who look just like them.

For people who aren’t represented so widely, it can feel like their options are limited. If you’ve never seen someone like you doing, being, or having something, then why would you think it is achievable?

Also, this lack of representation in children’s toys and media can lead to issues when kids experience injury or illness in themselves or others.

The world is filled with different people. The sooner our kids can see the vast spectrum of people in our world, the more secure they’ll feel when they meet new people, no matter what they look like.

3. Your Personal Space Is Abundant and  Protected

“Physically average” looking people are not something to be shocked by when they go about their normal life.

They can go to the beach, wear a swimsuit, go for a run, eat a salad or a giant plate of chips, and it’s not something that incurs mocking, praise or shame.

They aren’t seen as “teachable moments,” or held up to others as an examples of what you should or shouldn’t do.

Being physically average means I’m almost never singled out for “security purposes.” Even though I spend the majority of my time outside my house pushing a double stroller  in which I could hide all sorts of things, even though in reality it’s stuffed with snacks, wet wipes, and nappies.

The society I live in is filled with a diversity of physical appearance, but I just blend into the background because this world was made for me. This space was designed for me to fit in.

Being seen as “physically average” is just one more piece of privilege in my invisible knapsack.

***

So what can you do?

Start by reading this great article about how you can move past privilege guilt and this awesome article about what it means to check your privilege.

It’s taken me over twenty years to get to a place where I can have someone point out my privilege without my feeling the need to defend myself and prove that I’m a “good person.”

In my mind, if someone cares enough to point out where my privilege is showing, then it means that they think I’m capable of changing my behavior.

We don’t explain to a splinter in our foot that they hurt us. It won’t change – it’s a splinter. But you’re capable, you have the capacity to change your point of view.

My challenge to you is this: The next time you hear or see someone being described as average, take a moment to think about the meaning behind the word average in that context and see what unspoken form of privilege this word average is covering.

Are you looking at some math questions? If so, well, maybe it’s referring to the mean, median, or mode, and if that’s the case, then I can’t help you, but Google can.

But if it’s not, maybe it’s just some bullshit people use so they can generalize people out of the equation as much as possible, and it might be worth considering who exactly that’s ignoring.

I promise that it’ll be worth your time.

Rebecca Leys is a health promoter and a stay at home mum of three precocious girls living in Aotearoa. Her focus is on unpacking privilege as a parent, positive body image, sex, and dismantling rape culture. She loves tattoos, cooking, and playing board games.