21: Kelsey Miller
creator of the Anti-Diet Project
Kelsey and I spoke about plus size media representation, concern trolls, The Anti-Diet Project, turning 30, the struggle to think of herself as a "real woman," and the constant fear that she's falling behind. Our conversation focuses largely on bodies and food, and by pure coincidence, happens to mark the beginning of NEDA's National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The Mythos masthead would like to communicate our support to those who have suffered or are currently suffering from eating disorders, and hope that our following conversation with Kelsey reinforces that disordered eating is extremely common, frequently invisible, and manifests in all body-sizes, genders, races/ethnicities, class backgrounds, abilities, et al. To get help or find out how you can help others, visit nedawareness.org.
Kelsey Miller graduated from Boston University with a BS in Film & Television. She began her career in the film production industry before transitioning to full-time writing. Soon after joining the staff of Refinery29, she created The Anti-Diet Project, one of the website's most popular franchises. She is currently a Senior Features Writer and lives in Brooklyn.
Elena Mudd is a New York based visual artist, specializing in photography and video.
This interview was conducted over Skype by Sophia Richards on January 9, 2017. Elena Mudd photographed the conversation in Kelsey's Brooklyn apartment.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
KELSEY: When I think of that word, it's so wonderful and poignant and everything is really beautiful and exciting. The stakes are higher when you're talking about girlhood. Everything seems more extreme in the best and worst ways. I really lived inside my imagination, and in many ways that was a good thing. At the same time, I think I was really self-protecting, and ended up building a wall around myself. There was a lot of scary stuff going on when I was younger. I'm sure this is the case for many little girls and little boys, too. It’s how you sort of escape.
I like the person I was when I was a girl. I was a musical theatre-y kid and really loved it unabashedly. I didn't think [that I should feel] embarrassed by that kind of thing at all. At the same time, I was obviously completely hemmed in by crippling insecurity. I had gone to the same school for most of my life, so when you're in that kind of environment for so long, it's really hard to evolve from the role you're cast in at an early age.
It's funny, when you mentioned girlhood, I immediately thought of that book Reviving Ophelia. I was maybe eleven or twelve or something [when I read it.] It was clearly written for like, the mother of an eleven or twelve year old girl, but I think I definitely grew up in a Reviving Ophelia kind of era. And she had a follow-up —I think it she also wrote a book called Promiscuities [by Naomi Wolf]. And I remember reading that, too. I really wanted to be this liberated, advanced, feminist girl, who talked openly about sexuality and things like that, and I really wasn't. I was so ashamed and so embarrassed by myself. There was a tension between wanting to be part of that culture and simultaneously not feeling ready for it.
SOPHIA: As you said, you were really into musical theatre growing up, and then went into film in college and your early career. The entertainment industry is hugely defined by female tropes. How did those affect you?
KELSEY: It's hard to determine if they affected me more because I was so into theatre and film, because how can you possibly measure the impact that those [female tropes and images] have on literally everybody in the world? We're marinating in those things all day. But they certainly did have an impact on me, and they still do. The voices still exist in my head that say a woman who is loved looks like this and behaves like this and speaks like this and has these interests. I had a very clear sense of what a “leading lady” was versus what I was. I was always thinking [about myself] in terms of the roles that I'd like to play, and then there were the roles that I was always chosen for. I went to a theatre high school, and even in class assignments I would get like, the character "big mama," or a female police officer, or somebody's grandmother, or literally a maiden aunt. That kind of thing. Very much a sexless character. It was just a constant reaffirmation of the fact that I was not somebody who was a leading person. [It was less about] whether or not I was a romantic part, but [more that I was] somebody who was not worth being the central character. I have to think that that informed the way that I saw myself in the world, because I certainly didn't see myself as like…a real person.
I still struggle with those kinds of things. This is just an example: I'm getting married later this year and I'm trying to buy a wedding dress. I'm a plus size woman, and because of that I'm used to buying all my clothes online and not having a normal "going shopping" retail experience [in which I can] try anything on. Normal stores just don't do that; they just don't carry clothing that literally fits over my body. And, I mean, I'm closer to average than many plus size women. I'm a size 16/18 and the average American woman is a 14/16. And even if companies make those sizes, they don't carry them in stores. So there's that, but when you're buying a wedding dress, it just seems crazy to buy one without trying it on first, because you literally can't return it. So it just really sucks, because more than anything it just affirms the fact that I am not seen as a real person in this context. People shouldn't be expected to carry clothing in my size or anything close to my size. So I can't try on wedding dresses almost anywhere. And one of the places that I really like and am probably going to end up going with charges an extra $200 just to make a dress for me. And that's crazy. But nobody thinks it's crazy. Even when I mention this to my friends, nobody says "That's fucked up.” That’s nobody's first response; they just kind of nod, like "Well that's just the way it is." It's just totally brought up all of those really hurt, embarrassed, shameful feelings that I maybe haven’t felt so acutely since my theatre days. It really underscores the idea that I'm right to think of myself as not a real person, at least in the context of the rest of the world, because I'm not treated like [a real person] in a lot of ways.
SOPHIA: I had a pretty emotional reaction reading about your adolescent "routine assessments of disgustingness,” and the nights you spent doing crunches on your bedroom floor into oblivion. Those are things that I did in my girlhood, and I know so many other girls continue to do. And in that period of my life, my idea of what a woman should be was so different than it is now, and very...pitifully straightforward. How has your relationship to womanhood changed throughout your journey of body-acceptance?
KELSEY: Yeah, it’s really hard to untangle everything else in my life from the food, exercise, and body stuff, because those things also served as mechanisms [that allowed me] to deal, or rather not deal with other things that were happening in my life. It was a big distraction in many ways, and it created a structure within...as painful as it was, it was comforting when I was thinner or when I was actively losing weight. I would think of myself as a "real person" and a "real woman” [during those periods.] I feel myself wanting to apologize and say that I don't think that way anymore, but I'm a person who lived in the world! I couldn't help but feel more valued and seen and visible and ok being visible when I was thinner. And when I was trying to date, which I never really did until my mid-late-ish twenties, I would only date in conjunction with a diet, basically. I didn't realize this until I gave [dieting] up, but it wasn't just the dating thing that I was sort of hitting the snooze-button on. It was career. It was being social. It was going on trips. I didn't realize just how all-encompassing the reigns that I had put on myself were. That doesn't quite work as a metaphor, but yeah.
KELSEY: It was so much. So my relationship to womanhood was like, when I was thinner I was a woman, and when I wasn't, I was not a woman. I was not a person. I was not a worthy human. I was someone who shouldn't leave the house, basically. And I hid. I really bottomed out with that in my late twenties just before I turned thirty, really. And I think, as I said before, I ran out of the ability to do it anymore. When you hit bottom, you hit bottom, and you know and you're done. And I had finally, for the first time, also gotten into a relationship, and was loved. So I found myself really stuck. I was at an impasse where I had to choose between allowing somebody else to love me, which involves self-acceptance, or continuing in this same pattern in which I've lived my life forever. And it just seemed crazy to choose between self-loathing, dieting, disordered eating, compulsive exercising, and all of that, and just fucking letting somebody love me and like me and want to see my body and touch my body and be near me.
So that was definitely a catalyst, but I was also just so incredibly done. From there I had to reimagine myself in a different way, and accept that there were no two ways about it. I was a woman. I was an adult woman. I was in a real relationship and I also had a real career. I had somehow managed to do those things despite myself and despite my body. And I could no longer think of myself in the terms that I had before, because it wasn't sustainable. I had to accept myself as I was, not just physically, but...in every way. There are so many things I'm always wanting to fix about myself. I always think, "I'd be a better person if I were more mindful, or if I were better at conflict." All those kinds of self-improvement things. And when I hit this turning point, I had to just be like "I guess this is it, because I am, for better or worse, a real person, and a real woman. So the battle now is to accept that, and learn to be ok with that. Just learn to be like, ‘this is me, as is.’” And also recognizing that that [journey] involves tearing down a lot of paradigms for myself, as well. For one, recognizing that all those people that I've held myself up against were possibly not better than me?
KELSEY: Every day is a new opportunity to remind myself that there's no real, better person out there that I should strive to become. Because if I did magically become like, thin, mindful, totally amazing at conflict...
KELSEY: I would still have all those icky feelings that I have, you know what I mean? There would still be struggle. So this right here, today, now, is real. It's as real as it's gonna get.
SOPHIA: In your piece about the Barre Method, you wrote "I've been judgmental about the tall, blonde, skinny girls —the Amys—my whole life, because I assumed they were judging me." With time, how has your relationship to other women both mentally and actively changed after having become dramatically more comfortable with your body and with food?
KELSEY: Even if I don't always win the battle of not comparing myself to others on any given day, [winning it] is always my goal. It's really easy to think that other people have it all together, not only because of our individual insecurities but because we're constantly bombarded with that message from media and cultural standards. So it does take effort to push back against that. So I really try to be more open to that [possibility,] to be empathetic, and to just step out of the compare and despair cycle, because I think it keeps us separate from each other in a big way. I'm really trying to get closer to more women in my life, and I’m trying to be a better, more intimate friend to the ones that I have. I think it's very nourishing but that nourishment takes effort.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about the experience of creating the Anti-Diet Project?
KELSEY: When I decided to quit dieting, disordered eating, compulsive exercising, etc. I knew that there had to be another way [to interact with food/my body.] I had to relearn how to eat, and not just eat, restrict, and diet, as I had done for my entire life. Just eat meals, you know what I mean? I knew that even though most people have some weird stuff with food, that on a base level, humans are not built to be fucked up about food. I had heard about intuitive eating before, but I had brushed right past it on Amazon while I was looking for my next diet book because it didn't make any promises about instant weight-loss. It talked about things like mindful eating and eating for satisfaction and recognizing hunger signals, and I was like...next!
KELSEY: But it stuck in my head. When I hit bottom, I realized that I needed a way out, and [intuitive eating] felt like the right sort of thing for me. It’s really just an approach or a philosophy. And it's diet-deprogramming, basically, which I knew that I was going to have to do. All of this was contingent upon body-acceptance and body-positivity, which wasn't quite as big of a concept in the zeitgeist at the time —this was 2013. But I also knew that I was by no means alone in this. There's something really crazy about food and body-image issues, which is that they make us feel completely isolated and alone, so we act as if we have this deep dark secret that nobody else could possibly know about and it's so shameful, and yet, for the most part, everybody gets it. Even if we don't have the exact same problems or to the exact same degree, everybody seems to get it. I decided to write a column about it in part because, as I was saying, I knew that I wasn't the only one, and I wanted others along for the ride. It felt like I'd been slapped in the face by this amazing realization and I wanted others to have that, too. But I also needed somebody to be accountable to. And I knew that [requiring that dependence] wasn't the “healthy impulse,” and that theoretically we're all supposed to be doing everything for ourselves and not for other people, but I was just like...I'm not there yet!
SOPHIA: You’ve written about points in your life in which you lost dramatic amounts of weight, and now that you’re much more comfortable with being a plus size woman, you still get concern trolls who basically are like “You’re not allowed to be happy because your appearance makes me uncomfortable.” Do you believe that these types of reactions to your body have been gendered? Are we conditioned to feel inappropriately possessive of women’s bodies in particular?
KELSEY: It's hard to avoid the fact that we all —men, women, everybody— talk about women's bodies differently than the way we talk about men's bodies. We talk about women's bodies more, first of all. We assume that women are always trying to “improve” their bodies, and therefore complimenting [women] is commenting on the weight that they lost, the size that they are, or even the clothing that they're wearing. Appearance comments are much more directed at women —from all [parties.] And not just because of that, but in part because of that, we grow up thinking that our worth is appearance-based to a very significant degree. I don't think that men don't deal with criticism, or that they don't have their own set of beauty standards and things like that, because I that’s not true. I just think that those standards are very different, they're much more flexible, and the identity of a man is not as inextricably bound to his appearance in the way that it is for women.
I wish that we would stop commenting on each other's appearances. Not just weight, but generally. If we could learn to cultivate neutral language around anything that has to do with appearance, that would be a great leap forward. Over the holidays, somebody asked me about how to help her friend who was recovering from an eating disorder and struggling with the body-image element of it. This girl asked, during this heightened holiday time, how could she be supportive [of her friend?] How could she let her know that she she looks fine and that everything's ok? And I thought...what if you just didn't say anything about her appearance? What if you didn't affirm the fact that she looks good or bad? As I said, when somebody looks thinner or is appealing to a cultural beauty standard, we think that the polite thing to do is to comment on it. And when they've gained weight, or when they're not wearing makeup or whatever, the polite thing to do is to not say anything. And I thought, what if we just don't say anything at all about the way we look? That would be amazing. If you're confronted with somebody who's struggling with the way they look, I think it’s important to respond to the feeling that person is having, but not to be like, "Don't worry, you look beautiful." Just say, "I'm so sorry that you're feeling this way. It sounds really hard." Responding to the feeling and not commenting on somebody's body or face or hair or whatever fucking clothes they have on. I mean, we all have these habits in our heads. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's a good thing to practice.
KELSEY: What is there not to do? Ugh! The point of [the project] is the fact that 67% of women in the U.S. are a size 14 or higher. They're deemed plus size. And yet they make up less than 2% of the images you see in mainstream media. We're talking about magazines, film and television. So we hired a team to conduct research on our company and on other competitor publications, and we realized that although Refinery29 is ahead of the game, I think 6-8% of images on any given day depicted plus size women? And for a long time it was like...mostly me?
KELSEY: So we may be able to say that we're doing a good job in comparison to others, but that ain't saying too much. A big part of the project was shooting new stock photography. We do our own stock photography, and if you look at the stock photography of plus size women…it’s like a joke. I thought that it would be fairly normal with just a handful of really shitty images of women looking at scales or eating doughnuts, but no. They're all terrible. They're all like, "sad woman sitting alone on a beach," or "woman crying holding the scale to her chest.” Occasionally you'll see a plus size woman in a workout outfit trying to not be a plus size woman. And it was just like…why can’t we have a plus size woman who's going to work? Or walking somewhere not looking like she wants to kill herself? So that's part of what we did. We had this whole licensing deal with Getty so that other people and publications could use the photos we were shooting, which featured plus size women in all different contexts —beauty stories, health and relationship stories, work and money stories. [With public use,] these women would be taken out of the niche and normalized, which is really the goal.
Even doing that was such a massive effort, because photographers don’t often want to shoot plus size women. They have professional consequences for that. People ask, “What will luxury brands think?" And even within the plus size modeling industry, the plus size models are not generally size 14 or higher. There's Tess Holliday and there's Ashley Graham and basically that's the end of the list. So it involves going out on the street, pounding the pavement, people on our photo team trying to recruit people, finding people on social media, and then finding people who are willing to shoot them. When you're doing photo shoots, you also have to call in clothing, and a lot of the brands don't have samples —even plus size samples— that are higher than a 12 or a 14. So it was really expensive and took a lot of effort and calling in a ton of favors, and it really shouldn’t have been this hard.
For the launch week, we wanted to have 67% of our website’s imagery to depict plus size women. Even doing that for a week at that volume took a year and a ton of money, which should be a wakeup call to everybody. No one publication can drive this forward, and no one initiative can drive this forward for good. Other people had done similar things; Glamour did a plus size issue, and Bustle had a plus size initiative. People try, but it has to be a sea-change. People have to be willing to shell out the money and the man-or woman-power into revamping the way that our norm [is portrayed.] Right now it seems like a pat on the back. Like, good job if you put one plus size model in your publication. And we need to get to the point where it's simply not acceptable to not do that —where it would be outrageous to not represent the average American woman in the pages of your magazine. And we're so far from that.
I hope that this doesn't become a wave that crests and then no one cares anymore and it's onto the next issue or trend. Because that statistic, that 67%, that number has shifted a little bit over time, but it's not dramatically different than the percentage of women in that size range fifty years ago. So it's very likely not going to change going forward. Also want to add that, it really should go without saying, but this is not the only diversity issue that needs to change in media. This is just one, and we have a long way to go in the big picture. It has to get to the point where actually representing your audience is mandatory, not to do so is appalling.
SOPHIA: It must be exhausting to constantly talk about food/body issues when you obviously have so much else to say. What other female-specific things have been on your mind?
KELSEY: I really don't feel defined by this personally, though I suppose it would be easy to see that if you're just Googling me. I think about all sorts of things in relation to who I am as a woman and as a person. One of the big things that I'm thinking about is being somebody in my early 30s now, because age is another thing that you kind of have to dance with as you get older, of course. I thought that when you turn 30, everything kind of magically falls into place, and you just forgive everybody, and you know what you want, and you're there, and you're in your prime. And when I turned 30 nothing magically fell into place. So this decade has almost felt a like a second adolescence in that I'm constantly bumping up against reality in a whole new way. Certainly one of those big realities involves your social life changing, people starting to get married and have children.
Also, as I said, I'm getting married. And I suppose there is definitely an identity-shift there that men have to deal with, too. But there's nothing like the bridal industry complex to make you confront your and other people's ideas of what makes a woman. [laughs] On a day-to-day basis I'm confronted with what feels like a foreign, strange, almost cartoonish version of what womanhood is, and I'm just trying to work within that system a little bit.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
KELSEY: I think trying to step out of the imposed sense of competition that’s settled upon women as a community would be of huge value. I don't know what it is, but I sense it constantly on an interpersonal level, and absolutely in a big picture sense —this need to compete, and it's not even clear what we're supposed to be competing for. I constantly feel like I'm falling behind, and I don't know exactly in what race. But I know that others feel this way, as well, and it’s just not real. I think we would enjoy each other and ourselves so much more if we could unshackle ourselves from that.
I don't have the answer for how to do it, but I think part of it has to do with really actively listening to one another. I try to do this even just on a one-on-one level. If some friend is talking about a struggle that she's having or something that's important to her, we just need to let that person be heard, as opposed to jumping in and saying "Oh my god I feel the exact same way." I'm not saying we're all a bunch of assholes, it’s just a habit that I think separates us from one another. I want to feel closer. I want to feel like I'm being generous with other women and I want to feel like they can feel open and vulnerable with me and let down their guards. And I think that the only way to do that is to make it safe for them to do that. That's something that I've been practicing a lot. I’m not always succeeding, but definitely practicing.
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