I rarely talk about thin privilege. A couple of days ago I dipped my toe into the thin privilege waters in my post about an article written by a woman who is traditionally thin but feels fat and it kind of reinforced why I don’t.
I was so worried about being accused of invalidating her feelings that I mentioned five separate times that thin women in general, and this woman specifically, who suffer because they feel fat have every right to feel that way and talk about it. I owned the fact that upon my first reading of the piece I projected, inferred and assumed in a way that wasn’t cool. I said specifically that I understand that our culture leaves almost nobody unscathed. I mentioned thin privilege once and all I asked was that people consider the effect of their words on fat people who are subject both to the issues of feeling fat and to institutionalized oppression. I also suggested that it might be appropriate to have some spaces that are weight neutral and free from fat shame, negative body talk, and diet talk.
It seems that some commenters somehow took this to mean that I thought she didn’t have the right to feel how she felt or say what she said and that, by extension I was somehow saying that they didn’t have the right to feel that way or speak about it, or that their feelings weren’t important. I even got comments telling me what I “should” have said or what the “appropriate” way for me to respond would have been (oh, Underpants Rule, why are you so difficult to follow?)
The reason I don’t typically talk about thin privilege is that the philosophy of the diversity work that I’ve been trained to facilitate discourages “calling out” privilege – not because it’s not our right to do so, but because from an outcome-based standpoint “calling out” often leads to a defensive reaction that reinforces the belief that we are trying to challenge, and makes people less likely to do want to do anti-oppression work, or you kickstart a round of the “Oppression Olympics” wherein people spend time arguing about who is oppressed more rather than fighting together against oppression.
So I was planning to just let it go but then I got a comment that said “To some people, if you don’t have the body of a Victoria’s Secret model …you might as well be 400 lbs in their eyes.” and another that said “Discussing “skinny privilege” is just as bad as any fat shaming – it’s skinny shaming.” That’s when I decided it was probably worth it to clarify and take one more stab at it, with the understanding that, while I appreciate it when thin people acknowledge their privilege, I don’t think acknowledging thin privilege is nearly as important as being willing to work for size acceptance, since dismantling the oppression of people of size will dismantle the privilege whether people acknowledge it or not.
First, discussing thin privilege is absolutely not thin shaming. Thin shaming occurs when people say things like “She needs to eat a sandwich”, or “real women have curves.” I think that is precisely as bad as fat shaming and it’s something that I speak out against on a regular basis and I have taken my share of criticism from some facets of the Size Acceptance community for doing so (I even got ejected from a Size Acceptance Facebook Group and told that I should just start a thin acceptance group if that’s how I felt) and have never, and will never, back down from my position.
Discussing thin privilege is being honest about the realities of modern society and culture, which include the fact that even if a thin person feels that they “might as well be 400 pounds,” and I would never argue with their description of their experience, their cultural experience will be very different than that of a person who actually is 400-pounds. To be clear, thin privilege is not something that thin people ask for, it is conferred. Having thin privilege does not mean that women who are thin are not hurt by a cultural stereotype of beauty that is unattainable, or that they don’t have a right to feel or express their feelings about that – they are and they do. The concept of thin privilege is about acknowledging that fat people deal with that, and also deal with institutionalized oppression like:
- Seats in restaurants, planes, movie theaters etc. are often not made to accommodate us and if we point that out we are often subjected to shame and/or additional costs
- We can find a limited supply of clothes in a limited number of styles and a limited number of stores. Often a fat person can be at a large shopping mall and be unable to find a single piece of clothing in their size, let alone find something that fits their personal taste and style
- Courts use our body size as part of determining if we are fit parents.
- We can find articles in the media daily suggesting that we are to blame for everything from global warming to healthcare costs. These are typically completely without evidence, even contrary to the evidence that exist,s and yet they are reported as fact and repeated to us by family, friends, coworkers, doctors and others
- The government has organized public and private interests to wage a war against us because of our size. They are encouraging people to stereotype us based on how we look, assume that we are a drain on society and support our eradication, by force if necessary, to make things “cheaper”.
- When we speak up and say that we aren’t the walking stereotypes they claim we are, we are told that thin people are more competent witnesses to our experiences than we are, and that we have no right to speak up for ourselves.
- People moo at us at the gym, throw things at us from cars, refuse to hire us, fire us without cause, confront us about what they assume our choices are in public places, etc.
- It can be impossible for us to get good medical care because doctors don’t listen to or believe us. I’ve personally been prescribed weight loss for a broken toe, separated shoulder, strep throat and anemia. There are entire forums online dedicated to fat people’s stories of mistreatment by the people who are supposed to be entrusted with our health.
- We are told that the cure for all of this societal stigma, oppression and bullying is to become thin.
- Studies suggest that even if we manage to beat the odds and become thin, we will continue to be subjected to discrimination that women who have always been thin will not.
If you have thin privilege I am fully aware that you didn’t ask for it, and that it doesn’t protect you from a society that is poison when it comes to self-esteem and body image. In the end I am a very outcome-based individual and so, though I definitely appreciate it when people acknowledge their thin privilege, thereby acknowledging the institutional oppression that fat people face (as I try to be aware of and acknowledge my own in other realms), it’s much more important to me that we change the culture that hurts us all, than that thin people agree that they benefit from thin privilege. Oppression of any of us hurts all of us so I’d rather fight oppression than fight about thin privilege.
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