An interesting discussion came up in the Rolls Not Trolls community the other day. One of the members posted about a situation where she was expressing to her friend how frustrating it was that stores don’t carry plus sizes and her petite straight-sized friend immediately brought up how she has to hem every pair of pants that she buys because they are too long.
This is something that I hear and see happen a lot Almost anytime a main stream publication has a piece about fat oppression, thin people insist that they deal with size discrimination as well. Or I talk about how body size disqualifies dancers from almost every mainstream gig and someone who is currently dancing in three shows tells me that they understand exactly what I mean because once they didn’t get a show because they only wanted girls between 5’6 and 5’8.
The urge to yell “IT’S NOT THE FUCKING SAME!!” is really strong for me in these situations. Sometimes it’s exactly what I say, sometimes not. I think it’s important to think about what my goals are before I decide how to deal with this. Do I want them to understand/acknowledge that they have privilege that I don’t have, or do I want them to be moved to want to improve the situation that I’m bringing to their attention, or is it something else? I think that this is absolutely a personal decision for each of us and that these are all valid goals.
I think that one of the things that happens here is people’s desire to empathize as a way of sympathizing. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, but I think that there is a societal tendency to look for how we’ve been in a similar situation when someone tells us something bad that they are experience.
I’ve written before about why I don’t often discuss thin privilege There are lots of reasons for that but none of the reasons is that thin privilege doesn’t exist – it absolutely does. If I’m in a situation where I want someone to “get it” – to understand that the world is different for me than them because of my size – it’s typically a close friend. I find that if they give me push back or try to empathize in a way that I feel is minimizing my experience, it works best for me to acknowledge that our society’s obsession with a single stereotype of beauty actually hurts us all, but that in this moment I would appreciate it if they could see how fat people have a very different experience. I think that one of the things that is tricky about privilege is that, when you have it, you just assume that everyone else has the same experience that you do so it can help to point out some examples. Someone might feel that it sucks to “feel fat” but even if that is their experience (and I would not question that it is) those who are actually fat have a very different experience regardless of how we feel about our bodies. I have been in huge malls where not a single piece of clothing would fit me – I ask them to see how that’s not the same as having to hem some pants.
When I am asking people to understand fat oppression/thin privilege, I often request that they consider doing something to make the situation better. For example, if I’m speaking to a group of people I say that it would be amazingly cool if those in the group who find themselves accommodated most of the time – for example, if they are able to go to restaurants, on planes and public transportation and out to theaters and not stress that they won’t be able to find a seat that is comfortable – would start to ask those establishments why everyone doesn’t get that same experience, and start refusing to give their money to places that accommodate them but not their friends.
Still, I often leave the discussion of thin privilege out of it based on my goals and what I have found works for me (of course your mileage may vary.) I’m typically hoping to get someone to choose to try to improve the situation, and I think that their ability to empathize can be really valuable. I’ll bring up fat oppression/thin privilege and if they say “Oh, I understand because I have to hem pants” I can say – “That sucks! I’m short so I might have that problem if I could actually find pants that fit in the first place. How can we get the fashion world to make clothes that work for people of all sizes?”
To be clear, it can still be super frustrating that they don’t fully “get it”, but I’m at least getting the action that I want in the situation and not provoking a defensive response that includes them spending all of their time trying to explain why the fact that they have had bad experiences negates the existence of thin privilege. Of course their defensiveness is not my fault but it becomes my problem if it makes them less likely to become involved in size diversity activism and that’s something that I take into account.
Regardless of how you decide to handle this, I suggest keeping in mind that it’s not you – the world is effed up, that you can explain thin privilege to people but you can’t understand it for them, and it’s not on you if they don’t get it. As always I encourage everyone to find what makes them feel the most empowered (though. from my perspective, hopefully not by doing exactly what they don’t want done to them to someone else) in a seriously effed up society.
The Fit Fatties Across America project is a huge success so far. We’ve walked, shimmied, swum, cycled and moved across the US for a total of over 2,500 miles! And it’s only just March. Help us hit the west coast this week by entering your minutes or miles of movement at www.fitfatties.com while you’re there check out the photo and video galleries (and consider adding your own) and the forum and groups!
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I do size acceptance activism full time. I created a membership program so that people who read the blog and feel they get value out of it and want to support the work I do can become members for ten bucks a month To make that even cooler, I’ve now added a component called “DancesWithFat Deals” which are special deals to my members from size positive merchants. Once you are a member I send out an e-mail once a month with the various deals and how to redeem them – your contact info always stays completely private.