At least once a week – and much more often straight after I publish an article on thin privilege – I get an e-mail along these lines: “I am a very thin person, and you’re erasing my struggles by claiming that thin privilege exists – my body is also discriminated against.”
Usually, this e-mail will include examples that are being used (as an attempt) to parallel the experiences of fat women.
They might tell me, for instance, that their doctors don’t take their health concerns seriously either. They explain that they understand that fat women are constantly told to just “lose weight” to feel better (whether the issue that brought them to the doctor is the common cold or a fucking shark attack). But, very thin women argue, they are similarly often told to just gain.
They might tell me that, just like fat women need to seek out clothing stores that accommodate their size (while also trying to keep up with relevant fashion trends instead of—you know—muumuus), they can’t shop in straight-sized clothing stores either. They note how often they have to resort to children’s sizing to find clothes that fit them (fewer muumuus, more glitter).
They might tell me that potential partners have told them that “real women have curves” or that sex with very thin women is no fun because there’s “nothing to hold onto.” It’s as if by virtue of being thin, they’ve practically vanished – if not into thin air, then at least out of the realm of “acceptable” womanhood. Similar to how OKCupid and Tinder profiles are plastered with “No Fats” in their bios, very thin women say that they’re also at the margins of the dating pool.
They might tell me that people in their communities look at their bodies with disgust and disdain – or that strangers comment rudely (even violently) about their bodies, too. I’ve read a ridiculous amount of examples of the insults that strangers hurl at thin people. And the pain that folks feel when sharing these examples with me is palpable.
And these examples, they argue, are evidence of their oppression. And therefore – if they, too, are oppressed by virtue of their bodies – then thin privilege cannot exist.
And I understand where these e-mails are coming from.
They’re coming from not just a place of real pain, but a place of real oppression, too. Because yes, women with particularly skinny bodies are oppressed. They’re simply not being oppressed in the way that they’re professing to be.
But oppression is a super complicated topic, when you get down to it. And sometimes, it can hard to parse out which oppression(s) you’re facing at any given moment. It can be even harder to be told that you’re not experiencing oppression when the pain that you feel is so, so real.
And so, when people write about thin privilege, I get why their inboxes flood with the accusation that it’s a made-up concept, that there’s no way that such a privilege can exist. “How is that privilege?” they ask me, after they regale their horrors. “How am I privileged?”
And I’ve come to realize that the issue isn’t that we disagree. It isn’t that we’re not on the same page – or even in the same book. I’ve thought that for a while. But I’ve recently realized that that’s not it at all.
It’s that there’s been a miscommunication, a misunderstanding.
It’s that the intricacies of how oppression works – and doesn’t – haven’t been laid out clearly enough. We haven’t dug far enough into the nuances. We’ve thrown a blanket statement on an experience, and of course people are pushing back.
We were always taught as kids in test-taking preparation that the answer is rarely “always” or “never.” So these women are pushing down my door, screaming that they’re the “sometimes” – that I need to listen to the “sometimes.”
So I’ve been listening. And there are three paths that I think that we accidentally intellectually veer off of when having this discussion. And we need to get the hell back on the road to make this make sense.
So here are the three nuanced conversations that I think we need to have in order to truly make meaning out of how very thin women can hold thin privilege – while still experiencing oppression.
1. Intersectionality Means We Can Be Oppressed and Privileged at the Same Time
Here, I think, is where the bulk of the confusion comes in: Those experiences being explored above? They are examples of oppression.
But they don’t negate thin privilege.
Here’s why: We all exist in constellations of identity. I’m not just one star or another star; I am a combination of stars that create what you see when you look at me. I’m not just the North Star. I’m the Little Dipper.
I’m a woman. But I’m also thin. And queer. And white. And middle class. And educated. I’m cisgender. I’m able-bodied. I’m neuroatypical. And on and on and on. Those are my stars.
Within some of those identities (like being white and cisgender, for example), I hold privilege. In others (like being a woman and queer), I hold marginalization. And if you only look at one star – one that represents either power or oppression – then you’re missing the big picture. When you look at the whole constellation, you see how mixed up this all can get.
And this is called intersectionality – the idea that social identities overlap the way that stars can combine. And as such, they affect one another.
My womanhood, for example, is complicated by my queerness. I don’t experience womanhood the way straight women do, generally speaking. Similarly, my queerness is complicated by my womanhood. I don’t experience my queerness the way queer men do. They work together to create a unique experience, just like all of my stars do.
But oppression and power also complicate one another.
As a white woman, for instance, I hold both. I hold power as white, and I hold oppression as a woman. In this way, I experience the world differently from both white men and women of color. If we wanted to chart our experiences of social power, all other identities notwithstanding, it would look like this: white men, me, women of color.
White men have more social power than I do because they’re white and men. They get the double whammy of power. Women of color have less than I do because they’re women and of color. They get the double whammy of oppression. Me? I get half and half.
That is, if you’re a woman living in this world, you sure as hell are oppressed. And oftentimes, your body is being used as a site of oppression (more on that later). When people make rude comments about your body or your body isn’t easily accommodated in all spaces, that is the result of oppression – patriarchal oppression, or sexism.
But that’s why, when we talk about our experiences of power and oppression, it’s necessary to look at the whole constellation, and not just a single star.
And one of the ways that people can be oppressed is through the thin ideal. But if you’re a thin woman, no matter how many other oppressions you’re experiencing at once in your constellation, you are not oppressed in this way.
2. The Thin Ideal Specifically Upholds Fatphobic Oppression
Let’s get this out of the way, first and foremost: The thin ideal is fucked up.
Generally speaking, we all know that. Even folks who subscribe to diet culture and healthism know that. Our public consciousness has been molded such that we recognize the dangers of the thin ideal and see its effects all around us – even if we can’t help but get sucked up into its promise, too.
And we’re all hurt by the thin ideal – even those of us who are thin!
In fact, that’s how all oppressive systems work.
Similarly, white supremacy still hurts white people. It benefits us more than it does people of color, obviously, but among other negative effects, it erases our connections to our ethnic and cultural heritages by forming one overarching identity – and that’s damaging.
So, yeah. The thin ideal hurts thin people. Because when oppressive systems exist, we’re all screwed to some extent because it creates a scarcity mentality. It’s just that some of us – those of us with power in those particular systems – are less screwed. Because we have more access to resources.
Men are less screwed than gender minorities; white people are less screwed than people of color; thin people are less screwed than fat people.
Now, I can name 69845405443 ways that the thin ideal has damaged my life and my relationship to my body and to food. I will be the first to tell you that the thin ideal sucks. But it’s important to realize that the thin ideal specifically upholds fatphobic oppression.
Oppression can only exist when a power structure does. Sexism can’t exist without patriarchy. Racism can’t exist without white supremacy. Classism can’t exist without capitalism. And fatphobia can’t exist without the thin ideal.
As a single power structure alone, the thin ideal exists specifically to oppress fat people. Us? Thin people? We’re just being forced along for the ride.
But just like all oppressions, the thin ideal works in tandem with other structures. It’s hard to separate them out – hard to notice individual stars within a constellation. But think back to the idea of intersecting experiences of social power: If you have a thin woman (regardless of how thin) and a fat woman, guess who holds more power.
The thin woman.
Now, this isn’t “Oppression Olympics.” This isn’t asking who has it worse and then discounting the very real experiences of those who are supposedly better off. It’s just a conversation about who holds more or less social power.
But when you’re oppressed on the axis of being a woman – and various other factors – I get how bodily discrimination can feel, immediately, like some kind of thin oppression. So here’s why it’s not.
3. Oppression Is Deeper Than Discrimination
I know that very thin women experience stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination based on their bodies. I know this because I’ve heard about 800 examples of it. And because I believe in the existence of subjective truth, I believe them.
And it’s totally, 100% valid to be pissed the fuck off at and downtrodden by a world that doesn’t pay you respect in the body that you live in.
The truth is: No one should stereotype, hold prejudice against, or discriminate against thin bodies. That’s not okay – and it will never be okay. That’s totally fucked up.
But what’s hard to swallow is this: Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination aren’t oppression. Oppression is its own thing.
If you Google “pyramid of oppression,” you’ll see a lot of kick-ass models that explain how experiences in the world build on one another. Here’s one that’s super easy to understand. The closer you get to the tip of the pyramid, the closer to experiencing oppression you are. But stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination? They’re at the base of the pyramid – because they exist only on internal and interpersonal levels.
Oppression, on the other hand, exists on institutional, structural, ideological, and cultural levels. It’s systemic. It’s built into the fabric of our society. It’s inescapable because it’s institutionalized and socialized. It’s everywhere all the time.
Oppression is public transportation being inaccessible to you. Oppression is being paid less or not being hired at all, based on your body. Oppression is immorality and sinfulness – like greed, sloth, and gluttony – being associated with your body. Oppression is the “War on Obesity.” Oppression is the world not offering you access to resources, by declaring “war” on you, by wanting to get rid of you.
And that, essentially, is thin privilege: It’s still having access to opportunity and resources, on a systemic level, even if individuals don’t respect you.
But are you being oppressed when people talk shit about your body, telling you it’s not good enough? Yeah. Oppressed by patriarchy.
Are you being oppressed when people assume that you have an eating disorder, based on your body type? Yeah. Oppressed by ableism and neurotypicality.
Are you being oppressed when people joke that you need to “eat a cheeseburger” because you’ve obviously malnourished? Yeah. By capitalism and healthism.
Are you being oppressed when doctors don’t take your health issues seriously and brush you off? Yeah. By the medical-industrial complex.
Are you being oppressed when you’re “too thin” to fit into standard sizing and have to buy kids’ clothes? Yeah. By patriarchy and capitalism.
The body is a hugely popular site of oppression. Yes, your body is being oppressed – by all of the systems that are oppressing you. But if you are not fat – if you live life in a thin body (yes, even a “too thin” body) – you, simply, are not oppressed by fatphobia.
Because if you ask yourself, “All other details of my life notwithstanding, would I rather be fat,” your answer is going to be no.
Your answer is going to be no partly because you (like all of us) have internalized a fear, hatred, and disgust of fat. And your answer is going to be no because you’re aware, deep down inside, that fat people have it worse than you do.
And that’s thin privilege.
Thin privilege simply means that you reap the benefits of living in a society that doesn’t oppress you based on size. Having (and admitting to having) thin privilege is simply an acknowledgment that you are not oppressed by fatphobia – not that you are not oppressed at all.
Acknowledging your thin privilege is simply saying, “I got 99 problems, but fatphobia ain’t one.”
And I think we would all do well to admit that a little more often.
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a body acceptance activist and sexuality scholar living in Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, tattoos, yin yoga, and Jurassic Park. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.