Let’s talk about thin privilege.
Because based on the daily e-mails I find flooding into my inbox since I first wrote about the topic in 2013, it’s clear that there’s a still a little bit of confusion.
And I get it. Owning privilege is hard.
It’s basically admitting that your mere existence – and comfort within that existence, thanks to the advantages bestowed upon you by the power of society – is contributing to the oppression of another group of people.
And that sucks.
At the end of the day, though, we have to evaluate what we’re weighing: our discomfort versus someone else’s oppression. And if you’re more concerned with the former, then I think we still need to talk.
But in thinking about this, I’ve also realized something: Almost all of the e-mails that I get from people pushing back against the notion of thin privilege have been from thin women.
And at first, I rolled my eyes at it, assuming that these women just weren’t ready to accept their privilege yet. I felt frustrated that they would even bother arguing with me over something I’d already stated my clear, unwavering opinion on.
And then I realized something else: I fucked up.
I fucked up because in my original pieces on the topic, I never concretely addressed the ways in which body hatred in and of itself is a tool of oppression.
I never talked about how, as a thin person myself, I agree that body shaming is hurtful and harmful – that yes, thin women experience body shaming in a way that can affect them deeply, and that yes, body shaming thin women is still a form of oppression.
So I’m asking you for a do-over.
I’m asking if you’ll let me try again to talk about this topic, but in a way that’s less “Let me tell you how to feel” and more “Let’s explore our feelings together – and let’s address how a lot of our hurt feelings are the direct result of oppression.”
Because at the end of the day, it isn’t my goal to piss people off (and definitely not to have my inbox flooded with angry e-mails). Rather, I want us to work through privilege guilt, so that we can be better feminists and better human beings.
And in order to recognize the ways in which oppression shows up by dehumanizing folks, we first need to be honest and recognize the ways in which society humanizes others – in this case, thin people.
So I want you to stick with me for just a little while.
I want you to ask yourself these four questions. I want you to answer them to yourself honestly. And then I want you to ruminate on the thoughts and feelings that they bring up – for a good, long while.
I guess after that, you can e-mail me.
1. Have Your Negative Experiences with Your Body Been the Result of Oppression?
YES. YES. YES.
I’m not even going to let you ruminate on this one and come up with an answer. The answer is YES.
Because if there’s anything that all feminists can agree on, it’s that the patriarchy sucks. And if there’s anything that all feminist body image activists can agree on, it’s that the patriarchy is to blame for our shitty relationships with our bodies – all of us.
And almost all of us have shitty relationships with our bodies.
And the way that the patriarchy has done this is by setting up a system wherein it’s impossible to win.
Just spend some time in the checkout line of your local grocery store and look at the covers of the tabloids there. Simultaneously, they scream “TOO MUCH CELLULITE” and “TOO MANY VISIBLE BONES.”
The overall social lesson for women is that you need to be thin, but not too thin, because you also need to be curvy, but not fat curvy.
If you thought of body types as a spectrum, the social ideal of “perfection” would be a tiny little blip in the middle, toward the thin side, and it’s a space that not many of us occupy.
And by controlling what is “normal,” what is “acceptable,” what is “beautiful,” the patriarchy holds down every single one of us, whether we fit that ideal or not. Because if we do, we live in constant fear of falling from that grace, and if we don’t, then we often spend the bulk of our lives chasing it.
And the pursuit of that blip – our constant striving to be part of that population, and the expectation from all angles that we should be chasing that so-called “perfection” – is exactly how this oppression shows up.
It shows up in the way that we diet. It shows up in our New Years resolutions being workout based, rather than self-care based. It shows up in the money we spend on makeup, hair products, cosmetic surgery, and miracle pills. It shows up in 80% of ten-year-olds having been on diets, and it shows up in over half of teenage girls using unhealthy weight control behaviors, like skipping meals, vomiting, and using laxatives.
This is exactly why I’m a body image activist – because this shit affects us all.
And when people body shame you, regardless of your size, what they’re doing is reminding you of your “place” – and they’re telling you to get back in it.
When people body shame you, regardless of your size, and especially if you’re a woman, what they’re doing is letting you know that your ability to conform to conventional beauty standards is more important than anything else about you.
When people body shame you, regardless of your size, they’re using it as what Naomi Wolf calls a “potent political sedative.”
Because, as she writes in The Beauty Myth, “A culture fixated on female [adherence to ideals of attractiveness] is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience… [A] quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
When it comes to body shaming and policing, they are always using it to hurt you. They are always using it to harm you. And they are always using it to oppress you.
But oppression comes in different forms – and body size oppression is a thing.
And that’s kind of where the crux of the thin privilege issue comes in.
So let’s explore that.
2. Are the Negative Experiences You’ve Had Tied to Body Size Oppression?
Body shaming is a problem always because it is an oppressive force always, but we have to remember the importance of intersectionality when we have this conversation.
We have to think about the ways in which we hold both privileged and marginalized identities simultaneously – and how those interact.
For example, as a queer woman, I am doubly oppressed. As a white, cis, able-bodied person, though, I’m not. So while I absolutely experience body shaming and body hatred in regards to my oppressed identities, I definitely do not experience that oppression based on my whiteness, my cisness, or my able-bodiedness.
Similarly, I don’t experience bodily oppression on the axis of my thin privilege.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience body shame in some other parts in my life. It just means that in some arenas, I don’t.
That is, if you think that because you’re thin and have felt body shame, then it unravels the entire premise of thin privilege, then I have to let you know: It doesn’t work that way.
Because think of this: When your negative experiences are structural – when they negatively affect your access to fair treatment and the fulfillment of your basic rights and needs – then they’re examples of oppression. That’s why we can argue that all women who are body shamed are being oppressed – because the oppression of women as a group is structural.
But the oppression of thin people as a group as a structural issue? Not so much.
If you’re a thin person being oppressed, it’s because of another marginalized identity that you hold (like being a woman), not because of your thinness in and of itself.
And you can simultaneously be oppressed (as a woman) and be privileged (in your thinness). Even if you’re being targeted for your thinness.
Because at the end of the day, the world still caters to thin bodies. You still experience privileges based on your thinness.
And that is what matters. That’s why it isn’t structural.
But that’s complicated, right? Like, how are we supposed to tell the difference between structural oppression and individual discrimination? And if it all hurts in the end, then who really cares what the difference is?
I’m glad you asked.
And if you don’t mind, I’m going to answer your question with a question.
3. What Is Your Understanding of Privilege?
There’s a common misconception, I think, that a lot of people hold around the idea of privilege – and that’s that “having privilege” translates to “having never been hurt.”
And frequently, people feel like if they’ve been body shamed, if their thin bodies have been the targets of scorn, then how on Earth can they possibly have privilege in relation to their thinness?
The argument seems to be “But I’m hurting. And doesn’t that count for something?”
And yes. By all means, it does.
And it doesn’t erase your privilege.
Because having privilege simply means that – literally everything else notwithstanding – in this one area of your life, you luck out because you fall in society’s good graces.
Having privilege simply means being part of society’s default.
Men, for example, are the default audience for movies (and basically all other media, if we’re being honest). You know how we know this? Because movies that are made for women are deemed “chick flicks.”
Whiteness is the default understanding of professionalism – which is why anything from black hairstyles to ethnic dress can be banned from the workplace.
Heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation and identity, which explains why you can—ya know—get married and order pizza.
Thinness is the default body type by virtue of airplane seats and desk chairs being made for your body to fit in; clothing in your size being available from most retailers; and physicians considering your holistic self, rather than your body fat, when diagnosing you.
When you’re thin, the world is a little kinder to you by virtue of not being fat, even if individual people aren’t.
That’s all admitting to privilege is. It’s saying, “Yeah, okay, things can be pretty shitty for me sometimes, but they could definitely be worse.”
Which brings me to the ultimate question:
4. Would You Be Happier (Or Equally Content) in This Society If You Were Fat?
I will wait right here – while you awkwardly, uncomfortably sit with this question – until you have an honest response.
If everything else in your life – yes, including your health, diet, fitness, and life span – would remain exactly the same, would you rather be fat?
Because I’m going to guess that your genuine answer is a resounding no, considering at least one poll found that over half of people would rather be dead than be fat.
So then the question is: Why?
What are the differences between existing in this world as a fat person and existing in this world in your current body?
For starters, here are some newfound struggles that you might come across if you existed in a fat body:
- You’d have more trouble finding potential mates on dating sites.
- Google’s autocomplete feature would tell you that you deserve to be laughed at, bullied, and die.
- People would publicly mock you.
- The media would decontextualize your existence and reduce you to your fat.
- And should you decide to stand up to this oppression and try to help others understand why you deserve basic respect and humanity, people would threaten you with rape and death.
Well, that sounds pretty shitty, yeah?
But besides all of that, the fact is that if you had a visceral reaction to the question – if imagining yourself as fat makes you feel in any way, shape, or form disgusted, unhappy, or otherwise offended – then you’ve already proved thin privilege. Because you’ve shown your implicit weight bias and that you’ve internalized fat oppression. (Don’t believe me? Take this test to double check.)
Because similar to how we’ve been brought into a world that hates women, queer and trans folks, and people of color, we’ve been brought into a world that hates fat people.
And so even if we feel like we’d still be internally happy with ourselves regardless of how our body looks, we’ve got to admit that the world would not treat us as well.
And that’s thin privilege.
Coming to terms with our privilege can be hard, especially if we face pain in aspects of our lives that feel related to it.
But if we want to eradicate fat oppression – which, as feminists, we should, since we should be working to dismantle all oppression – then we have to sit with it.
If you can recognize the ways in which this world is unkind to fat people, then that means that you can recognize fat oppression.
And if you can recognize fat oppression, then you can start to understand the opposing power structure that upholds it: thin privilege.
And it’s only once you identify it that you can start working against it.
And we need to be.
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube and Tumblr. 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.
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