4 Things We’re Not Saying When We Say ‘Thin Privilege’

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

I routinely set my morning alarms for an hour earlier than I actually need to get out of bed if I want to get to wherever I’m going on time.

That way, I can snooze off and on, cuddle with my cats (who always choose to nap around my sleeping position in such a way that traps me – why do they do that?), and traverse around the Internet to see what my smarty-pants activist friends said while I slept.

And one recent morning, I woke up to find a notification on Twitter that seemed banal at first. It was my friend Cathy, tagging me to say, “They link you in this article!” I thought, maybe, that this was cause for celebration.

Until I actually read the tweet.

Which was along the lines of “Skinny-shaming, ‘thin privilege,’ and the deliberate mockery of mental illness.” I felt some type of way about thin privilege being in quotation marks, as if it’s a mythical creature or a phrase that people just made up to be difficult.

And since I’ve written about skinny-shaming, thin privilege (no quotation marks), and mental health, I had the sinking feeling that maybe this wasn’t going to be an article that I approved of.

And, lo and behold, of course it wasn’t.

The basic premise was this: If you believe that thin privilege exists, then you’re unconcerned with how skinny-shaming is tied to public disdain for anorexia, and as such, you don’t care about eating disorders.

And it used my articles – mine! – to make this point. The author linked to my work, as if to say, “See? This bitch doesn’t give a shit about eating disorders.”

Me – who is an eating disorder survivor. Me, whose bulk of her career was built off of doing body acceptance and eating disorder recovery activist work. Me.

Needless to say, I screamed internally. Then externally. And then I realized something.

On approximately a weekly basis, I receive e-mails from all over the world that express similar sentiments: that thin privilege is a crock, that skinny-shaming matters, that these conversations leave out the experiences of people with eating disorders. They go on for paragraphs – and even pages – about how wrong I am, stuffing words in my mouth and then yelling at me for their being there.

And I often have to write back to these e-mails to say, “I never said that.” Because I didn’t.

But it seems that my words are triggering deep-seated emotional pain – the repression of which is suddenly unleashed when folks see the words thin privilege. And that emotional pain is so strong, so real, that it obstructs the lens through which folks read entire articles.

Which means that clearly, there’s some stuff left to unpack here.

So here are the four most common objections that I get to the conversation about thin privilege – the four arguments that are often sold to me by others as my own words, the four interpretations that come from a place of hurt.

And here’s why we’re not saying those things. Like, at all.

1. We’re Not Saying That Thin Privilege Means That Thin Women Don’t Have Struggles

Let’s get this one out of the way first because it seems to be a common objection every single time someone brings up privilege as a social phenomenon in any context: “My life hasn’t been easy!”

Whether the privilege you’ve got is male, white, straight, cis, able-bodied, middle-upper class, a slew of others, or a combination of a bunch, you probably really, really, really hate having it pointed out to you.

And I don’t blame you. To be honest, I don’t like it either.

It’s not fun – especially in a society that so desperately loves a good underdog story – to admit that we may have gotten a head start in life based on identities or positions that we hold.

After all, we’ve worked hard for what we’ve got in life, and it can feel accusatory to have privilege thrown in your face.

But having privilege doesn’t mean that you haven’t struggled, that life isn’t hard sometimes, that you’ve had everything handed to you on a proverbial silver platter.

Privilege is simply a set of social advantages, often that we’re born with, that allow us more access to resources and power, giving us a head start in life. And privilege is complicated by other intersections of identity – because we can be privileged in some ways and marginalized in others.

Privilege just means that the struggles that we have aren’t connected to the identity or experience in question.

That is, my life is hard sometimes. But it’s not hard because I’m thin.

And acknowledging the truth that we are all affected by this constellation of social identity doesn’t mean that we haven’t faced barriers in our lives. It’s simply admitting that there are some obstacles that we have not faced.

So when we say that you have thin privilege, it doesn’t mean that your life has been a piece of cake. Life isn’t particularly easy for anyone – and it’s entirely possible to be stereotyped, held in prejudice, and discriminated against based on your body type.

But because being thin, in and of itself, isn’t an oppression, we’re just noting that your thinness is one way in which life is a little bit easier for you than it is for other people, whose starting place is a bit further back than yours. 

2. We’re Not Saying That Thin Privilege Means You’re Not Allowed to Express Bad Body Image 

“If thin privilege is a thing,” you might think, “then that invalidates the body image struggles that I’ve endured, and it negates the body acceptance journey that I’ve had to undertake. It implies that it must have been easy for me.”

But – trust me – that’s not true.

The truth of the matter is that all people have struggled with their body at one point or another. Even those with positive body image have had off days, because that’s just natural and normal.

Our culture gives us very limited views of what it means to “look” like a woman and to “look” like a man. And it doesn’t really offer gender non-confirming or agender people any rulebook whatsoever.

So it’s no wonder we’re all scrambling to make peace with our vessels.

Shit, I have bad body image days all the time, and I sure as hell share about them – with my friends, all over social media, and (usually crying and exaggerating) to my partner.

Being thin doesn’t absolve me from the social pressures to be more beautiful, according to cultural standards – and it doesn’t absolve you either! There are days when we hate ourselves and want (and deserve) support. And that’s okay.

Where privilege comes in is in recognizing where you have it and where you don’t.

For example, as a woman, I’m marginalized – and as such, society throws a whole lot of bullshit at me in reference to my appearance. But I’m also white – and since white is the standard of beauty, I’m cut some slack there. Women of color are thrown a double whammy of bullshit: Not only are their bodies all wrong, but their skin color is, too.

Similarly, I’m thin – and so I don’t have to deal with the double whammy that fat women do. 

Thin privilege is basically the acknowledgment of that lack of a double whammy.

“But wait,” you might say. “Yeah, okay, I’m thin. But I’m not skinny. I’m not model-thin. So there’s still a pressure on me to be thinner.”

You’re right. I, as a size eight, would be considered plus-size by the modeling world. So I get your argument about feeling like you’re still not thin “enough,” even if you’re comparably, conventionally thin.

But just because you’re not model-thin doesn’t mean you’re not still thin. And that matters – because it doesn’t really matter how thin you are to benefit from thin privilege.

Are you going to struggle with your body? Yeah. You are. Especially if you’re a woman or other gender minority. Just recognize that that struggle is rooted in patriarchy (which I talk about here), and not doubly in the thin ideal.

3. We’re Not Saying That Thin Privilege Means It’s Okay to Be Skinny-Shamed

Let me say this so clearly and unequivocally that no one can ever accuse me of saying the opposite again: It is never, under any circumstance, okay for any person to body-shame another person.

Skinny-shaming is not okay, has never been okay, will never be okay.

If you’ve ever been told that “real women have curves,” that “only dogs want bones,” that you should “eat a cheeseburger,” I’m sorry. Because all of that – and the other examples that come pouring into my inbox – is awful and unacceptable, and you deserve much more love and support in your life.

Also, skinny-shaming can be a little complicated when we apply a cultural, rather than individual, lens to it.

Body-shaming works as a way to keep the cultural elite in power by putting down the attributes associated with those who are seen as “less-than.” That’s why now – at a time when, generally speaking, in our part of the world, we’ve been socialized to believe that food isn’t scarce – we have fat-shaming.

It’s a way to say, “Haha! I have the wealth and power necessary to have access to [whatever it is most people don’t have access to], and you don’t. Oh, and you’re ugly and unlovable on top of it.”

As such, it’s also been used to keep those with less social power – like women, people of color, and trans folk – with less social power. By always pushing marginalized people to chase after a beauty ideal that’s based exactly in the power that they don’t have, you effectively keep those people down.

And right now, in our current sociocultural landscape, the body type that we’re keeping down is those of fat people. I mean, you don’t see the news exalting a War On Thinness,” do you?

When we fat-shame, we’re adding to the dominant paradigm that fat bodies are bad – thereby keeping thin people in power, by allowing us to define what’s normal and preferable, and by giving us more access to resources (think: fashionable clothes and relative comfort on airplanes, for example).

That’s thin privilege.

As for women who are pegged as “too skinny” by society and who, oftentimes, pay that price institutionally as well, I’m creating a more in-depth resource on that soon. Stay tuned. But, in short: You’ve still got thin privilege.

So when we talk about the differences between fat-shaming and skinny-shaming, we’re not saying that one is bad and the other is acceptable. We’re saying that one keeps people oppressed by fatphobic institutions, and the other one doesn’t. Not better or worse. Just different.

And we should stop doing both.

4. We’re Not Saying That Thin Privilege Means It Doesn’t Matter If You Have an Eating Disorder Or Other Illness 

I can’t believe I even have to say this, especially given my personal, academic, and professional experiences, but just to be clear: Believing in the existence of thin privilege does not – under any circumstance – imply that illness, whether physical or mental, doesn’t matter.

In fact, it matters a fucking lot.

It matters that post-The-Beauty-Myth, post-Killing-Us-Softly, our culture awakened to the understanding that our desire for thin female bodies is highly socially constructed and wielded in painful ways by the advertising industry.

It matters because in throwing our middle fingers in the air against the toxic modeling industry standards of thinness, we also said, “Fuck eating disorders!”

And, indeed, fuck eating disorders.

But because patriarchy loves pitting women against one another, what that unfortunately translated to was a derision of bodies that “look” eating disordered. Hence “Ugh, she looks anorexic” being part of our cultural lexicon.

That is to say: Despite thin privilege, thin people (and especially particularly thin women) have been scoffed at for the past couple of decades – and so have people with eating disorders, which we often think of as one in the same. And I totally get how pressing the notion of thin privilege can feel like flippantly ignoring that.

But there are two incredibly important things to note here: first, that eating disorders and body types have next-to-no overlap; secondly, as frustrating as it is, that you can experience thin privilege and neuroatypical marginalization simultaneously.

Eating disorders and thin privilege are actually entirely intertwined – so far so that they’re inseparable. Because fatphobia upholds both.

Cultural hatred of fat (especially in the form of diet culture) allows eating disorders to thrive. And cultural hatred of fat idealizes thinness. But, in reality, there’s no way to “look” like you have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are about food. Hence the name. They’re about our relationships to what we eat and the thoughts and behaviors that we associate with eating.

Any body type can exhibit the symptoms of any eating disorder. There’s no overlap (except for the inclusion of weight-loss criteria in anorexia diagnoses – but even that can be circumvented).

If anything, this actually creates a horrible situation where thin people with eating disorders (particularly anorexia and bulimia) benefit from this association: They’re more likely to be taken seriously and to be given potentially life-saving diagnoses.

And that, in fact, is how it’s possible to be marginalized by disability or neuroatypicality, while also benefitting from thin privilege: Because although you have an eating disorder, which is absolutely atrocious, you’re still more likely to be seen as having an eating disorder in a thin body – which, in turn, can help you.

These ideas – that thin privilege exists and that eating disordered people deserve support and respect – aren’t in opposition. They actually work together to create a whole web of problems.

So when we say that you have thin privilege, we’re not saying that your eating disorder doesn’t matter. We’re saying that they can exist simultaneously – and that one doesn’t negate the other.

(If you think that you or someone you love might have an eating disorder, help is available to you through the National Eating Disorder Association.)

***

Thin privilege is real. And it’s also, understandably, hard to accept. We’ve all hurt – some more than others – and it can be painful or annoying to have someone suggest that your hurt is insignificant, just because some people hurt more.

But I promise that’s not what we’re saying.

We care about you – your health, your happiness. But we also think it’s important for people to recognize the ways in which they benefit in this world, so that we can all work toward eradicating those hierarchies.

When we talk about thin privilege – even when we’re pointing out yours – we’re extending an invitation to join us.

Because recognizing our privileges is the first step in making the world a more just place.

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.