health-fitness-2015-06-friends-donuts-diet-anastasia amour body image thin privilege

Is thin privilege really a thing?

Short answer:

Yes, girlfriend. YES. And we need to talk about it.

Long answer: 

Bear with me folks, because I’m about to bust an analogy out, here:

In the spectrum of body image disorders, trauma, suffering and insecurity… baggage is everywhere. We’ve all got experiences; some of them shared and some of them unique. We’ve collected baggage and some of it we don’t know how to process, some of it we lump onto others and some of it we just leave at the airport because we don’t know what else to do with it.

That metaphorical airport that I refer to? It’s society.

And when too much unclaimed baggage is left there, it piles up. Soon it starts spilling out the doors and onto the tarmac and suddenly, planes can’t take off because there’s luggage and possessions and random junk all over their space. And no one can take off because everyone is being weighed down by the collective baggage of a ridiculously large number of people with issues and insecurities that all need addressing at an individual and now, cultural level.

Let’s zoom in closer to that pile of baggage on the tarmac. It’s piled up, and there are some really heavy bags on top of the pyramid. The pyramid is high, and will take effort to climb. Passengers that want to retrieve their bags from the top of the pyramid need to be lifted by the other passengers so that they can actually reach their baggage and begin to dismantle it.

But some of the other passengers are getting impatient. Their bags are only light, and they’re at the middle of the pyramid. If they try to quickly yank their bags out, the whole pyramid topples over and suddenly there’s shit everywhere. More so than before.

The heavy bags at the top of the pyramid? They’re fat oppression.
And the lighter bags in the middle? They’re thin privilege.

If you’re still following this unnecessarily airport-centric metaphor, congrats!

Now, let me cut the crap: Fatphobia is at the heart of so freakin’ many body image issues (individually and societally). Fatphobia is ultimately created by thin privilege and ironically, thin people are also negatively effected by fatphobia just as much as fat people are (but in different ways). 

There are a lot of folks who become very confused and offended when the topic of thin privilege is brought up, and I get it. They might feel attacked and invalidated, as if the concept of thin privilege implies that because they’re not explicitly fat, their issues don’t count.

Rest assured, that’s not the case at all.

And to pick apart everyone’s body image issues, we first need to deal with the fact that there are different individuals with different needs fighting for the same airtime and as such, we need to prioritise addressing common threads, such as those of fatphobia and thin privilege.

“But why can’t we just talk about things in terms of body image issues? Why do we have to say that certain people aren’t ‘fat enough’ to understand the struggles of larger bodies? If body positivity is all about accepting all bodies and helping all bodies receive self-love, why do we even need to TALK about the size of the body?”

It’s true that NO ONE is immune to body image issues and regardless of body size, it hurts to hate your body. By feeling better about our bodies, we can help to change the culture overall.

… but in saying that, we also can’t have a culture that celebrates all bodies *unless* we start to look at the societal issues around weight discrimination (and this conversation always includes privilege). Here’s the thing: acknowledging privilege doesn’t mean your struggle is less than someone else’s! Instead, it’s about recognising that you personally may not have had experiences that some oppressed groups of people have had.

If you’re a thin or medium sized person, you likely will not have had some of the same struggles that a fat person may have (like being denied insurance because of your weight, for instance).

Again, this doesn’t mean that a fat person’s struggles are better or more important than your struggles – all struggles are important here – but they’re not the same, and it’s okay (and important) to recognise  that. This is what helps us see the bigger picture.

“So how am I meant to feel included and validated when I’m being specifically excluded from certain discussions of body issues because of my size? Isn’t that just like reverse discrimination?”

Our bodies are a political landscape. It’s hard to separate individual injustice and social injustice. And the social oppression impacts thin people just as much as it does fat people… but the problem is that many thin people actually help to perpetuate that culture (sometimes intentionally, often not). Let’s think about the body image issues of a thin person. Or a someone suffering from body dysmorphia. Or someone recovering from an eating disorder but who wasn’t “sick enough” to be counted as “too thin”…

What do these groups have in common? They identify with and fear “fat”, which they identify as a purely negative thing. Fat = bad, thin = good. That’s what they believe.

That’s what a lot of people believe, almost blindly. Hell, that’s what I believed before I was fully invested in body positivity and caring for bodies of all sizes. Fearing fat whilst identifying with it makes it easy for an individual in the midst of an ED/disordered eating/body dysmorphia to keep suffering. People want to identify as fat, and they want fat to be bad. They want it to stay shrouded by stigma and they want to keep feeling attacked. Why? Because the disordered brain feeds back on itself in a feedback loop. And even those who don’t identify with any spectrum of body image disorders but do see themselves as stuck in a diet loop follow the same pattern.

AND if you’re suffering/have suffered from an eating disorder, thin privilege still applies, too.

Because thin privilege means that an eating disorder is not societally considered an eating disorder until you’re so thin that you’re literal skin and bones. Thin privilege is a society being so afraid of body fat that damaging, life altering behaviours and have the potential to KILL are seen as praiseworthy, or “willpower”.

Read this for more.

bikini-bottom-anastasia amour body image thin privilege

 “But what about skinny shaming? Why are we not allowed to fat shame but people are allowed to skinny shame?”

First up, skinny shaming SUCKS, too. I get it. It is never ever ever ever ever eeeeeeeeeveeeeeer okay for any person to body shame another person. Ever.

It will never be okay. And if you’ve ever been skinny shamed, you’ll know how awful it feels. No one should be told that “only dogs want bones” or “real women have curves” or some other bullshit, regurgitated bottom of the barrel Pinterest meme that feeds off insecurity.

When we talk about fat shaming vs. skinny shaming, that’s not to say that one is bad but the other is okay. Neither are acceptable.

Melissa A. Fabello articulates this perfectly (as always):

“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, what? Do I just shut up about my problems, then?”

Remember, you don’t get a medal for being more oppressed than someone else. We don’t need to spend our time trying to prove that we’re more oppressed than others. It takes nothing away from our own suffering to acknowledge someone else’s.

If you feel deeply uncomfortable with acknowledging the oppression of other groups around body image, ask yourself a few questions to guide yourself to the true source of your discomfort:
  • Why do you think it upsets you so much?
  • Have you had experience/negative bias against certain individuals making you feel like your experiences are being invalidated?
  • Do you think it’s possible to validate each individual experience while still maintaining the realities of thin privilege and fatphobia (which are the primary issues that fuel body negativity on individual and social levels)?
  • Do you feel that you’d still suffer from body image insecurity if thin privilege didn’t exist?
  • What is being taken away from you when you acknowledge the suffering of another?
  • Do you apply the same lens to other issues (such as illness) in your life?

Socially, we benefit from talking about our problems. I’m all about sharing the knowledge and experiences that we all accumulate. Hive mind, y’all! But whilst it’s great to talk, we also need to learn how to listen to others. It’s not about putting one of us on a podium so that only one issue is heard. Nor is it about putting us all on the podium at the same time while we all scream at the top of our lungs about our own issue, creating a vacuum of noise that results in no one getting heard.

What we should be aiming for is elevating all of us in a discussion rather than a shouting match. Seeing what we can learn from each other by practicing active listening. Trying to empathise and understand the experiences of other groups (even if we don’t quite understand, don’t feel that their struggles are as important as our own or feel personally triggered by them). We can all learn so damn much from each other if we all just stop trying to piss our names into the snow to prove who has it worse.

“But isn’t that still like saying that I shouldn’t voice my feelings about my own body? What am I meant to say when I feel fat, then? Am I not allowed to feel fat just because other people are fatter and are therefore more heavily discriminated against?”

You’re allowed to feel whatever you need to feel. However, I’m suggesting that we re-label feelings that aren’t actually feelings at all… like ‘fat’.

Allowing ‘fat’ to become part of our emotional repertoire on such an automatic level is incredibly harmful to all of us. And associating ‘fat’ with an emotion is damaging because:

  • Because ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ are adjectives, not emotions. They’re descriptive words about a physical attribute. Saying “I feel fat” is really saying “I feel unattractive/unhappy/dissatisfied”. {via Shape Your Culture}
  • Because they’re also judgements placed on us by society to make women (and men) feel badly about our bodies.
  • Because it’s well documented that fat talk perpetuates body shame and normalises negative body image.
  • Because body shaming and weight stigma are strongly correlated with lower self-esteem and place individuals at a higher risk for disordered eating.
  • Because research also suggests that heavy Facebook usage is increasingly associated with a higher risk of eating disorders, weight concern and anxiety disorders. {via Science Direct’s study}
  • Because over 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat and by middle school, 40-70 percent of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body, with body satisfaction hitting rock bottom between the ages of 12 and 15. And I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t know any 10-15 year olds who don’t spend any time on Facebook. {via NYC Girls Project}

Now, if you’re a thin or medium sized person and you feel bloated or have eaten a large meal, you might colloquially say, “I am fat.” However, if you’re not actually fat by societal and cultural standards, this can reinforce some already problematic standards. For you, as a thin/medium sized person, using that language might have minimal impact… but for fat/fatter people, the impacts can be extensive.

If you find yourself ‘feeling fat’, ask yourself – what is the purpose of using that word? How have you been conditioned to associate ‘fat’ with ‘undesirable’ or ‘unworthy’? Are you using the word in a way that’s derogatory or shame-fuelled? Are you using it as a way of fishing for compliments (e.g. hoping that someone will follow it up with, “No you’re not!”)?

Of course, fat can be subjective. What one person considers tiny another person may see as huge (and this is influenced by personal bias, culture and more). But if you’re using ‘fat’ as an emotion, dig deep and understand what you’re really feeling.

Because as you know, body insecurity can be a living fucking hell. And there’s no way that you’d want expressing your own suffering to make someone else’s worse, right?

Body positivity needs to encompass our language and if adjusting the way that we interact with each other can limit our own suffering as well as someone else’s… well to me, that’s a good thing.

“Hold up… by saying all of this, aren’t you also discriminating against me by referring to me as thin/medium sized? What if I don’t see myself that way? What if I really DO see myself as fat?”

It’s entirely true that nothing can be easily categorised, just as with other forms of discrimination (skin colour, poverty vs. wealth etc). However, we must still recognise our privilege when we have it. And if we *DO* have it, we should be open to being sensitive to the feelings of those who have *LESS* than us.

For some people, no category seems to fit and so they take the best parts of each category. For instance, I identify as straight sized, however I could also count as on the smaller side of some plus sizes. I’m curvy and have fat. I don’t identify as fat, but some consider me fat. I’ve had my body size used against me as a smaller person, as a larger person and now at the size that I am now… but all the while, I’ve benefited from a certain amount of privilege that comes with my race, class and upbringing. I’ve never been denied healthcare or insurance because of my body size. The oppression that I’ve faced has been at a personal and emotional level, not systematic.

Can you relate to this?

Body positivity isn’t about categorising people, but that doesn’t mean that we can entirely avoid using certain loose parameters to give ourselves a framework from which to recognise each other’s suffering. It’s about recognising that a thinner person using ‘fat’ as an insult contributes to systematic oppression, as well as personal oppression.

IF you identify as fat but also acknowledge that you’re a thin/thinner person, this can be helpful or harmful depending on how you go about it (and if you see yourself as fat but are very clearly not in any sense of the word, it may be worth have a wee chat to a therapist about potential body dysmorphia). You’re allowed to identify as fat even if you’re not, but don’t use your presence to diminish the presence of those who are also there and need visibility. Where the oppression of fat people exists, so too does thin privilege.

And neither are beneficial.

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