Let’s talk about thin privilege.
For years, i, as a size 4, 5 foot 3 individual, denied that thin privilege was a thing. After reading the arguments and experiences of people with a higher body mass, i can confirm that being thin/ conforming to society’s idea of what is deemed healthy, does come with a certain degree of privilege.
Overweight people are subjugated. Preferences and averages are based on much smaller frames. Fatphobia is a systematic discrimination against those who are overweight. They are labelled as unhealthy and lazy. Their bodies become objects which we should judge and take offense at. They are dehumanised, seen as nothing more than their weight. Of course, as a result of this subjugation comes a privilege for those with a more ‘ideal’ body type.
Bigger bodies are not represented in the media. You simply cannot flick through a glossy magazine and find an image of a body with a high BMI. This leads to a certain degree of privilege for those women who are represented in the media. You won’t find an image of every body type possible for an underweight woman, but you will find something closer to yourself than you would if you are overweight. As an extension, due to the focus on slimmer bodies, clothes aren’t tailored towards those who are overweight. If you are a larger lady (or gent), you will struggle to find clothes that cater for your shape. Inevitably, this leaves the privileged ‘thin’ people with their pick of the clothes. As a size 4 woman with no discernible curves, i am very aware that clothes weren’t designed to hang well on someone of my shape, but at least i know i won’t struggle to find clothes that fit.
But by emphasising the privilege of thinner people, we are only subjugating larger people further. By focusing on the privilege afforded to women by the subjugation of others, we are ignoring those who are subjugated. By focusing on the privilege that i have because of my small frame, we are ignoring, or deliberately trying not to address, the struggles of plus size people.
With the emphasis placed on the privilege of the thin, we easily forget the disadvantaged experiences of the fat. And by assuming that everyone who is thin is privileged, we so easily disregard the individual experiences of the thin.
It is fair to say that being thin is, to an extent, a privilege. It is unfair to say that everyone who is thin is privileged. This is where my problem with the term lies.
There are many reasons why someone would be thin and would be privileged because of that. Genetics is the most obvious example. If you are naturally thin, despite your lifestyle, then great! But with that, you have to accept that that brings a certain amount of privilege to you.
However, it is harmful to assume that everyone who is thin is privileged. For some, being underweight is indicative of a negative, rather than positive, underlying cause.
Eating disorders are the most obvious example. Although having an eating disorder does not mean you are underweight, and not being underweight does not mean that you don’t have an eating disorder, many sufferers will have a low body mass. This does not make them privileged. Not being judged or perceived as systematically unattractive, not being excluded from most clothes shops and not being completely absent within the media is not enough to make someone going through the agonies of an eating disorder ‘privileged’. Being thin but being unable to function, unable to focus on anything else, unable to want to live does not make you privileged. And this stereotypical view that thin people are privileged is crushing to those with eating disorders. Although the media does not cause anorexia, (many, many individual factors lead to eating disorders), its relation to body image cannot be ignored. By promoting the idea, through the systematic representation of certain body types, that being thin comes with a privilege gives people even more incentive to aspire to an unrealistic and dangerous body weight.
Similarly, if someone is thin due to chronic illness, disability, drug addiction, etc, they are not privileged. The idea that someone is privileged just because clothes that fit are readily available is naive, and undermines the many other important factors in every individual life.
The systematic belief that people who are thin are automatically privileged, also negates the many struggles they have in common with people who are overweight. I have seen many overweight women talking about a similar experience: they have had genuine medical complaints dismissed by medical professionals who instead told them to lose weight. People’s actual medical problems are being ignored due to assumptions being made about their weight. That is awful. But it has happened to me, too.
By blaming a lot of issues on the systematic phobia of fat, we are ignoring and labelling, rather than tackling these issues. When i was in year 10 and became housebound by anxiety, a doctor gave me just five minutes of his time before referring me to eating disorder services. I then had to wait 3 months for an appointment that i knew was inappropriate, and after meeting me, they also knew was inappropriate. Following that, i was offered no further relevant treatment. To an extent, i was denied treatment for anxiety, because it was easier for me to be mislabelled as anorexic due to my weight. And i am sure this can’t just have happened to me. Yes my issues are anecdotal, rather than systematic. But it is through ignoring individual anecdotes that we allow problems to become systematic. At one point, the struggles faced by overweight people were merely ‘anecdotal’.
My problems with the idea of thin privilege are simple:
- By focusing on the privilege given to some because of the subjugation of others, we are, in fact, ignoring the subjugation. Thin privilege is just another way for society to focus on thin, rather than fat, people. Because that is more comfortable to talk about.
- ‘Thin privilege’ is a harmful, blanket term. A more appropriate term would be ‘white, western woman who conforms to current societal beauty standards without them detracting from her quality of life privilege’. But that isn’t as catchy.
On the whole, people who are thin are undeniably privileged in modern society. But to argue that all thin people are fundamentally privileged based on their body weight and nothing else collectively depersonalises all thin people, thus negating their individual experiences. Skinny-shaming exists. It may well only exist because of fat shaming, but nevertheless, it exists. It is harmful to disregard the negative societal consequences someone may face due to being thin just because they are not systematically embedded into society (yet), in the same way they would be for someone who is overweight. By ignoring the struggles of thin people, in the name of thin privilege, we risk them becoming systematic as well.
The point of this piece of writing was not to ignore or diminish the experiences of fat people. My purpose was to bring to light the experiences of thin people. In the society that we live in, are any female body types going to be truly, undeniably privileged? If you take one thing from this, let it be that the concept of thin privilege is purely an attempt to prevent the conversation being about fat people.