We Need to Talk about Thin Privilege

The other day, I stumbled into a volatile conversation on Twitter. I know: BIG SHOCK, right? I should have seen it coming. Well, maybe. But I didn’t. What happened was this: A friend of mine questioned whether thin privilege exists. Without knowing the context or the incident that had provoked the question (my bad, I own this), I assured her it did. Then someone I don’t know–I presume my friend does–came into the conversation to tell me my examples were bullshit. It got a bit harsh. I got upset at having my experience disregarded and disengaged.

Later, I had a private conversation with my friend in which she told me what bothers her about the concept. She had some good and valid points. I understand where she’s coming from, as much as I can. But I can’t agree with her that thin privilege doesn’t exist, or that it’s inordinately divisive to talk about it when women should be supporting each other. Unfortunately, those are things people with privilege always tend to say to avoid confronting their privilege.

For those new to the concept, “privilege” in feminist and social justice circles is the accumulated unearned advantages that a person might enjoy due to race, class, caste, or membership in any other arbitrarily elevated social group, e.g. particular body size or education level.  It’s not a new concept, but it came more into the public consciousness with Peggy McIntosh’s 1990 essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Privilege might be as simple and seemingly inane a thing as a white person being able to buy “flesh” colored Band-Aids that match their skin tone, or it might be as significant and difficult to address as the lack of woman and PoC leads in Hollywood movies. It’s insidious and hard to confront, because rather than obviously elevating a class or population ABOVE another, it adjusts the default value to match that of the privileged. To those in a privileged class, the arbitrary elevation becomes normal, so there’s no need to question it. However, it sends a message to those outside the privileged class that they are NOT normal, and therefore have less worth.

Of course, as with any concept or theory, there are instances which contradict it. My husband and I, both white, have both been randomly stopped by police and required to show ID when walking in suburbs where we didn’t live–a thing that doesn’t commonly happen to white people. There are wealthy, educated People of Color, and poor, uneducated white folks. Some people try to use these instances to prove that privilege doesn’t exist. Really, they happen because of another thing called “Intersectionality.” Privilege runs along a huge number–maybe an infinite number–of different axes, and a person may have privilege on one or more while not having privilege on various others. For example, a person may be white, male, and Christian (privilege) and also gay, poor, and disabled (not privilege). Discussions of privilege need to take into account the intersections and their ramifications if they’re to do any good.

In working towards equality, the main idea is to include marginalized populations in the default, i.e., to redefine “normal.” This requires a certain amount of tearing down social structures which support unearned privilege, mainly through education and activism. People in privileged populations can find this difficult for a number of reasons. Confronting privilege can have the effect of taking you out of the center of your own world, which is something most people are reluctant to do. It’s difficult to swallow the truth that a reality you have always taken for granted actively hurts others. We all want to be good people, and confronting privilege makes you question that. It’s tiring and frustrating always to question yourself when you just want to wear a certain hairstyle because you like it, without thinking about cultural appropriation. As well, there is often backlash against the privileged class. For example, one popular meme, “Real women have curves,” came out of frustration at a particular body type being presented as valuable while others were devalued. But it elevates women with curves at the expense of those without. Any of these things can contribute to a person denying the existence of privilege. When various axes intersect, which is almost always, denial can easily become entrenched. An annoying thing about privilege is that the lack of it is generally more keenly felt than its presence.

Thin privilege addresses the tendency of (especially Western) society to set the default value for a “normal” body rather smaller than that a significant segment of the population inhabits. You can find some examples of how this plays out here. For examples of backlash against the concept (content warning: Fat Shaming) look here.

Since my body has been on the large side of average most of my life, the existence of thin privilege seems like a no-brainer to me. Some of my earliest memories are of being bullied for being fat. In the last few years, a medication-related weight gain has made me bigger than ever before, and it’s rubbed my face in the small definition of “normal” more than ever before. When I was of smaller proportions than I am now, I fit in our lawn chairs. Now the arms of those same chairs press against my butt. I used to climb our household ladder to get to things higher than I can reach. But that ladder is rated at 200 lbs, and now I’m not sure it’s safe. I used to enjoy taking a bath from time to time. Now I’m almost as wide as the tub.

The tub came with our house, but we bought those other things. It never occurred to me to sit in the chairs or question the ladder’s safety rating before buying them, because why would I? Even as a large woman, I fit the “normal” parameters. I never anticipated a 60-lb weight gain, never thought something beyond my control would thrust me outside those parameters. But it did. I’ve a hard time because of my weight all my life. How much harder is it, every day, for people whose bodies never fit into the “normal” range at all? Fat people hear all the time that we have no right to complain, because we “just” have to control ourselves to conform. Leaving aside the whole question of why the hell should we be required to conform in the first place, the truth is, it’s not so simple. Any number of factors can contribute to being fat, and losing weight is not, as many would have it, merely a matter of “stepping away from the cupcakes for a change.”

You know what? I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. If you want to learn more about Size Acceptance as a civil rights issue and the reality of body size and health, please go read some articles here. I’ll wait for you.

Right. Back at it.

It’s an unfortunate truth that some thin people have similar experiences to fat people in several arenas. I know thin people whose doctors focus on their body size to the exclusion of every other issue, and thin people who have been bullied and called names, and thin people whose food choices are constantly remarked upon, and thin people who can’t walk into a department store and find clothes on the rack to fit them. I know thin people who have suffered all these things and more. I’ve been guilty of perpetuating some nastiness toward thin people, myself; mea culpa. The first time I heard my dance teacher say, “Nobody wants a bone but a dog, and he buries it,” I was delighted. I found it empowering. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that attitude is just as hurtful toward thin people as “Nobody will ever love a fat cow like you” is to people like me.

All those things are real things that cause pain. It’s never okay to shame someone about their body, no matter what it looks like. But the fact that it happens doesn’t negate the existence of thin privilege. Nor does a statistic that I see bandied about, “69% of the population is obese or overweight.” I’m sorry to break it to you, but a majority population can still be marginalized. Roughly 52% of the population is female, and male privilege still exists, too.

I think a lot of the situations in which fat and thin experience is similar, especially for women, can be attributed to the intersection of body size and sexism. Women are taught from an early age that our value lies in our sexual attraction, and being sexually attractive means fitting into an extremely narrow range or body types: not too fat, not too thin, neither too brawny nor too much lacking in muscle tone. To make matters worse, standards of attractiveness for women are changing all the time. In the 50s, we had Marilyn Monroe. In the 90s, we had Kate Moss, and now we have Kim Kardashian. The impossibility of perfection is enough to give any woman body issues, and it does. Women who are naturally very thin fall outside the narrow range of acceptable body size the same way women who are fat do. But I don’t notice anyone talking about the “Slenderness Epidemic.”

Another thing people use to dismiss thin privilege as a reality is the existence of eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa.  According to this school of thought, since people with eating disorders have troubled relationships with their bodies and endure similar meal- and body-policing to fat people, thin privilege doesn’t exist and saying that it does is “disgusting.”

This is the hill upon which my conversation the other day died, by the way. I tried to explain my point of view about this, having had an eating disorder which kept me mostly hospitalized for three years and affects my life to this day. I got called a hypocrite. That’s when I made my exit, muted the stranger who had inserted herself into my mentions, and had a good cry.

I haven’t written a lot on this blog about my struggles with anorexia, just a word here and there. I don’t really want to relive that time now. But I think in this instance I need to prove my street cred. In one form or another, it dominated my life for ten years, from the time I was fourteen until the time I was twenty-four. It’s a terrible thing to go through. Maybe it starts as a way of controlling certain aspects of life, but in the end, it controls you. I’ve read that anorexia and bulimia have some things in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or maybe come from the same place. I think that’s true. It became much less about weight loss and body image for me than it was about the ritualistic behaviors necessary to preserving my feeling of control. Many of those behaviors started as weight loss facilitators–excessive exercise, restricted diet, rules about how and when and what I was allowed to eat. I had a page-long list of things I had to do every day, without fail. If I didn’t do them all, I was garbage. Later, when I became bulimic rather than anorexic, I had fewer rituals to fulfill, but bingeing and purging were both compulsive. Eating a single cookie rather than an entire package at a sitting was literally impossible; trying to do so filled me with indescribable fear and horror. I had to follow the whole process to the bitter end in order to get any relief.

I saw absolute control of my eating as a way to be successful when success in other areas seemed beyond me. This thought actually crossed my mind when a school mate came back to class after a hospitalization: “I bet I could do anorexia even better than her.” In a real way, I decided to be anorexic. I don’t know if others experience this or not; in the late 70s and early 80s, when my eating disorder was at its peak, they had just come into the public consciousness and weren’t at all common. I was the only person on my psych ward being treated for an eating disorder. I’m not sure special hospitals for eating disorders even existed.

And no, having an eating disorder is not a privileged existence. I experienced some thin privilege in the early stages. I could buy fashionable clothes, for example. I got a pair of riding boots I loved. I’d never been able to wear tall boots before, because the maximum standard calf circumference for women’s boots is fifteen to sixteen inches, and my calves were too big, even when I was at a “normal” weight for my height. People stopped making barfing noises when I passed them in the halls (later, they whispered, but that’s something else). Someone considered me beautiful for the first time. I had a boyfriend. For a while.

Once, when I was in college, a high school friend and I were at the dorm store. I was in my bulimic period then, and weighed around 145 lbs. My friend had one of my senior yearbook pictures in her wallet, taken when I was under 100 lbs. The clerk at the store saw it and said, “She’s gorgeous! Who is she?” While I was standing right there.

Anyway. Having an eating disorder is not a privileged existence. You lose all right to privacy. Everything you do around food is examined and questioned. Your freedom of movement is restricted. Your integrity is called into daily question. Doctors looked at nothing about me except my eating patterns. They told me constantly that my lived experience was meaningless. They threatened me with tube feeding when I didn’t meet their expectations. When I didn’t gain weight according to schedule, they accused me of purging in secret, long before I had any notion of doing so. When I denied that I did so, they accused me of lying. They did not see me as a person, but as a collection of symptoms, and when my symptoms didn’t fit the model they assumed I was untruthful, not that the symptoms didn’t apply.

I was excessively thin, and I was not privileged. And yet, I still believe in thin privilege. The perspective of years not only makes this possible, it insists that I do.

There are a couple reasons for this. The first goes back to intersectionality. The thinness of eating disorders is the bodily manifestation of a mental illness. Having a mental illness diminishes privilege, and having a severe, life-threatening mental illness diminishes it exponentially. The lack of privilege that comes with an eating disorder doesn’t fall along the body size axis; it falls along the ability/disability axis. When I was excessively thin, strangers unaware of my illness still admired me, my “willpower,” my visible collarbones, my adherence to an exercise regimen. I fit in the bathtub and in chairs with arms. I could have climbed that ladder rated at 200 lbs, had I been strong enough to climb. No, I couldn’t buy clothes that fit, not until I gained weight. But that was because I was sick.

The other major reason I believe in thin privilege despite having had an eating disorder is this: Eating disorders are the result of thin privilege in the much same way that violence toward women is the result of male privilege. Much of men’s socialization revolves around gaining and maintaining their privilege. Some men believe they have every right to subject women who threaten that privilege to harassment, beatings, rape, and even death. You can see the evidence of this on any men’s rights forum, if you can stomach it. In the same way, much of women’s socialization centers on attaining and maintaining an idealized form. Models of a specific size–thin, and these days with a fair amount of muscle tone–are on the cover of almost every magazine and feature in almost every television advertisement. Women’s magazines are full of diet plans and ways to “get your body back” after having children. Ignoring the message that thin is the appropriate way to present is all but impossible. So it’s little wonder that an increasing number of women take the pursuit of thinness to the extreme. Of course, there’s a great deal more to most eating disorders than trying to achieve thinness, and most people don’t develop them any more than most men, in these times, are violent toward women. But obsession with body size is generally how they start, and preoccupation with being thin is the most notorious symptom.

Thin privilege is real. It hurts everyone, and, like many forms of privilege taken to extreme, it can kill. That’s vastly more important to me than the idea that focusing on it is divisive. No one likes to confront privilege, but until people stop ignoring and dismissing it, nothing will change. Personally, I’d rather confront my own privilege than practice endless damage control.

 

 

 

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