As a feminist and purveyor of social justice issues, it is important to recognize that I am not an authority or expert on many of the topics I write about. I have many privileges — I’m white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and neurotypical. I was raised by two college-educated parents, in a supportive family environment, practice a sect of Christianity, and have always lived comfortably within the middle class. I have known for a long time that all of these privileges have played a role in my life, and have — sometimes unfairly — given me advantages. I try my best to keep all of that in mind while understanding that other people have not and do not come from the same experiences, and that I often cannot hold others in society to my own standards.
There’s one other privilege that I have, that I didn’t really recognize as a privilege until fairly recently. This may be due to my own ignorance, but the attitude of normalcy given by society to the mistreatment of those who don’t have this privilege is also a probable factor.
I’m talking about thin privilege.
I have always been skinny — I was a short, scrawny kid with knobby knees and bony elbows that grew into a teenager comprised mostly of sharp angles and pants that never fit right. At 16, I hit 5’6″ and was 100 lbs. soaking wet. I remember the distinct horror of putting on my strapless dress for my senior winter formal and watching it fall straight down onto my bedroom floor because I’d had my period when I tried the dress on in the store, and the three lbs. of water weight were enough for me to fluctuate an entire size. In college, people constantly teased me for being skinny, telling me to eat a burger if I had chosen salad that day, or marveling that I was able to eat a whole Chipotle burrito in one sitting. Jokes that I would blow away in a strong wind, or get snapped in half by the weight of my backpack were common, despite the fact that I never found them funny.
I’m sure at least some of you were rolling your eyes during that last paragraph, thinking something along the lines of, “poor little skinny girl, life must be so hard for you,” or something equally as sarcastic. Honestly, you should have been. Being thin in our society is not a difficult way to live. Sure, I occasionally had a concerned guidance counselor gently question me about my eating habits, and I’ll encounter people who think it’s hilarious to insist that I need to eat more, but I also have acquaintances and even complete strangers compliment my figure on a semi-regular basis (which, side note, I find a bit weird and have yet to think of an appropriate response that isn’t an awkward smile and noncommittal humming noise). I’ve never had strangers at grocery stores feel the need to comment on the food in my shopping cart, or been openly laughed at or mocked by strangers in public. I’ve never been avoided or gawked at by retail workers in stores that never carry my size, and no one has ever made it known that they were displeased to be sitting next to me on an airplane or a bus.
My point is, even with whatever handful of negative experiences I’ve encountered, having thin privilege is incredibly advantageous in a society that is so completely and utterly fatphobic.
Body shaming in general is wrong and can be harmful, but I’ve seen a lot of people claiming that skinny-shaming is just as bad as fat-shaming.
Fun fact, it isn’t.
Just like racism towards white people and sexism against men aren’t real things, the difference between someone’s feelings being hurt and actual discrimination, dehumanization, and denial of rights is found in systemic prejudices that are ingrained in our society.
Various studies have found that overweight people face discrimination at work; they’re more likely to be fired or suspended, tend to earn smaller salaries in comparable positions, receive fewer promotions for comparable performance, and are less likely to be hired in the first place.
Another study reported that 54% of doctors believed physicians should have the right to withhold treatment from overweight or obese patients. That’s right, over half of the professionals who have taken an oath to heal think it’s fine to deny healthcare to people who are seeking healthcare.
Virgie Tovar, a nurse who developed a workshop for fat patient care, created a survey for people to anonymously share their fatphobic experiences with healthcare professionals. Many of them are horrifying, and some turned out to be life-threatening.
“At the time, I was a size 8, hovering around 150 pounds at 5’5”. I had recently spent the past year losing 50 pounds. I was also a vegetarian. When I went in for an annual checkup, my insulin, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels were high, which didn’t match my diet and exercise regime (I exercised at least 4 times per week), Instead of looking into the problem further, my doctor simply told me “to stop eating so much meat and work out more,” even though I didn’t eat meat and worked out a great deal! A few years later, one doctor put all of the “clues” together to discover that the reason for my abnormal lab results was Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and an extremely elevated level of DHEA-S in my system. The first doctor simply refused to believe me because (a) I still wasn’t within BMI standards of “health” and (b) I had been fat before.”
“I was told that my runny nose and scratchy throat was due to my being overweight, and could be prevented if I lost weight.”
“Someone asked me repeatedly if I was “sure” that I didn’t have diabetes, despite the fact that 1) they had my medical record open in front of them, which listed the (normal) results of my most recent blood tests, and that 2) I probably eat more healthfully and exercise more than the average person in the US…I just happen to be fat…”
“I had a gastroenterologist who actually yelled at me when I tried repeatedly to tell him ‘no’ on a severe weight loss regime… a couple of weeks later I almost died of sepsis from un-diagnosed appendicitis because he was more concerned with my weight than abdominal pain.”
“After ages of severe pain and issues with my period, I finally broke down and went to a gynecologist. The first one I saw was very clearly uncomfortable with me the minute I walked in the door… She was in such a hurry to get through our visit in fact, that she neglected to take a sample during her exam to biopsy and check for abnormalities… A year later after continued issues I finally got up the courage to seek out another gynecologist and discovered I had Stage 3 Uterine Cancer.”
These injustices stem from conscious and unconscious biases against fat people. Thinness has long been the standard of beauty, but it has somehow evolved into a false gauge of health, wellness, energy, cleanliness, ambition, intelligence, and morality.
This is especially true for overweight women. Studies have shown that girls as young as four are affected by beauty standards and show symptoms of poor body image. Thin women are disproportionately shown as the norm in the media, and if you’ve been anywhere near the Internet, you probably already know that the consensus for the worst, most disgusting thing a woman can be is fat.
I’ve had more trolls try to void my arguments by saying, “whatever, you’re probably just fat and bitter” than I have any other type of comment — positive or negative — combined. As if someone’s weight could in any possible way invalidate their opinions.
The Internet has never been shy about opinions, but the media has to be more careful. Television networks are so against showing fat women, I can only think of five television shows that have prominent female characters that are overweight (Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show, Mike & Molly, The Office, and Parks & Recreation), and of those only one character (Donna Meagle, Parks & Recreation) isn’t constantly the butt of fat jokes.
True, another overweight character from Parks & Recreation, Jerry/Larry/Terry/Gary (depending on the season) Gergich, is constantly the butt of fat jokes, but he also lends himself to one of the most common tropes in television and movies: the fat, dopey guy married to the smoking hot thin woman.
The issue with the “Man with varying features/body/face” + “Woman with slender figure and above-average attractiveness” formula found so often in the media is that we allow variation in the male character body types, facial features, heights, balding patterns, beer bellies, and more — but we still expect the women to be virtually flawless and fit the conventional standards of beauty and thinness.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about diversity and varying body types in the media, but keeping it one-sided for the men and dismissing women’s variations tells society a couple of things:
- Men of all wonderful sizes, shapes, heights, and features should expect to get an unbelievably attractive woman
- In order to be desired by any man, regardless of his body type or looks, a woman must conform to a very small set of acceptable standards
- Women who are sizes or possess features that do not fit these acceptable standards will never get “the hot guy” and it would be silly for them to even try
And yes, these are examples and messages sent to us from fictional mediums, but this has clearly bled into real life because Dad Bod is a thing. The Dad Bod is heralded by the media as the latest trend for the male physique. It’s described as “a nice balance between beer gut and working out…it says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’ It’s not an overweight guy, but it isn’t one with washboard abs, either.” The physique is argued to be a hit with women because it’s non-threatening, comfortable to cuddle up with, and honest in the sense that it probably won’t undergo any drastic transformations within the next 20 years.
I have two main issues with the Dad Bod. First, as someone who literally never lets a pun get away unnoticed, whoever coined the phrase missed an absolutely golden opportunity to call it the Father Figure.
Second, and more importantly, everyone is applauding the Dad Bod as a positive way to appreciate curvy men, and an achievable look for the guy who maybe put on some sympathy weight while his wife was pregnant, and is too busy chasing his kids around to really stick to a workout routine. I don’t draw issue with that specifically, but I do draw issue with that being acceptable for dads, while this is apparently the only acceptable standard for moms:
So what can we do? Like anyone who benefits from a privilege, you can be an ally to those who don’t have that luxury. In this case, being an ally means finding effective ways to help fight fatphobia.
1. Educate Yourself About Health
Modern classifications of “overweight” and “obese” are derived from the Body Mass Index (BMI) Scale.
Except the BMI scale is inaccurate, misleading, and contains a lot of limitations and shortcomings.
Studies by The British Medical Journal have found that “the determination of the categories of normal, overweight, and obese is entirely arbitrary and at odds with the underlying evidence about the association between body mass index and mortality, a fact that destroys the index’s scientific pretensions and diagnostic value.”
While physical activity and nutrition positively affect good health, body weight does not. You cannot tell how much someone exercises or how nutritiously someone eats by their body size. Furthermore, most people (including doctors!) are woefully uneducated about nutrition, to the point that it’s commonplace for medical professionals to promote crash diet books that do nothing but mess up your metabolism and leave you in danger of gaining more weight than you had to begin with.
2. Reassess Your Intentions
So you can’t make assumptions about people. The question remains, though, even if someone were unhealthy, why is it any of your business in the first place?
The media likes to use buzzwords like “epidemic” when they talk about obesity, but just like weight is not an indicator of health, obesity is not in desperate need of a cure; even if it did, fat people still deserve to be treated like human beings.
People who fat-shame typically defend themselves by saying they have good intentions, and they just want to help. They care about healthy lifestyles and the well-being of others.
Think about it for a minute, if you truly wanted to help someone make a healthy lifestyle choice, do you really think that shaming and dehumanizing them will work?
It is someone else’s body and someone else’s health, so it’s really none of your concern and you have no right to shame them. You never get to define the value of another human being.
3. Call Out Concern Trolling
Briefly mentioned above, concern trolling is fat-shaming commentary poorly disguised as good intentions:
- “I’m just concerned about your health!”
- “You would be so pretty if you just lost a few pounds.”
- “Obesity is a huge issue in our community, and I think it’s important to address it.”
- “For your own good!”
- “I don’t hate fat people, but…”
- “I’m with you, but…”
- Actually, pretty much any comment that hinges on a “but…”
These comments are unhelpful, harmful, and just plain rude.
If you hear someone concern trolling, intervene where you can. Throw out some health facts that complicate the picture. Let them know, especially if they’re close to you, that what they’re saying is oppressive and harmful. Ask them why it’s any of their business.
If all else fails, concern troll their concern trolling:
- “I’m just concerned about your manners!”
- “You would be so pretty if you weren’t so narrow-minded.”
- “Rudeness is a huge issue in our community, and I think it’s important to address it.”
- “For literally no one’s good!”
- “I don’t hate fat people, but you clearly do.”
- “I’m not with you.”
- “…but you’re being an asshole.”
4. Understand the Intersections
I’ve been talking about privilege, and privileges and their consequences apply just as much in the fat community as they do anywhere else.
A white cis heterosexual man who is fat has a very different life experience than a fat black trans bisexual woman. Fatness is stigmatized on all bodies, but on certain bodies it adds a greater burden.
Furthermore, people who struggle with eating disorders may feel that the words “thin privilege” are upsetting because it is not a privilege to experience marginalization and ableism from an eating disorder.
It is so important to remember that oppressions are intersectional; privilege in one form does not cancel out oppression in another form, nor does oppression in one form cancel out privilege in another.
How do you think we, as human beings, should treat one another?
Do you really think that arbitrary definitions of health or misconceptions about where our tax dollars go are more important than someone’s humanity?
Do you think your experiences and biases as a privileged person are more important than a marginalized human being’s dignity?
Leave any questions or comments below, and see you next week!