On thin privilege

ETA: Please read the comment policy. I will not approve hateful comments. This includes fat-hating ones. And no, being fat isn’t a choice, and overweight people live the longest.

In the general blogosphere concerned with social justice issues, there’s a lot of discussion about what is privilege, how it manifests, and how it should be approached. There is not a lot of talk, however, about fat politics and fat acceptance, and how that plays out in a society that highly privileges thin people over fatter ones. That is, except for fat acceptance blogs, and the occasional feminist blog with an appreciation for FA (looking at you, Shakes!). When Fillyjonk at Shapely Prose, my favorite FA blog, asked me to write a post about thin privilege, I took up the challenge.

So, Fillyjonk recently asked me to write a guest post about thin privilege.

What’s interesting is that at first, it was really hard for me to know what to say. My first, reflexive thought was that I could just tell my own story! I mean, I’m thin and all. But I quickly shot that down. Talking about my experiences as a thin person, on a FA blog, would be an excellent demonstration of thin privilege, but it wouldn’t accomplish much else. Fat acceptance is fundamentally not ABOUT the thin experience. It’s really not about me, at all. In fact, that’s really what I should be talking about.

But I’m going to take a minute to ward off as much of the anticipated defensiveness as I can right off the bat, even though I hate feeling like I’m placating the WATM-style whining (this time with Thin!). After all, it’s not like the FA community needs a lecture on thin privilege (HEY GUESS WHAT FATTIES I GET IT NOW CAN I HAVE A COOKIEDOUGHNUT): this is really for thin people out there who haven’t really considered their own privilege.

So, do some thin people get shit for being thin? Of course! People’s bodies – especially women’s bodies – are treated like public property all the time. And standing out in any way, especially in a physical way, often just seems to invite additional ridicule and mistreatment. Maybe that’s why some thin people posit that they are the same, the fat experience and the thin experience. Getting teased and bullied for the shape and even the existence of your body, something you fundamentally can’t change, and in many cases (for both the thin and the fat) something you might try to change about yourself in hopeless and self-damaging ways – well, that shit hurts, and it’s a deeply personal, formative experience. So I think that for some thin people, there’s resentment when they hear a fat person complaining, like the fat person is trying to invalidate or one-up their own painful, skinny past. For others, there can be this pull to try to identify with the painful experiences of a fat person: to think you understand, to find a comrade who was also pushed around by the kids on the playground. I admit that I think, at first, the latter is the perspective I came from more often when I would talk with my fat friends.

Both of those reactions are, I think, understandable. But they’re rooted in privilege for one major reason: those experiences were not the same. The similarities I listed above, well, that’s probably about where the commonality ends. (There are other similar, small details, like being sized out of some clothes, but I think that covers most of it.) Sure, the thin kid and the fat kid both got teased/beat up/ridiculed/targeted through school, and that’s horrible. Both probably still get at least occasional public insults as adults. But there is a fundamental difference in the way society as a whole treats, envisions, pictures those two types of bodies. That teasing didn’t happen in the same social context, so it didn’t have the same tone or impact. And if you haven’t lived in a fat body, you simply can’t know what that experience was, or how much worse it was than your own.

Again, don’t get me wrong; bodies in public and especially all women’s bodies face an impossible catch-22. The line between not-thin-enough and too-thin is impossibly narrow (ha!), and a moving target, besides. That size six is wayyyyy too fat to be a model, ew so gross, but OMG, did you see how disgustingly thin those runway models are??? You either have to diet (to finally become either that really hot thin person, or at least just incrementally less-fat and therefore more acceptable), or you’re far too thin. Everybody loses. But there’s a fundamental question of degree here. In social discourse there may be pretty frequent complaints about those women who are too skinny, but it simply does not compare to the scale of fat stigma. (And I think a great deal of that discourse comes from resentment, felt entirely fairly by the vast majority of the population that doesn’t have one of those idealized bodies and has been practically disappeared from the public eye. Blaming that on thin women is, however, misdirected.) When every image of a woman in every magazine, on every tv show, in every movie and billboard and annoying Facebook ad, is not only thin but impossibly-Photoshopped-thin; when half of the reality shows on TV these days seem to be weight-loss contests; when every women’s magazine cover is screaming about diets and weight loss; when the assumed audience for every news article about health issues is universally thin, and doctors are berating and even blatantly neglecting their patients because all they can see is their own fat-hatred – well, there’s simply no comparison.

Example: Last week, I finally got around to getting a physical at my new doctor’s office. I’m not crazy about her, but she was the only doctor in my area accepting new patients when I moved here, and she’s brusque but does the job. It bothered me from the beginning that there are ads for drugs literally papering the office walls, including distorted weight loss statistics on posters advertising weight loss drugs. There is even one of those hanging from the scale (I mean, seriously?? HEY FATTIES DON’T FORGET YOU’RE A FATTY). But as a very thin person, though I hate it, that really doesn’t impact me, and I need a doctor. So at this visit, my first physical there, they measured my waist circumference, I shit you not. The nurse took the measurement and then said, “Good girl!” while she wrote it down on the chart, like I had accomplished something by having thin parents (and deserved a doggie treat for it, no less). And then the doctor, when she looked at my chart, said she was concerned that I am underweight. I said, “Yes, and so is my whole family, and I couldn’t gain weight if I tried,” and she shrugged and said, “Okay!” Based on everything else that goes on in that office, I can pretty much guarantee that if I had been fat (hell, probably even a BMI of 26) I would have been walking out of there 1) with a prescription for WW (there were ads for that, too!), 2) with an admonition to cut out the cough drops, and 3) fighting back tears.

So apparently, if you’re “too thin?” (to live? Clearly not!) – oh well! We know there’s nothing you can do about it (because for some reason, THAT has entered public awareness, but the futility and harmfulness of weight loss programs have not), and at least you aren’t fat (because while my BMI category may have the highest mortality rate, at least the movies say I’m sexy!). And while “Put some meat on your bones!” may make me want to break a window with my bare hands, it doesn’t even compare with repeated, hateful catcalls of “Whale!” or “Cow!”

When FJ asked me to write this post, she mentioned that it might mean more for people to see a post about thin privilege written by a thin person. I don’t think she meant that for the SP community (hi, choir!), but the certainly for the broader, more fatphobic internet-public that might stumble in from Salon. It makes me angry (at the world, not FJ) that because I’m not one of those fat fat fatties, I can bring some cred to this whole FA thing: look, a skinny girl who cares about fat people!! hey, what was this post about, again? Yeah, I have automatic credibility on the subject of fat prejudice, despite never having experienced it firsthand, while actual fat people are just wrong/deluded/lying. THAT makes sense.

So that fucking sucks. But maybe if enough allies write posts like this one, people will just start listening to what fat people are saying about their own lives in the first place.

(Cross-posted at Shapely Prose.)