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Skinny Shaming Is Real — & So Is Thin Privilege

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Photographed by Ben Ritter.
Have you ever had to explain feminism to someone who just doesn’t get it? One of those friends or relatives who, for all their good intentions, says things like, “I’m not a feminist. I’m a humanist! I believe in equality for everyone.” From an etymological standpoint, this almost makes sense, but it misses the entire point: By definition, feminism stands for equality for everyone. It aims for that goal by focusing on the rights of women, because our societal framework — our laws, our systems, our cultural standards — simply doesn’t function for women the same way it does for men. In terms of gender, the framework holds male as the norm, and everything else as the other. It’s not that men cannot suffer or even that they’re given special treatment. They’re simply given the treatment we all should receive. That’s why it’s so deeply frustrating and revealing when someone digs in their heels against feminism, or refuses to acknowledge that male privilege even exists. They are wilfully ignoring a prejudice. Why?

Among women, thankfully, I don’t often find myself faced with this question. But there is one issue that seems to arise with an alarming frequency, often met with anger and confusion. And if we claim to care about equality, then we must acknowledge this inequality, too: thin privilege.

What’s your gut reaction to that term? Defensiveness, anger, hope, curiosity? Before stepping further into this subject, I think it’s important to recognise where we’re all coming from. When I hear the term “thin privilege,” my first response is anxiety. I feel anger and interest and hope as well, but first and foremost, I feel nervous when the subject comes up, because I am not a thin person. Illogical as it may sound, naming another group’s privilege feels almost like picking on them. The thing to remember is that privilege isn’t about us as individuals. It’s about the system we all live inside. It’s no one’s fault, yet it is everyone’s responsibility.

“Acknowledging that you have privilege is not saying that your life hasn’t been difficult,” says Melissa Fabello, renowned body-acceptance activist, academic, and managing editor of Everyday Feminism. “It's simply acknowledging which obstacles you have not faced.”

As a thin person working in the realm of body activism, Fabello frequently affirms the obstacles she herself hasn’t faced. For example, “when I walk onto a plane, I don’t have any thoughts about whether or not I'm going to be able to sit in the seat,” she says. Going to the doctor, she doesn’t deal with automatic assumptions about her health. “It's always, ‘Okay, let's treat whatever issue you came in here for.’”

Fabello offers these examples with no caveat or defence. That’s a rare attitude when it comes to any topic about our bodies — particularly women’s bodies. Because, for one thing, thin privilege doesn’t protect her from other harmful experiences and damaging beliefs. We live in a world that scrutinises and judges women’s bodies, period. Furthermore, “our current cultural beauty ideal for women is this weird skinny-but-curvy thing,” she says. The beauty standard has evolved in the past few decades (“in the latter half of the 20th century [it] was very stick-thin,” Fabello notes), but it hasn’t become any more flexible or generous. It used to require visible hip bones, and now it demands curves — but only in the “right places.” By its very nature, a beauty standard is exclusionary, and women of all sizes are vulnerable to it. “That’s an issue of women's bodies being seen as public property. That’s an issue of women's bodies being seen through the lens of the male gaze,” says Fabello. “It is not about size discrimination, which is a separate issue.”

In fact, this new twist in the beauty standard may be feeding the ever-growing elephant in this room: skinny shaming. While it is an entirely different topic, we cannot have a conversation about thin privilege or size bias without contending with skinny shaming. And that’s a problem.

While things like privilege and bias are systemic, shaming happens on an interpersonal level. It may be within your family, your peer group, or even your broader community. It’s simply a different form of harm. “Oppression isn't one, two, five, or one hundred people saying something bad about your body or making you feel bad about your body. That’s not oppression,” says Fabello, “Oppression is something that is woven into society so that it is inescapable.” That doesn’t make body shaming of any kind invalid or harmless — and no one is arguing that. Yet, many thin people still present skinny shaming as a counterpoint in an argument that isn’t happening.

“I would say nine out of 10 times, thin people only complain about or bring up the concept of skinny shaming as a way to derail a conversation about fat shaming,” says Fabello. They’ll offer evidence as if to say that their experience is exactly the same as a fat person’s. “You know, ‘Well, I'm so thin that when I go to the doctor they tell me I just have to gain weight.’ Or, ‘I can't shop in the average clothing store either. I have to buy kid's clothes, because they don’t make clothes in my size.’ They come up with these counter-examples, which then makes it a difficult conversation.”
Photographed by Ingalls Photo.
Of course, anecdotes like this just don’t add up against the basic, big-picture facts: The world does not hold thinness and fatness as equal. “We are all socialised not to want a fat body,” says Fabello. But stating the obvious is a fruitless tactic when faced with someone like this. If you can’t acknowledge these basic truths, “you’re not actually trying to learn or understand. You’re just on the defensive.”

We are all prone to that defensiveness. It’s a knee-jerk response when someone checks our privilege for us (see: #AllLivesMatter). This is why the system hurts us all so deeply: It perverts our empathy into something fearful and selfish and utterly nonsensical. When thin people argue like this, Fabello points out, they’re saying, “‘Well, what about me? I'm also shamed for my body, so therefore thin privilege can’t exist and fat oppression can’t exist because I have this experience.’”

That is why body positivity isn’t just about accepting your own body. It’s about actively acknowledging others’ — particularly those who don’t benefit from your own privilege. Absolutely, it begins with self-acceptance. “We all need body acceptance,” Fabello reaffirms. “Everybody wants to have their own pain acknowledged and everybody should have their own pain acknowledged in whatever appropriate way there is.”

For her, that means being mindful of the room she’s in. “If people are hurt, then I think people need to have that conversation to heal. But I think that it should be had within one privileged group and also with context.” Imagine an able-bodied person walking into a room full of quadriplegics, complaining about her broken arm. Even better, imagine a straight, cis, white woman walking into a room full of queer, trans quadriplegics of colour — and complaining about her broken arm. When in doubt, remember to look for and note all the privileges we cannot see — or which we’ve been conditioned not to see.

It’s not an overt maliciousness, this blind spot in our vision. Shaming is overt. Privilege, like prejudice, is something so old and so ordinary; it’s the mottled lens through which we see everything. It’s our idea of average. “And whenever we have an idea of an ‘average person,’ it's always someone who is the most privileged.” The world is built around this idea of a person, and everyone else is an exception to be accommodated. Some accommodations are more easily made than others; the left-handed kid needs a lefty desk, so the teacher runs around looking for one, apologising to the student because, of course, that’s only fair.

When it comes to something like size, it’s different. “You go to a restaurant and the table is nailed down to the ground,” says Fabello. “There's this assumption that the blank-slate person who things are created for is a certain size.” It’s a bias you might not notice unless you’re pressed right up against it. When you’re sitting comfortably, it takes effort to notice — and even more effort to question.

But really, it’s not that hard. The problem is that we take the word “privilege” so personally, when it’s not so much about you as it is us. Actively acknowledging your own privilege isn’t saying, “I’m the bad guy.” It’s saying the system is bad. It does not invalidate your own pain, but validates the pain of others — which is just as real, though not as recognised. In voicing that injustice, you are not giving up your seat at the table, but demanding a table at which all of us can sit with comfort and be heard.

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