Why recognising your thin privilege can reduce your perpetuation of weight based stigma and improve your body image
I live, and have always lived, in a thin and fairly “conventionally attractive” body. However, I have not always recognised this.
Just so we’re clear, when I say “conventionally attractive”, I don’t mean what I think is beautiful. I mean a body that is pretty close to society’s Eurocentric Beauty Standard. We need to recognise that this unfortunately exists, so we can see how we’re trying to perform to it, and how we can dig deep to try and reject it. Society tells us its beauty standard through the bikini models it chooses, news reporters it hires, movie stars it photographs, Pilates instructors it follows and tiktok stars it worships.
Over the last few years, recognising my thin privilege has propelled me into unlearning fatphobia.
It is important to recognise that many of us likely still hold fatphobic beliefs unless we’re already unlearning them – you should feel proud not ashamed if you’re noticing your fatphobia for the purpose of trying to unlearn . I hope my message encourages you to take a similar journey to me and that, as a by-product of learning about thin privilege and unlearning fatphobia, you get a head start in the race to body acceptance.
Run don’t walk. It is a race where everyone wins…except possibly the patriarchy, the $530 billion beauty industry, and the $4.5 trillion wellness economy. I don’t aim to ditch ALL beauty and wellness expenditure – just the stuff that doesn’t serve us, on the basis that we’re buying it because the world tells us we’re not hot enough, thin enough or good enough as we are.
Because there is so much nuance in thin privilege, I’m directing my message to people who share my lived experience of having thin privilege in a conventionally attractive body. I hand on my heart understand if you don’t relate to my message because you feel that I can’t relate to where you’re coming from. I have no lived experience as a person who has:
- thin privilege but feels anything but privilege from that thinness (ie people naturally thinner than what is conventionally attractive or showing visible signs of certain eating disorders);
- experienced life with and without thin privilege;
- thin privilege but who doesn’t live in a conventionally attractive body; or
- thin privilege but whose skin colour, cultural background, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability or other identity markers intersect with how their thinness, or body generally, is perceived. I am a thin white heterosexual cisgender able bodied woman. In our dynamic, I do the listening.
My message is not relevant for people who don’t have thin privilege except to the extent that you may be interested in my allyship. I am grateful to learn from your lived experience and don’t take your emotional labour lightly.
Recommended pre-reading about why Skinny Shaming is not the same as Fat Shaming
If the karma from my uni days hits me now, none of you will read these. I cannot recommend them more and, much like the uni lectures, what I’m about to say makes so much more sense with the pre-reading.
- Skinny Shaming is Not the Same as Fat Phobia by Melissa A. Fabello
- No, Skinny Shaming And Fat Shaming Are Not The Same by Elizabeth Broadbent
- Skinny Shaming Is Not The Same As Fat-Shaming. At All by Amapoundcake
While I hope you read these to assist in your individual learning and our collective understanding, the key take-away from these articles, extracted from Fabello’s piece, is that:
‘Body shaming against any person, for any reason, is wrong. While body shaming absolutely is something that people in thin bodies deal with (and shouldn’t have to), and while the effects of that can be devastating, thin people do not experience weight-based oppression in the same way as fat people. To pretend that these two experiences are equally disadvantaging is flat-out wrong—and harmful. Yes, body shaming in any form is damaging. But no, skinny shaming is not the same as fat shaming.’
About 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have known what thin privilege was. And if somebody had told me I had thin privilege, without explaining it, I would’ve disagreed. I’ve always been good at acknowledging, for example, my white privilege. I’m white. It’s obvious. But despite objectively knowing I was thin, I didn’t feel as if I fit the conventionally attractive idea of thinness.
I therefore wouldn’t have understood how I could have had thin privilege. This is sad because if our own body image concerns prohibit us from recognising our privilege, we can’t see or understand the oppression that comes with not having that privilege.
Despite being naturally thin for my whole life, there were a few years where I was what I call ‘unhealthily healthy’. In more technical terms, my behaviour was moderately disordered and dysmorphic but lacked the severity to consume, or cause significant distress to, my life. In hindsight, I can see how problematic it is that my old thoughts and behaviours towards food, movement and my body continue to be as normalised as they are. Diet Culture, I’m looking at you.
In late 2018, someone was able to hold space for me to realise that while I was outwardly confident, I didn’t have self-confidence or self-love. I also realised I needed professional help to get there. I learnt – and continue to learn – self-love (insert ‘self-acceptance’ here if you find ‘self-love’ nauseating or unattainable) by embracing self-compassion, letting go of my limiting narratives and stepping into my power.
A side effect of this initial shift was that I also grew out of the unhelpful beliefs I held about my body without ever really discussing them. I knew 2016 Georgie and 2021 Georgie were worlds apart, but I’m baffled as I write this realising how gradual the positive shift in my body image really was.
Given that I’ve spent hours most days for the last two years reading and sharing content about thin privilege, diet culture and fatphobia, it’s amazing to me that, not too long before then, I didn’t know what these concepts were. This shows us, somewhat disappointingly, that our lives can be deeply influenced by forces we don’t even notice. It also shows us, quite hopefully, the capacity we have to shift our mindsets if we bring openness and a desire to improve the lived experience that we all have in our bodies.
Unpacking thin privilege
As flagged above, the easiest way to check if you have thin privilege is if you can buy clothes in your size from most stores.
You don’t have to love your body to have thin privilege.
You don’t have to like your body to have thin privilege.
You don’t have to consider yourself to be thin or conventionally attractive to have thin privilege.
I was taught that “privilege is a gift not a guilt” by Kemi Nekvapil, an incredible coach, speaker and writer. I now feel that guilt is unhelpful, indulgent and makes it about the person with the privilege, which does nothing for the people without the privilege who need our support.
Lindley Ashline, a photographer and fat liberation activist, says that thin privilege is ‘being able to get out of your car in a crowded carpark’, ‘having a higher likelihood of being taken seriously in business contexts’, ‘eating in public without stares or comments’ and ‘living in a body that is considered an automatic credential’.
Anti-racist educator, Marie Beecham, tweeted this year that ‘Privilege isn’t the presence of perks and benefits. It’s the absence of obstacles and barriers. That’s a lot harder to notice. If you have a hard time recognizing your privilege, focus on what you don’t have to go through. Let that fuel your empathy and action.’
Ashline employs Beecham’s logic, of encouraging recognition of privilege by focusing on ‘what you don’t have to go through’, by sharing that thin privilege is not having ‘three-year-old children think your body is bad’, ‘your body size used as a shorthand in movies for gluttony/greed/villainy’, ‘your ‘health’ status constantly focused on and scrutinised’ or ‘having an entire culture terrified of looking like you’.
To learn more about the experiences of fatphobia in our society, or ‘what you don’t have to go through’ when you have thin privilege, I recommend watching ‘What does Australia Really Think About Obesity’ on SBS on Demand and listening to episode 72 of the iweigh podcast with Jameela Jamil and Dr Joshua Wolrich.
Ashline also notes that thin privilege is the ability to conflate body image concerns with systemic fat oppression. This goes to my belief that the reason we struggle to recognise our thin privilege, and to therefore be allies for people in bigger bodies, including by unlearning our fatphobia, is because we are stuck in the mud of our own body image concerns.
Why recognising Thin Privilege can be so challenging
I am about to use language in relation to feelings of ‘thinness’ as it is currently used in society. This is despite the fact that ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ are not feelings and are merely neutral descriptors of body shape (similar to short or tall). Over time, these neutral descriptors have become loaded adjectives. I am passionate about moving away from using ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ as feelings but use them here to echo how society currently uses them in the hope that by relating to this language, you are better placed to understand how my message may be relevant to you.
I recently asked my small but engaged Instagram following – who mostly have thin privilege – whether their own weight and body image issues were prohibiting them from getting onboard with unlearning fatphobia. Of the 80 or so people who answered, 93% said ‘yes’.
In the same way that society has attached shame to the word ‘fat’, society has attached glory to the word ‘thin’.
So, to acknowledge our thin privilege means to acknowledge our thinness. But we’re not okay with the idea of our thinness, because we don’t feel the glory that society told us we’d feel with thinness (spoiler alert – the goal posts for what conventionally attractive thinness looks like change every decade, so we never get there anyway).
People therefore struggle to acknowledge thin privilege because to do so would be an acknowledgement of thinness. The thinness that, despite us objectively having, we don’t feel. Because you don’t ‘feel’ thin, you can’t understand how that thinness benefits you as you move through the world. You therefore can’t understand how not having that thinness contributes to possible oppression.
How recognising thin privilege propels us into unlearning fatphobia, reducing the perpetuation of weight based stigma and improving body image
The reason I’m passionate about making people aware of their thin privilege is so that they can be allies for people who don’t have this privilege. What is stopping people from unlearning fatphobia is their inability to accept their own bodies, and therefore other bodies, as they are.
If you can’t accept your body, or your body acceptance is conditional on keeping or getting your body as close to what is conventionally attractive as possible, it will be much harder for you to be able to accept and empower other bodies. It is important here to highlight that ‘body acceptance’ is not the same as ‘body love’.
My 2015 self would have struggled with the concept of thin privilege because my oxygen mask wasn’t on my own mouth in relation to my body image. Because my oxygen mask wasn’t on, in the sense that I couldn’t accept my own body, I didn’t have the capacity to accept other bodies. I couldn’t understand how a body I didn’t like could afford me so much privilege to be able to see what it would mean not to have that privilege.
If this is where you’re at, I see you.
But can you be brave and see how working through fatphobia (which, if you’re a thin person, you do to support people in bigger bodies) has a wonderful side effect of improving your own body acceptance? As you learn to accept all bodies, you learn to accept yourself as you are, and as you learn to accept yourself as you are, you learn to accept all bodies.
In world that tells us we aren’t hot, thin or good enough, it is hard work to begin unlearning these deeply engrained beliefs. Let’s aim for progress not perfection. Any small step we take towards untangling the behaviours and beliefs that are consuming for those with thin privilege – and oppressive for those without it – is a step we take in the race to body acceptance.
And with every step we take in this race, I hope and trust that your body image oxygen mask will find its way to your mouth. And we know that when our oxygen mask is on, we are far better placed to show up for those around us.
What this all matters during Weight Stigma Awareness Week
Body image struggles and thin privilege (wherever we are on the spectrum) are not mutually exclusive experiences. We can, and often do, experience both. Ignoring thin privilege allows weight stigma, the last accepted form of discrimination, to be perpetuated. We know this because when we struggle to see our thin privilege, we struggle to see the weight stigma that comes with not having that privilege.
Learning about the pervasiveness of weight stigma from experts and people with lived experience has, in the words of Beecham, fuelled my empathy and action. Some of my favourite instagram accounts are @alissarumseyrd, @alexlight_ldn, @beautyredefined, @bodyliberationwithlindley, @cyclopticcupcake, @drheatherirobundamd, @drjoshuawolrich, @fatdoctoruk, @fatlip.ash, @fatmarquisele, @haesaustralia, @iamkelsiejepsen, @isabelladavis6, @iweigh, @onehot_fatbabe, @privtoprog, @raffela_mancuso, @roxannegay74, @sydneylbell, @sonyareneetaylor, @saucyewest, @trainhappypodcast, @thenutritiontea, @thebodzilla, @thebirdspapaya and @yrfatfriend.
The more I learn, the more I want to use my privilege as a gift (not a guilt) to help us recognise our thin privilege so that we can be aware of the weight stigma faced by people who don’t have that privilege. Unlearning weight stigma helps us to reduce discrimination and improve the lived experience of people living in all bodies.
As a by-product of this work, we can also improve our relationship with our own bodies. In this race to body acceptance, recognising our thin privilege compels us to take steps to acknowledge and unlearn weight stigma. It is in this context that we can all step into our power.
About the writer
Georgie (she/her) is passionate about exploring our relationship with food, our bodies and ourselves. She believes in dismantling diet culture and fighting fatphobia so that people in all bodies can be empowered. Georgie works as a commercial lawyer in energy and infrastructure and previously worked as a journalist. She loves watching documentaries, running outside, swimming in salt water, reading books, cooking with her family, finding good food with her boyfriend, drinking margaritas with her friends and volunteering with The Hunger Project. For more from Georgie, follow her instagram.