We Need to Start Talking About "Thin Privilege"

·11 min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful and healthy.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Having privilege does not mean that everything is dandy in your life or that things are always easy for you. What having privilege does mean is simply that you may have traits (perhaps that you were born with or that come naturally) that give you explicit and implicit advantages in society — some of the the biggies in this country are being white, male, straight, or able-bodied. Another big one? Thin privilege.

What exactly is "thin privilege"?

Thin privilege represents all the social, financial and practical benefits a person gets because they are thin or in a relatively smaller body, according to experts. Like all forms of privilege, the person who has it may not realize they have any advantage, because it's simply normal for them to, say, not have to think about whether they can fit between tables in a tiny bistro, whether their size clothing will be readily available, or whether they can eat in public without being stared at. Public spaces and furniture — chairs, benches, tables, bus and theatre seats — are designed with smaller people in mind, and we wrongly judge each other by body size and shape as if it were a measure of a person’s moral success or failure.

This is why we can't talk about thin privilege without a talking about fatphobia. For years, leaders in the fat acceptance and body liberation movements like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) have been calling attention to the fact that people in larger bodies are harshly marginalized in our communities. Studies have shown that those considered “obese” are bullied, discriminated against in the job market, and receive lower quality medical care. Meanwhile, fat people in film and TV are often portrayed as rude, aggressive, and unpopular, instilling negative stereotypes in our psyches. "Being fat is seen as an expression of being dysfunctional or having an irresponsible lifestyle,” says Jürgen Martschukat, Ph.D., a professor of North American History at the University of Erfurt and author of The Age of Fitness.

The bogus corollary to fat people being assumed to have all sorts of negative traits is, of course, that thin people are examples of living life righteously, virtuously and reaping the rewards from having done everything right. The problem is, these are just assumptions we make based on our biases. There's a load of older research that shows that even children perceive their thin peers as kinder, more clever and more friendly. One recent study found that a simulated jury held thin plaintiffs less responsible for accidents than fat plaintiffs.

People in smaller bodies don't have to deal with any of this. As Christy Harrison, RDN, MPH, author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Your Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating writes, "The term 'thin privilege' is meant to highlight this systemic disparity, and to call out the fact that dignity and respect and equitable treatment shouldn’t be privileges reserved for smaller-bodied folks at all. They should be universal rights afforded to everyone, no matter their size."

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Who has thin privilege?

If you are perceived to be of “normal” weight or below, as determined by (relatively arbitrary) BMI cutoffs, there are certain harms in society that you don't have to endure just because of your body size, and certain advantages you will receive and possibly not even notice. This is “thin privilege.”

“Thin privilege is being able to go through life without having to think twice about the ways that your body [size] is interacting with others and not be instantly judged [negatively] on what your body looks like,” says Natalie Sanders, a Health at Every Size informed IBBFA-certified Barre instructor. As for how that actually plays out, Kim Gould, LMFT, a therapist, certified personal trainer and owner of Autonomy Movement, says, "I wouldn't call myself thin, but because I can walk into a store and find my size or order online and trust that it will probably fit, I have thin privilege."

Sanders says, for example, people tend to see a person with flat abs and automatically think they are “disciplined” — or as a person who takes care of themselves. Positive judgements like these, true or not, can make it easier for a person to get a job, get more pay, make friends, network, date, and so on. (You can guess what being seen as “lazy, “weak-willed,” or “careless" for having a belly gets you.)

Is thin privilege the same for everyone?

Having privilege in one area does not mean that you don't belong to other, less privileged groups. Thin privilege — like other types of privilege — is intersectional, says Justice Roe Williams, a male-identified trans personal trainer and founder of Fitness4AllBodies. This means that your race, your sex, your class and other factors can influence how you and your body are perceived.

Thin privilege is actually rooted in popular white aesthetics of the 19th century, according to Sabrina Strings, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Back then, "Scientists suggested that Anglo Saxons were taller and slenderer than other races and that that was an asset," explains Strings. "White women then were being pressured to be a particular body size and many of [these women] took this up as an expression of their whiteness.”

This explains why a white man with a big tummy may be thought of as cute for having a “dad bod” while a white woman with a big tummy would likely not, and even why a Black man with the same frame as a white man might be seen as more a threat. Black women face some of the most criticism and discrimination because of how racism, sexism, and fatphobia often go hand in hand. One only needs to look at our current beauty standards to understand that being dark-skinned and thick still doesn't quite fly in the eyes of many.

And many people make assumptions about how capable you are, in part based on your body size. Sanders, who describes herself as apple-shaped, says, “There's a lot of folks who would only train with someone who looks like what they're trying to achieve,” says Sanders. “And so, a thin instructor might be viewed as more of an eligible person just because they have a body that looks like that, when I might actually have more training or knowledge on certain types of movements.”

What are some advantages thin privilege affords someone?

In additions to leading to easier interactions with other people, thin privilege is also built into the framework of our businesses and infrastructure. Here are a few of the many things people with thin privilege take for granted. They can...

  • Go shopping and not have to pay for the “extra fabric” used to make plus-size clothing

  • Board an airplane and not have to pay for an extra seat or ask for a seatbelt extender

  • See a doctor without worrying whether or not the appointment will be overly focused on losing weight or dieting

  • Walk into a gym and feel welcomed, supported, and taken seriously

  • Post a photo of themselves happily eating or relaxing on social media without being accused of “promoting obesity

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Why thin privilege is actually bad for everyone

Thin people also suffer under diet culture — the overwhelming environment we live in that celebrates thinness as a sign of health, status and moral virtue — although those in larger bodies suffer more. That's because diet culture creates an arbitrary hierarchy which says that only certain body types are worthy of success, respect and love.

So if you've always had thin privilege, when your body changes over time, as is natural with age or childbirth, it becomes harder to accept; you may become afraid of gaining weight and spend a lot of time, money and energy to keep to a smaller size — even when that may not be healthy for you; and you may develop disordered habits around eating and exercise in an effort to maintain or gain thin privilege. “Thin privilege diminishes what self-love is for everyone,” says Williams.

What can we do to dismantle thin privilege?

Thin privilege is something that those of power and influence in Western society have collectively chosen over time. This means we can choose to create another reality — one that values equality and respect for all bodies.

Of course, creating a new balance takes time and a lot of conscious effort. Those who have thin privilege have an important role to play in making things more equitable for people of all body sizes. As Lindo Bacon, Ph.D., writes in their book Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, “You can use your privilege to make this a fairer, more compassionate world." If you benefit from thin privilege, here are a few great places to start:

  • Challenge your current beliefs about weight. For example, “overweight” does not always equal “unhealthy” as most people would like to believe. "Once we learn more about how fat people can exist without ever getting diabetes or any of these [diseases] that we're constantly worried about, that that's how we start to unwind thin privilege a bit more," says Sanders. And check the biases that fuel your behavior — even your well-intentioned actions, adds Sanders. Cheering on a stranger who is in a larger body at the gym may come across as patronizing and suggest that you are praising them for "taking care of themselves" by trying to get thinner.

  • Refrain from commenting on someone else's body size — even if you think its a compliment. "Compliments" like, "you look like you've lost weight" uphold the notion that thin bodies are superior. Not to mention you don't always know what someone else is going through. As writer Aubrey Gordon and author of What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat tweets, "Complimenting perceived weight loss may mean you are complimenting someone's eating disorder, their grief, their depression/mental illness, their trauma and more. Weight loss isn't always desired, and it can be the result of really tough times."

  • Really listen and believe people who speak about experiencing fatphobia and anti-fat aggression. "Talk to each other because then these experiences become normalized and real," says Williams. "There's a piece of discussion that’s healing because as we are engaging with each other, we're beginning to process, even if we’re not on the same page."

  • Call out fatphobia where you see it. And if addressing it isn't possible in the moment, talk to the person who was affected, denounce the fatphobic behavior and ask how you can be of support in the situation going forward.

  • Be a co-conspirator but let others lead, says Strings. Listen, read, and learn from fat activists, body liberation organizers, and allied scientists to understand their experiences and discover what needs to change. Amplify their voices on social media and mainstream media.

  • Call for equal representation in all visual media. If there's a brand or magazine you like, for example, let them know what you want to see in their advertising or content, which encourages them to "represent people with different body types, fat and thin, people with disabilities and able-bodies, so that more of that is normalized in society," says Sanders. Williams agrees: "This is about the depth of what it means to be inclusive. We all have to do the work daily because it's a process to unlearn ideas rooted in competition and to allow ourselves to experience joy in the way that we're allowed to."

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