Island Voices: Fat stigma exists; so does thin privilege

Nowhere is the existence of fat stigma and its harmful effects better described than in the heart-breaking obituary of 64-year-old Ellen Bennett, calling out doctors over the years who only ever told her to lose weight. This is a common experience for many fat people, no matter why the medical appointment.

Fat people experience many negative reactions in public. “Concern trolling” occurs in situations where we claim that we just “care about their health,” as when we tell a fat person at the gym “good for you,” knowing nothing about their actual health, activity or nutrition.

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Fat people experience stigma in many circumstances. They might go into a store hoping to find sizes they can wear, or be asked about items in their grocery cart. They are less likely to get hired over their equally qualified, but thinner, competitors, and if hired, receive fewer promotions and often earn less than a thinner person doing the same job.

What would this kind of life be like for you? Perhaps you would feel so full of shame you would avoid leaving the house for fear of judgment and unsolicited commentary. You might avoid the gym, because people would stare at you. You might stop seeing a doctor despite symptoms of serious disease; maybe you die prematurely from treatable illness.

We eagerly consume stories about research that “proves” that fat kills people, implicitly trusting the underlying methodology. We are less exposed to studies such as a 2012 meta-analysis that showed in detail that fat does not kill “and that, particularly in middle age and older, extra weight is not particularly harmful and can actually be helpful.”

Imagine the spokes of a wheel, with each spoke representing a form of privilege at one end and a form of disadvantage at the other. Privilege and disadvantage are largely conferred by genetics or the circumstances a person is born into. As an example, being born white is an advantage on one axis, while being born a person of colour is a disadvantage. Similarly, we could be born on the axis for predisposition to thin privilege, or be born with the disadvantage of being predisposed to fatness.

If you add multiple “spokes” to describe privileges and disadvantages, overall privilege or oppression can be magnified or mitigated. Remarkably, Bennett’s white privilege was not enough to save her from the powerful disadvantage of being fat.

Thin people might not know they have privilege because it is normalized in our culture. It might be harder to personally recognize because many people are dissatisfied with what they see in the mirror or are uncomfortable inside their own bodies and might not feel as though they are experiencing thin privilege.

Thinness is portrayed as healthy, beautiful and successful. It provides a false gauge of health, wellness, energy, cleanliness, ambition, intelligence and morality.

Thin privilege makes it easier to get approval from other people, make social connections, find a job, receive better pay, and receive raises and promotions. Thin privilege means finding a range of clothing in your size, sitting beside someone in the bus without regard to seat size, able to eat what you want, when you want, without comment. Thin privilege means going to the doctor and receiving treatment for the health concern you raised, not just being told to lose weight.

While it is true that thin shaming does occur, and might hurt feelings, it is not the same as the systemic and oppressive stigma and dehumanization that fat people experience.

Another scenario is: “I work out and watch my diet, so surely I deserve the rewards of being thin?” Privilege is not dependent on the effort you put into it and is, by definition, unearned.

The argument of “attained” thinness is based largely on assumptions that we all have the same starting point, and anyone can fundamentally change their bodies, thus some bodies are more deserving than others. These are the building blocks of oppression against fat people who cannot achieve thinness without using dangerous or extreme measures.

Thin privilege exists. Fat stigma and oppression exist. Privilege comes with responsibility, and thinness does not call on us to try to “fix” fat people, but rather to support fat people equally and join them in fighting fat stigma.

Check your privilege.

Sally Chaster and Shaely Ritchey are facilitators of Vancouver Island Voices for Eating Disorders.

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