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March 2013

Thin Privilege vs. “Thin Shaming”

Thin privilege exists in America and many Western nations. Even in places where this may seem questionable, Eurocentric beauty and Americanized notions of beauty are broadcasted into other places and presented as superior.

I got somewhat pissed off about thin people playing doctor earlier on Twitter and tweeted this:

The assumption that a person is hardworking, healthy, and responsible accompanies thinness. People assume that a person that is considered “fat” is also lazy and not a good employee. Employers are discriminatory to people who aren’t thin in ways that can mimic employment discrimination for race, gender and sexuality (and it compounds with intersectionality). People do not go into “physician mode” around thin people just by looking at them. Imagine how ridiculous two thin people would look if one immediately started discussing the others’ health without knowing them? Now change one of those people to a larger person and most people would have no problem with the discussion. Often thin people act as if they have the right to discuss others’ weight and mask their bigotry as “concern.” This becomes especially ignorant in cases where the person they are speaking of has no relationship to them and they, as usual, are not physicians. (Not that even trained physicians are automatically “neutral” in how they view, react to and treat their patients who are not thin. They too live in this kyriarchal society that attaches stigma to heavier weight. Even science is not “neutral.” It’s a popular myth though.)

Thinness is immediately associated with beauty (and femininity). Even if a woman is devalued for another reason (i.e. race), the fact that she is thin or has a smallish frame and is curvy (as curviness seems to be required for women of colour—in relation to the hypersexualization that we face, though it differs by race) is often considered more beautiful than someone who is considered “fat” or “large” or “obese.” Thin men can be disrespected individually, and deemed less masculine (as patriarchy and sexism intersect) for not having muscles, but there is no oppression that thin men collectively face because of thinness alone. In fact, coupled with height, thinner and taller men tend to earn more than shorter and heavier men.

Among some Black people, I have heard the term “thin shaming.” This has a long history because most Black women exist outside the parameters of Eurocentric beauty myths to start with and our own notions of intraracial aesthetic exist—ones definitely impacted by Eurocentric beauty, with some divergence.

In my experience, being too thin and developing breasts/hips later than other Black girls made some Black girls pick on me in 5th-7th grade. And though it hurt my feelings, these same girls also picked on any Black girl deemed “fat.” These curvier girls who began to physically mature around age 9-12 became symbols of beauty for other Black girls (and unfortunately, the history of misogynoir plays a role here as these Black girls were already intraracially and interracially hypersexualized because their physical appearance [despite lack of adult cognitive ability yet] was interpreted as “sexual readiness,” so it wasn’t just other Black girls who wanted to look like them that created this attention; it was often much older Black men adding a different element of “attention”) especially if other factors were at play, i.e. light skin, less coarse/long hair etc.; all facets of Eurocentric beauty, though still not deemed “beautiful” when they are compared to White girls.

However, I remember that colorism’s manifestation on complexion and hair were what stressed me most, not being mocked for being thin. Then of course, there’s the teasing that some Black men and Black women endure when they are deemed too thin and are assumed to not be eating well. (Obviously the history of poverty and having enough food is a factor as well, not just aesthetics in this case.) Older people, primarily the women in Black families joke about feeding them more, or question if they are starving when away at college, and similar jokes. Thus, the idea that thinness is always praised is not completely true. However, the lack of individual praise in certain instances is not the same thing as the systematic oppression of thin people.

The notion that teasing for thinness is oppression is a false notion. There is no equal oppression of thin people as there is for people who are considered fat or obese, thus creating thin privilege in the first place. If critically thinking people understand that there is no “reverse racism,” “heterophobia,” “misandry” and other made up systems of oppression that are in fact oppressed people individually responding to oppression and those with privilege having a fit about this response, why is it so hard to understand that thin shaming is not the same as the oppression of people considered “fat” or “obese” that affords these thin people thin privilege in the first place? Ah but…privilege tends to obscure itself from its possessor.

The fact that I can write this with the knowledge that I won’t be reduced to being called a “hater” or “bitter” or “secretly ashamed of my weight” is evidence of my own thin privilege. It’s like a White person writing an essay about race. No one questions her/his motivations as solely personal (as if that is bad) and thereby suspect. I have people check me on my thin privilege all of the time, and I appreciate it. For example, I wrote about Michelle Obama’s book American Grown, and one of the rebloggers added even more nuance to the conversation that I couldn’t see because of thin privilege. Another person asked me about adding more photographs of thick and fat Black women to my blog since I share images of beautiful Black women here, to reinforce what a Google search and the media at large neglects. I was glad to be called out and I am working on making my blog more diverse as Black women as a group are incredibly diverse.

As a Black woman, no, I don’t have White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, light skin privilege, passing privilege, or theist privilege. However, I do have cis privilege, heterosexual privilege, educational privilege (which partially ties into class privilege, but I do not have that socioeconomically) and thin privilege. I am not going to start whining about 5th grade girls being mean to me for being thin when I know damn well that no one will consider me unhealthy, lazy, stupid, or ignorant solely because of my weight. I know that weight alone, without considering intersectional parameters, will not hold me back from anything. I know that more positive assumptions are made about me versus Black women who aren’t thin.

To be truly progressive, Black women who openly discuss the privileges that we do not have (and the severe oppression that we do face) must also be willing to discuss privileges that we do have. Thus, I hope the usual denial and silence on light skinned privilege, passing privilege, cis privilege, heterosexual privilege, thin privilege and theist privilege (as they apply) will become, well…less silent.

To learn more about thin privilege, visit the Tumblr blog This Is Thin Privilege.

2 good essays on this topic, by other writers: Think People Hate Fat? Lemme Show You How Much, The Politics of Curviness and White Womanhood

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    Not in my country, though. Thin shaming is real and I have to deal with it every single day - people asking me if I’ve...