Fact: Thin Privilege exists. Thin Privilege is a societal truth.*
That said, what does that mean? It means in our society people who fall under a certain body size and weight have privilege over those who do not fit into that category. Is this a cut and dry, black and white truth? Not at all. Is this saying that everyone who falls into the thin privilege category is mean or bad because of it? Certainly not. It is simply stating a sociological fact. Our culture praises, respects, and worships smaller bodies. Our culture also judges, disrespects, and condemns bodies that are larger and have “excess body fat”. That is prejudice and there is privilege. Please note: I am not saying that anyone who happens to have thin privilege, i.e. anyone in the normal BMI range, is prejudice or uses their privilege to their advantage. AND ANYONE WHO SAYS THAT IS PROJECTING THEIR OWN ISSUES AND ABUSING THE CORE STATEMENT.
These two words have been thrown around so much, and it has been driving me utterly crazy. When it broke out with this post a few months ago… I read it and felt validated. I thought, “Yes! Finally! My reality, my voice, is being heard! Now we will finally be understood and we can all work together to promote healthy and happy body image in the world!” Apparently I was wrong. People took it the wrong way. People were insulted and there was an enormous backlash. After I recovered from the shock of that, I do see their point of view. Nobody likes to be called out for something that applies to them that they never asked for.
Now I want to make an important distinction. Privilege exists in many forms. It is malleable, as are our cultural and personal views. One form of privilege may outweigh another in one situation, and be the opposite in another. My friend Jane Brazen explained this particularly well in her blog. “…just because I have thin privilege does not mean I automatically have other privileges. I do not have sane privilege. (I’ve decided to call it sane privilege because I’m still not sure that I like the language of ableism for mental health issues. It’s going to be all about crazy and sane privilege for me.) …This is what thin feminists should know about thin privilege. You can have it while simultaneously being un-privileged as a person with an eating disorder, thin because of that lack of sane privilege. Now, I’m not talking about how all women have body problems and most are always on a diet. I’m talking about people who actually have eating disorders. Who probably don’t even think they have thin privilege.”
Jane is a friend of mine from back home, though we originally met online through an ED community. Our stories are similar in many ways but one of the distinct differences is that she is naturally thin and I am naturally not. We both have struggled with EDNOS and body image issues. We both believe in sex worker activism, we both are intelligent and are drawn to academia, we are both female-bodied and bisexual, and we both come from working to middle class Midwestern families. Actually, statistically I probably had a slight privilege over her growing up economically. So… we’re both white so we both have that privilege, she has thin privilege and I do not**, neither of us has sane privilege (that always makes me laugh), I suppose we have intellectual privilege, we do not have male privilege, we do not technically have heterosexual privilege***, and I had (growing up, she probably has it now!) economic privilege.
One isn’t better than the other, one didn’t have an easier time in life than the other, it just is what it is.
I hope this clears some things up for those in the ED sphere who were insulted by the term. It isn’t an attack, and it isn’t saying there aren’t injustices to anyone who is thin. Of course women of all sizes are scrutinized and objectified by our culture. That is a serious problem and I am so glad to know so many people who are combating it. What Thin Privilege is referring to though, are the little things that often go unnoticed (except by those who are excluded, hence, privilege). There are great blogs out there who speak to this more such as here and yes, even the one that got everyone riled up. Here are just a few examples:
1. Doctors don’t chalk up every symptom you have to your size and present weight loss as a panacea.
2. You can eat in public without people judging your food choices. Likewise you can be pretty assured that no one behind you at the grocery store is looking at what you buy to “see what makes you so fat.”
3. You can be assured of seeing people your size in popular media (tv, magazines, etc.) If you are an actor you can usually be up for meaningful lead roles rather than the “comical sidekick” or be otherwise unrestricted in terms of what parts you’re allowed to play.
4. You can shop in most stores and find clothes in your size.
5. When a person flirts with you you don’t have to worry that they’re doing it to have “good politics” and can genuinely assume it’s because they find you attractive. Also, you do not have to deal with people who fetishize you because of your size.
6. Your size communicates very little to most people and is value neutral. That is, most people don’t assume anything about your values, morals, etc. because of your size.
I’m sorry Heather but I’m not going to spare you. It’s really unfortunate that you’ve let emotions override the simplicity of all these misunderstandings. I haven’t read all the comments you got, I’m sure a lot of them were ridiculous and hurtful and fueled by hurt feelings. It’s easy to get riled up on the internet. But as someone in the forefront of ED awareness and positive body image advocacy and promoting yourself and a positive role model for girls… I would hope you could see beyond all that and not be defensive and reactive. I actually agree with a lot of the points you made in your post.
Yes, everyone should stand up for themselves… though sometimes a person is just too hurt to be able to and that’s what our communities are for… support.
Of course, there is certainly no case in which one person is thought of as a loser by the entire world. And for those who feel that way (fat OR thin)… again we should support them until they find the love within themselves to see the truth.
And yes, we should not take life for granted.
I disagree with you on the points that thin privilege is not necessary to “make ones case”. Um… it is. Facts seen above.
While teaching the concept of thin privilege could be detrimental if it was railed home with hateful and envious statements against thin people… that is quite the exception. I believe children should be aware of ALL privilege… taught in a balanced manner it will produce more well-rounded adults.
And I would definitely disagree that compassion towards anorexics is non-existent. Many people see anorexia and obesity as the extreme ends of one spectrum. That spectrum of using disordered eating habits as a maladaptive mechanism to cope with emotions, stress, and self-destructive feelings. And only someone who is incredibly ignorant (fat OR thin) would harass someone suffering from anorexia about their thin privilege. That would be absurd and cruel.
As for your video…. I would really love it if you took some time to consider the concept of “sane privilege” (my friend made that term up, I don’t know how accepted it is in general, but I do know she just received her masters in sociology so she knows what she’s talking about). I relate to a lot of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters but as I said, I’m not naturally thin. There is a spectrum, you can’t look at this as a black and white “you against me” situation. I know many in the FA community probably have been attacking you in that manner, but you don’t have to buy it. It’s really not helping your cause by buying it. I love the work you do on your blog, and I bet you are a really great mom and your daughter is lucky to have you as an influence in her life. So please don’t feel like you should be “the one you all love to hate.” I really DON’T think that helps the discussion.
*The society I am referencing is the generalized mainstream propagated Westernized civilization. This “truth” is enhanced by Western popular culture.
**My BMI is overweight and I wear a size 14/XL. I also have no idea what I look like and think I’m a lot larger than I probably really am. I know that I am on the lower side technically of “Fat” (sooo subjective), but I can assure you that my life experiences prove that I do not have thin privilege. Though, there have been periods where I have been smaller (but never what I’d consider thin –lack of sane privilege acknowledgment here–) and I recognized changes in how I was perceived by society as a whole and by people in my day to day life. I probably straddle the elusive line… there are probably some thin privileges I get away with, but there are definitely others I do not and I feel the stigmatization.
***I say technically, because we both appear femme. Therefore to the outside world, we fit the heterosexual female mold. Though whenever she is out with her girlfriend her hetero-typical appearance would be void.
Well this is an epic topic. I will try to succinctly relay my thoughts, and will probably continue to come back and discuss this topic in the future.
(By the way, I’m going to try to start blogging more on actual topics. You can hold me to that, but don’t hold your breath… just in case. No liabilities please.)
Now before I go all semantic-obsessed on you, I wanted to say that this past weekend I was in Minneapolis, MN for the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Conference. IT WAS AMAZING. I had such a great time and met so many wonderful people. I will be writing an overview of it, probably this weekend. But in the mean time, check it:
Me, Kendra Sebelius (www.facebook.com/AVoiceinRecovery), Shannon Cutts (www.key-to-life.com), Brie Widaman (www.facebook.com/RevolutionOfRealWomen), Rachael Stern (twistedbarbiesrevolution.blogspot.com), and Julie Neumann (julieneumann.com)
Alright. Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders. Specifically Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. There is a distinct difference between disordered eating and EDNOS. Disordered eating is the way of life that I consider to have consumed (no pun intended) western society. Disordered eating is chronic dieting. Disordered eating is listening to outside sources for what is “right” and “wrong” to eat and not your body. Disordered eating is judging food, body size, body weight, and eating habits with a heavy dose of morality.
Is it important to shed light on disordered eating, bring it out into the open and say, “hey something isn’t right here!”? Definitely. This goes hand in hand with all the ad busting and self-esteem-raising work people are doing. All very important for creating a healthier society overall.
But is it more important to research and do studies on disordered eating rather than EDNOS? No. That’s just my opinion, but it’s a strong opinion. EDNOS, while vague since it is truly a mash-up of the three other clearly defined eating disorders, is still an eating disorder. It is a mental illness. I have had an eating disorder for 10 years. If I had sought help in any of those years up until this past year when I finally did, I most likely would have been diagnosed with EDNOS. I restricted, I binged, I used (and abused) diet pills, I exercised compulsively, I water fasted for several days at a time, I was afraid of food, and I obsessed over food, I had body image distortion, and I believed I was morbidly obese and therefore unlovable. Was I underweight? No, I was never even “thin”. So while I was fasting, restricting, afraid of foods, had incredibly weird eating rituals, and there were times (coincided with manic episodes) of compulsive exercise I would never have qualified as anorexic. I wouldn’t have qualified as bulimic either because I was always afraid of purging since I’ve had experiences of throwing up (due to a stomach virus) and food/liquid/acid has come out my nose. I’m sure that’s not uncommon, but as a kid I really didn’t want to experience that more often than I had to. What I didn’t know at the time was there are other symptoms that would qualify one as bulimic, so who knows maybe I would have… but I doubt I was consistent enough.
If I had sought help, I would not have gotten it. Okay I can’t say that for certain, but it would have been incredibly hard to get the care that I needed. Insurance companies don’t cover EDNOS. And really, it’s only very recently that the psych community has really embraced this…. obviously the criteria in the DSM-IV are there for a reason. It was believed that for one to be suffering from an eating disorder those were the signs. Now of course, it is widely accepted that one suffers long before they reach the point of emaciation, amenorrhea, or bingeing and purging multiple times a day. Sub-clinical, yes. Still serious enough for potential death? Yes. I didn’t seek help because I didn’t think I deserved it. I wanted so badly to be anorexic… but that’s a whole other story.
Now, Brie (of Revolution of Real Women!) brought up the point that it’s important to raise awareness of disordered eating because it leads to eating disorders. While a point to be taken seriously, it blurs the lines between correlation and causation. Disordered eating habits and chronic dieting do not cause or always lead into eating disorders. If they do, that person has a genetic predisposition to develop this particular mental illness. Therefore, even in a society with less focus on dieting, weighing, and small clothing sizes, people are still going to have eating disorders.
There is so much that we (as a community) still don’t know and are working to figure out about the science behind mental illness as well as the effects media and society have on those predisposed to eating disorders, that the argument is somewhat futile. I think the ultimate goal here is to raise awareness in a broad sense about our societies insane hypocrisies, raise awareness about eating disorders INCLUDING EDNOS in the medical community, and continue to have dialogue about these topics. Actually, the ULTIMATE goal is for everybody to love their body (mind and soul). 🙂
Even as a kid I knew there was something seriously flawed with the mantra, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” While it’s a nice ideal, it’s rarely the truth. And adults rarely know the tools to teach kids how to reach that point where words can never hurt them… probably because they’ve never reached that point themselves.
There are many stories that I could use as reference points here, but yesterday I found this article, and it just broke my heart. “Woman Goes Under Knife to Win Simon’s ‘X-Factor’ Love”.
A few years ago an 18 year old girl auditioned for American Idol. A natural singer, Simon Cowell told her, “I just wish I could put your voice in another body.”
Yup. You read that. I JUST WISH I COULD PUT YOUR VOICE IN ANOTHER BODY.
As someone who has been in a similar situation, I can tell you from experience THIS DOES NOT FEEL GOOD. Obviously. I have spent practically my entire life believing that my voice did not match my body, that I shouldn’t sing because I wasn’t attractive enough, that I wasn’t allowed to perform because I wasn’t thin or pretty enough. I can only imagine what this poor girl went through after that.
What did she go through? Well, tons of plastic surgery, obsessive exercise, and most likely she suffered from body dysmorphic disorder. She had the opportunity to confront Cowell, and she told him that his comments nearly wrecked her life. She said he “seemed really shocked” and admitted “that’s not a nice thing I said”.
Here is Katrina Lee, before (age 18, 5 years ago) and after (age 23, today):
This story not only upsets me for what it is, but how the media is reporting it. In the article I linked to above, they’re simultaneously pitying her and ostracizing her. They have a poll, “what best describes Lee’s actions: ambitious or nuts?”
Mental illness is still a joke. People would argue that she had a choice, she didn’t have to drastically change her appearance with plastic surgery just because someone told her she wasn’t pretty. Therefore she’s crazy, because “crazy” is apparently a choice. What people don’t get is the correlation. Nobody makes fun of someone for getting skin cancer. A woman with fair skin exposes herself to the sun for years, even helping her skin absorb the rays with tanning oil, and yet when she gets cancer she is pitied and supported. She is not considered a freak show. (This goes hand in hand with a post I’m working on about victim-blaming.)
It’s also unfortunate this girl is still searching for mainstream approval. Where are her parents, friends, peers, doctors? I’m not saying she should give up her dream of being a singer and performer, but continuing to audition for mega-reality shows in order to have her dream justified and supported? That just doesn’t seem healthy.
Regardless, I wish her the best. I hope she learns to love herself no matter what she looks like, and continues to use her passion and talent even if she doesn’t “make it” on reality TV.