Weight Stigma, Thin Privilege, and How to Fight Back
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
This week was the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)’s first Weight Stigma Awareness Week, and I don’t think any conversation about weight stigma can be complete without talking about thin privilege and how to fight back.
Let’s start with some definitions.
What is weight stigma? According to the NEDA website: “Weight stigma, also known as weight bias or weight discrimination, is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s size. Weight stigma also manifests as fatphobia, the dislike or fear of being or becoming fat.”
By contrast, Certified Body Trust Provider Kristina Bruce defines thin privilege as “mov[ing] through the world in a thin body [and being] granted certain advantages over people who are not thin.”
Basically, weight stigma is the disadvantage, and thin privilege is the corresponding advantage. One is absolutely dependent upon the other. They cannot exist separately.
What does this look like in the real world? It shows up in a million big and small ways that you probably see every day. Fat people are assumed to be unhealthy and lazy, while thin people are assumed to be healthy and active. Fat people are routinely given unsolicited commentary and advice on food and exercise, while thin people are largely immune to this. Fat people face hurdles in seeking employment due to a general presumption of being unsuitable, while thin people are generally assumed to be capable. Fat people struggle to find clothing that is affordable and stylish in their sizes, while thin people can walk into any store and find a large variety of clothing to choose from at reasonable prices. Fat people face obstacles to comfortable travel, dining, and other activities, while thin people never have to worry about whether a space is designed to accommodate their bodies. Fat people rarely see themselves portrayed in media, except as a before picture or a joke, while thin people see themselves represented everywhere, in every way. Fat people are regularly dismissed and disbelieved by their medical providers, while thin people have their concerns addressed more easily. Fat people are often actually denied medical treatment without weight loss, while thin people are readily given treatment. Fat people are less likely to receive support and positive feedback from friends, family, partners, and coworkers than thin people. Fat people are more likely to experience harassment based solely on their body size than thin people. This list could go on forever, but what all of these examples boil down to is one simple thing: Fat people are treated as less deserving, less capable, and less valuable than thin people.
Let me be clear: weight stigma and thin privilege have nothing to do with how we personally feel about or see our bodies. They are demonstrable social and structural issues that do not change based on our personal body image. They also exist on a spectrum based on how close we are to the thin ideal. A small fat person does not experience the same discrimination as a superfat person. A superfat person does not experience the same discrimination as an infinifat person. And a straight sized person who “feels fat” is not experiencing discrimination at all.
But here’s the thing: While weight stigma and discrimination can only be directly experienced by people in larger bodies, it is actually harmful to all of us - even those of us who benefit from thin privilege.
The way we feel about our bodies and the way society feels about our bodies are different issues. But they’re also inextricably intertwined. We’re afraid of being fat because of the way society treats fat bodies. Being fat makes us feel bad because we’ve been conditioned to believe that fat bodies are bad. We try endlessly to manage our bodies because society tells us endlessly that our bodies need to be managed. Our fear of gaining weight has everything to do with our fear of losing the societal acceptance and advantages that come with having a smaller body. Ultimately, though our experience of weight stigma is not dependent on our body image, our body image is very much dependent on the existence of weight stigma.
So what can we do? How do we fight back against weight stigma and thin privilege? Here are 5 things you can do to get started:
1. Learn about Virgie Tovar’s three levels of fatphobia (Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Institutional) and start questioning how this shows up for you.
2. Call out weight stigma when you see it. This could be with friends, family, coworkers, medical providers, fitness facilities, or other public spaces. This is especially important if you are a person in a smaller body. Unfortunately - because of weight stigma and thin privilege - fat people are often not taken seriously when they speak up about these issues. That means that thin people who want to act as fat allies absolutely must use their privilege to speak up!
3. Just say no to diet and body talk. Whether we realize it or not, this kind of talk is not just idle chit-chat. It perpetuates the idea that there are right and wrong ways for bodies to exist, and that there are right and wrong ways of eating to obtain an acceptable body. It also directly harms people in larger bodies. Imagine listening to someone go on and on about how hard they’re trying not to look like you! This applies to people in both smaller and larger bodies.
4. Seek out more diverse bodies. Does all the TV you watch focus on a thin, white body? Is your social media feed full of bodies that fit the thin ideal? Is all your information coming from people who look like you? The only way for us to normalize different bodies is to see different bodies. The only way for us to understand the lived experiences of people who are different from us is to seek out their voices and listen to them.
5. Use the word “fat” neutrally, and stop using the word “obese”. Fat is not a bad word. Don’t correct people when they call themselves fat. Don’t use euphemisms or try to avoid saying fat. Likewise, stop using the words obese and obesity. These words medicalize and pathologize a body type. Fatness is not a disease or a medical condition. It’s not an epidemic. Using medical terms or euphemisms reinforces the idea that fatness is bad and that being fat is inherently unhealthy or undesirable.
An important thing to remember here is that neither weight stigma nor thin privilege are our fault. They’re products of diet culture. They’re the water we swim in and the air we breathe. But once we’re aware of them, it becomes our responsibility to take action. We can fight back. We can confront it in ourselves. We can do better.