What is thin privilege? And why we need to talk about it, according to fat activists and their allies.
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.
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.”