The Costs and Benefits of Thin Privilege
We hear much about, and we are ALL directly impacted by the (unearned) privileges of whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness and youth, to name a few. But we don’t hear much about thin privilege.
In cultures that create and uphold the idea and practice of privilege, people end up on the included or excluded list.
Privilege is various forms of safety, upward social mobility and having “doors open” to you that the non-privileged and oppressed do not have.*
When it comes to thin privilege and the rigid, narrow, unrealistic beauty standards that the (euro)western culture holds up as desirable, Elizabeth Yuko of SheKnows explains:
This goes beyond beauty to actively stigmatizing people who don’t look a certain way, especially when it comes to those of us with larger bodies.
Thin privilege is a cultural currency of social acceptance and elevation that people with slim body types are given, and which mostly applies to females.
The (euro)western colonist culture encourages and rewards thinness in many loud and not so loud ways. From the kind of body images we see — and don’t see — on TV, movies, ads, workplaces and various social spaces, to cruel fat “jokes”; all of which uphold and maintain thinness as the superior way to be and aspire to in life.
In fact, whole industries and individual careers heavily profit from a very specific, limited, unhealthy and unrealistic idea of “beauty” in general and thinness in particular—on the backs of and at the expense of mostly female bodies. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health costs are high and their effects run deep.
Feminist counselor and dis-ordered eating expert Annina Schmid explains some of the costs associated with thin supremacy:
People in larger bodies — who often suffer from being fat-shamed, stigmatized and excluded from their childhood on — experience a long list of negative [physical] health and mental health consequences as people in thinner bodies are receiving preferential treatment wherever they go. Weight stigma and weight discrimination can lead to eating disorders, anxiety, depression and various other mental health conditions that will negatively impact the quality of life of people in larger bodies. (Source)
On the flip side, slim people receive much attention, praise and admiration, as well as hostility and envy from others about their thinness. This can create stress, guilt and confusion. Especially for thoughtful, sensitive folks who don’t care for spotlight or attention of any kind, let alone the superficial kind.
Consider being a thin mathematical genius or incredibly talented musician, but all you get noticed and praised for is the size of your body (or your looks in general), when that is the last thing on your mind and nothing you actively work on or care much about.
Being thin in “thin-is-in” cultures affords people with slim body types certain privileges that come with power, and with power comes great responsibility.
When we find ourselves in earned OR unearned positions of influence or authority, we should take a step back and assess the situation, then do what we are able with our privilege and use it for GOOD.
One example is hiring people who are not thin or don’t conform to other mainstream beauty or other cultural standards that are held up as superior.
Another example is the hit reality show Project Runway which changed the game in season 16 by using “plus-size” (i.e. average-size in the real world) models for the first time ever. This was a powerful culture-disruptor that immediately elevated the inclusion, visibility and normalization of diverse body shapes and sizes.
There are many everyday life situations where we can do some real good in the world and use the power and influence we have responsibly, respectfully and in the name of equality and equity.
This requires some maturity, self-awareness and mental, emotional and spiritual intelligence that takes time and effort to cultivate.
Not everyone can or should be in positions of leadership or influence. Yet we see many people in such positions, using their power irresponsibly. The result is harm to others.
Regardless of how positions of influence are obtained, it is all of our individual personal responsibility as human beings to use whatever power we have to help others and elevate eachother to greatness, or at the least, to true equality and equity.
Make no mistake, we ALL have power. Every word we say or don’t say, every action we take or don’t take, every vibe we put out or don’t, is all power that we are exercising every minute of everyday.
This is especially relevant to females in sexist, misogynist cultures because such cultures start teaching girls from a young age to distrust, compete with and outright hate our fellow females. Don’t we want the opposite?
Don’t we want to be be leveraging the infinite diversity among us, not dividing and isolating ourselves?
Don’t we want to be including not excluding?
Don’t we want to be supporting not scheming or sabotaging?
Don’t we want to be uniting not usurping?
Don’t we want to be connecting not conspiring?
Don’t we want to be collaborating not competing?
Conversations about privilege, body image and diversity in general can be sensitive, charged and messy. We must take care not to get stuck in quicksands of theory-debating because it takes us away from the heart of the matter, which is ALWAYS about our relationship to one another.
As AfroFeminist Spectra so aptly puts it:
Relationships over Rhetoric.
*Not to be mistaken for the idea that ONLY people with privilege have upward social mobility and “doors open” for them. Of course hard work and a “strong work ethic” allows (some) people to achieve the so-called “American Dream.” This in itself contains many issues and is problematic, which is for another article.