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The problem with thin privilege

By Jamie VaronNovember 6, 2015

Woman looking in the mirror.
Woman looking in the mirror. iStock

I’ve noticed that the people most likely to comment aggressively on other people’s weight tend to be those who don’t understand what it’s like to have their body betray them. They are those privileged people who can eat garbage around the clock and still not gain a pound. Or the kind of people who eat relatively healthy, work out inconsistently, and still manage to maintain a socially-acceptable figure. I have a friend who orders fries every time we hang out and she’s tiny, but at least she has the social awareness not to turn her metabolism into a source of superiority. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 69 percent of American adults over the age of 20 are considered overweight. Yet the majority of people we see represented in the media are slender, which often leads thin people to think that thin is the norm, and something must be inherently wrong with fat people. As with any other privilege, thin privilege becomes a problem when people who have it attribute their ability to keep weight off to something superior about themselves, other than their genetic makeup and overall health.

Thin privilege becomes a problem when people who have it attribute their ability to keep weight off to something superior about themselves

Anyone who has worked hard to maintain their weight is much less likely to bully people who are fat. Anyone who has lost weight on their own is also less likely to harass. Why? Because these people know what it’s like to struggle and that losing weight—or making any sort of fundamental change in yourself—requires both hard work and compassion in equal measure. 

Being overweight means being that girl who eats exactly like her thin friends and still gains weight while they stay the same size. It means working out tirelessly, eating salads endlessly and still seeing the scale show the same number as the week before. If an overweight person is not actively trying to lose weight, it’s an admonishment on their character, a source of shame they should be feeling every minute they walk around without hating their body. I have skinny friends who hate to exercise and can opt-out of healthy habits because most healthy habits are designed to get fat people into smaller sizes. 

To have both thin privilege and the need to shame overweight people for their bodies is, frankly, pretty horrible. It’s entirely possible to feel for someone else’s situation without having experienced that situation for yourself. That’s literally the definition of empathy. If you think you are better because of the way your body was built—over which you have very limited control—and you approach life with that attitude, then hell, I’d rather be fat than be you. Being skinny is not something to feel inherently superior about. How you spend your life is far more important than how you look in your life.