MY THIN PRIVILEGE

Prior to this week, if someone were to accuse me of having “thin privilege”, I’d very quickly feel my heckles start to rise.

I didn’t think it was something that I had. Or at least, if I did, I reasoned that it was probably something that I had earned the right to.

I’m not proud of having felt these things, but I think I was of the mindset that since my size was something I controlled, the rewards that I reaped for maintaining a healthy BMI were something owed to me. I run often, eat well and I’ve recently started the laborious task of picking up heavy weights only to put them back down again the second the pain becomes excruciating. The least the world can offer me in return, I thought, was the decency of acceptance.

When actress Jameela Jamil pledged to dedicate her influence to ending the societal norms of body shaming, and advocating for body positivity, she was met with an influx of support, but a peppering of resentment too; there were some who felt it inappropriate that she, at the size she is, became the face of a movement that wasn’t technically meant for her.

As the debate around not just her involvement but the “body positivity” movement as a whole crescendoed on Twitter, with the voices of powerful and admirable feminists calling out societies’ highjacking of the movement to facilitate white women and massage the egos of those with ‘acceptably curvaceous’ bodies, I looked on, arrogantly but not at all surprisingly, wondering what that meant for me.

I liked Jameela, I liked what she was doing. Was I wrong for doing that?

As I have learned recently, the body positive movement was originally started by plus size black women who created it as a reaction to their exclusion from the fashion industry. Due to their underrepresentation in the media, the body positive movement was created by them as a means of celebrating their bodies.

There are those now who harbour the belief that the movement has been taken over by the Jameela Jamils and the Iskra Lawrences of the world who, whilst having good intentions in sharing photos and stories of bodies that have perhaps not always been known as ‘societies ideal’, by virtue of having cellulite, have actually commandeered the movement entirely, taking up space for the plus size black women for whom it was started in the first place.

You’ve just met my thin privilege. And you’re about to get to know it a little better as I admit, ashamedly, to some of the feelings of resentment I felt around this conversation and the ‘taking back’ of the body positive movement.

See, I have not always had a healthy relationship with my body. I have not always found it easy to love this hunk of flesh I’ve been carting round for twenty odd years, and still, now, I don’t find it easy.

The eradication of stretch marks and cellulite and stomach fat that moves independently from the abs that I should have but don’t by society over the years has meant that it’s been hard for me to worship what I’m working with.

I have gone through stages of restricting my food, exercising for the wrong reasons, looking in the mirror and hating what I see (that last one wasn’t so much of a stage as a way of life).

I was going through all of this when I first came across the body positive movement.

Without meaning to be ~too~ dramatic, it changed my life. I started following the right accounts on Instagram, hearing the conversations, watching women of varying sizes celebrating what they had to offer the world and in turn I began to celebrate my own body. My bad habits surrounding calorie counting and food restrictions all but stopped and the exercise I was doing became so much more about my mind than my body. I was able to look down at the soft rolls cushioning my internal organs and honestly and truthfully, begin to love them.

For a long time, I credited the body positive movement for that shift in me. It was thanks to women like Jameela and Iskra showing me their pretty great but far from perfect bodies that allowed me to fully accept and embrace my own.

So when I became aware of people coming after them and the movement I assumed that, by association, they were coming after me. And I panicked.

Who are you to tell me, I’d think, that this movement isn’t for me.

Insecurities plague women of every size. Anorexia, famously, plagues ONLY thin women. Women who, by your rules, would not be welcome to consider their bodies positive under these guidelines?

Surely body positivity is about seeing EVERY body as positive? Surely we should ALL be celebrating? Surely I have just as much right to use this hashtag as anyone else???

Yes, but also, no.

I wasn’t trying to be fatphobic, all this time. I didn’t want to commandeer a movement so as to deliberately ostracise women of different sizes or races to me. On the contrary, my naive ignorance left me wondering why a movement so grounded in inclusitivity was working so hard to become exclusive.

I never voiced any of these opinions, thankfully, I think my naive ignorance must have, on some subconscious level, been recognised by my inner bullshit sensor and advised to stay put.

Instead I watched, quietly harbouring my reservations and wondering what chance any body positivity stood if all of a sudden women who had always existed within societies’ perimeters of an acceptable standard were excluded from the conversation. Was anything so entrenched in a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality really going to see a happy ending for all involved?

And then I read something that Stephanie Yeboah wrote for Refinery29 and honestly, everything changed.

Steph had dated a guy at the end of last year who, she recently found out, was only doing it as part of a “dare”. She had been a victim of something called the “pull a pig prank” in which men get dared by their oh-so-funny-friends to shag a, usually fat, woman.

My heart has never broken for a person like it did when I read this and I realise that there is no way of writing that without sounding like a twat. But it was awful. The thought that one person could do that to another is AWFUL. But that wasn’t the end of the saga. In the wake of this article and Steph’s subsequent tweets about the incident, the trolling that she has been a victim of has been extraordinary. Streams of messages from people telling her that she’s making it up, that she deserved it, that she’s fat, disgusting, ugly, that her reaction was wrong, that she shouldn’t be so ‘anti-men’ etc. etc. etc.

Thus the conversation surrounding thin privilege began.

My life, the way I am treated, everything that I do, is easier because of my size.

That’s not to say I don’t have struggles, or that I am not insecure, or that I don’t have things I don’t like about myself or that I am always treated fairly. I am not. I am insecure and I’m not always properly represented and my life isn’t always easy.

Sometimes my jeans don’t fit and sometimes that makes me feel like shit. And I’m allowed to feel like shit about that and I’m allowed to get mad at Topshop for making me feel like shit. I can recognise that all of my problems have come about as a result of a huge failing on the part of our society, that size zero culture reeked havoc with us all for too long and that there is a lot of work to be done so that women like me can start to love our bodies in the way we should.

But good god, all of that does not make me exempt from my privilege.

I have never missed out on a job because of my size. I have never walked into a doctor’s surgery and been dismissed and undermined and not taken seriously because of my weight. I have never had someone grimace when I went to sit down next to them on public transport. I have never had to leave a shop empty handed because nothing in there came in my size.

My life has been made infinitely easier by my size. And I didn’t realise how good I had it until I sat back and realised that what had happened to Stephanie would never have happened to me, simply because of my size.

I am riddled with privilege. And I am so desperately ashamed of my ignorance. I think I was harbouring this belief that by admitting to a privilege of some kind, I was going to have to give up my right to insecurities, or sadness, or pain.

Of course that’s bullshit, but that’s where I was. I was unable to differentiate between the insecurities that plagued me after years of seeing celebrities drinking weight-loss teas on Instagram with the structural oppression that bigger people are faced with.

If I call my mum with a hangover I know that even though I am sick by my own making, she will provide me with an abundance of sympathy; “it doesn’t matter how you got ill”, she’ll tell me, “you’re ill now and that’s horrid”.

To compare a hangover to being overweight is, I suspect, very much the thought process of someone that has had too much privilege for too long, but the calibre of abuse that people like Stephanie have experienced on Twitter is such that this might just work as an analogy as a means of explanation.

Some people are fat because they want to be. Some are fat because they don’t know how not to be. But for some people, their size is a byproduct of an injury, or a disability or a mental health condition, it is because they can’t afford to eat well or are too time poor to cook. Their size could be due to any number of circumstances that exist beyond their control and it is not for me to comment, nor is it for me to care.

Much like my mum will indulge my hungover needs, recognising my suffering in spite of the fact it is technically my ‘fault’, shouldn’t we, as nice, empathetic, decent human beings recognise that it doesn’t matter what size a person is, they should still be entitled to their fundamental human rights?

Before this week, I never truly appreciated how good I had it. Whilst I may not always accept my body, I can’t deny that society always will and so to suggest that my struggle even slightly resembles the struggle that women like Stephanie faces is, quite frankly, an insult to her and to every woman like her.

We are part of a society that is not accepting of fat bodies. Their lack of representation in the media; the fact that they are omitted from television shows, from adverts, from shops, this is evidential of a society’s lack of acceptance. But more worrying than all of that, to my mind, is the ignorance that has been exemplified by me.

I will always have the body positivity movement to thank for the journey that saw me learn to love my body, but I am fully aware that my place in that movement is no longer appropriate. This doesn’t mean that my work comes to an end, nor does it mean my journey is over. When you sneak into a gym class that you haven’t paid for you can still feel the benefits, but when you’re asked to leave, you’re not really in a position to argue. To continue with that analogy, let’s all agree that there are other gym classes.

I didn’t want to hear about my thin privilege; I resented the implication that just because of my size, the assumption was that my life was easy.

But I realise now that that’s not what it means. I’m allowed to have struggles. I’m allowed to feel pain. I’m allowed to be insecure. But I have to acknowledge that whilst my life may be hard, it would be harder if I were bigger.

And I have a responsibility to acknowledge my privilege, to accept it and, in turn, to harness it into something good.

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2 Comments

  1. February 13, 2019 / 1:59 pm

    Loved This! Has definitely described my journey over the last year or so, though it’s definitely important for people with thin privilege to fight against photoshopping and show body diversity and imperfections and fight against the beauty and fashion industry’s standards our place to do that is not in the body posi community, at least not while talking over the fat women and woc who made it. I support jameelia jameel’s general message but she really is coopting a movement.

    The Quirky Queer

  2. Sadie
    February 13, 2019 / 2:23 pm

    Hi! First, as a fat person I would like to thank you for taking the time to acknowledge your privilege, and I hope it will help other people recognize that “privilege” in and of itself is not a dirty word. I think what you’ve written here is excellent, but there are a few really dangerous misconceptions that I’d like to point out. Specifically, you say:

    “Insecurities plague women of every size. Anorexia, famously, plagues ONLY thin women. Women who, by your rules, would not be welcome to consider their bodies positive under these guidelines?”

    Anorexia does NOT affect only thin women. Anorexia is easily associated with thin women, because we tend to associate it only with those folks for whom the disease has resulted in frightening thinness. (Also, as an aside – conflating anorexia with insecurity is dangerous at best. It’s a very serious anxiety/behavioral disorder, not the outgrowth of normal body image insecurity). The fact of the matter is that anorexia is just as likely to affect fat women. The difference is that the behaviors an anorexic person might exhibit are often not recognized as unhealthy in fat women. When someone who is already thin eats only a handful of almonds or a tiny salad for lunch, people ask her why she’s doing that, what’s wrong, etc. When a fat woman does it, people assume that she’s just dieting. They congratulate her on her restraint. They coo over every pound she loses, and never wonder if she’s losing them for a healthy reason. Of course she is, she must be. She’s fat, so anything she’s doing to change that must be healthy.

    Second, I really have to fully reject the hangover metaphor. I understand what you’re trying to do, but the result is that you’ve laid the responsibility for a person’s fatness squarely in their own hands. The idea that fatness is something changeable, that people could change it but won’t, is exactly why fatphobia exists. Fatness is seen as a moral failing, a choice we make. I went on the most extreme diet I could while still remaining healthy. I ran every morning, and went to kickboxing classes twice a week. I made every aspect of my life about fitness/weight loss. I lost fifty pounds, and then stopped losing, and I was STILL FAT. Everyone in my family is, regardless of how carefully they monitor calories or avoid sweets. It’s a genetic predisposition. So to suggest that some people “want” to be fat or “don’t know how not to be” is frankly…really insulting. I know how people THINK I could stop being fat, but I’ve tried it and I’m telling you from experience that someone like me is never going to look like you. Exercise and eating healthy are really important! But they’ll never get me a body like the one you have. And I’ve learned to be okay with that.

    I hope you won’t take this feedback as negative or critical of you – I think you’re doing great work to understand the movement and where you yourself fit into it. I just wanted to provide some extra context so that you don’t end up looking back on this post with the same cringey feeling you have about your initial response to the body positivity movement.

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