What Exactly is "Thin Privilege"?

Of all the posts I share on my Instagram account, without a doubt the ones that ignite the biggest backlash are the posts where I talk about thin privilege.

Privilege is currently a hot topic of conversation. Many forms of privilege exist, such as white privilege or male privilege, but what exactly does “privilege” mean? Why is there such backlash to this word? And how does “thinness” fall into this category?

I am by no means a scholar on the subject of privilege (nor a scholar in general!), but these are questions that I often see come up when privilege is discussed, and I wanted to take a crack at explaining it based on my current understanding, as well as my theory on why some people struggle with the idea of “thin privilege”.

Let’s begin with the definition of privilege. Privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

When this definition is applied to thin bodies (i.e. thin privilege) it means that individuals who move through the world in a thin body are granted certain advantages over people who are not thin.

So what exactly are these “privileges” that thin people have that those in fat bodies do not? Here are some examples:

People in thin bodies…

  • can easily find seating in any public space that will accommodate them (ex. public transit, airplanes, classrooms, restaurants, theatres etc.).

  • can see a medical or health practitioner (doctor, physiotherapist, nutritionist etc.) and be assessed and treated for their symptoms, not their weight. According to the 2017 The Fat Census, 64% of fat patients had been misdiagnosed due to weight based health care. This type of discrimination can result in devastating consequences.

  • are much less likely to have negative qualities such as “lazy” or “unprofessional” attributed to them based on their size, and therefore receive more hiring and work opportunities than people in larger bodies.

  • are able to find clothing in almost every retail store, whereas 69% of respondents in the The Fat Census reported being unable to do so.

  • are able to see themselves positively represented in television, movies, and advertisements, whereas representation of fat bodies are almost nowhere to be seen (let alone in a positive light), and representation matters.

  • are unlikely to experience harassment for their size. 94% of The Fat Census respondents reported being verbally harassed in their lifetime. Women are much more likely to experience harassment in general (regardless of size), however the harassment towards people in larger bodies is more intense.

  • are seen as generally more desirable and attractive, and are more likely to receive compliments, approval and appreciation from friends, family, colleagues and potential partners.

In general, thin bodies are seen as “normal” whereas fat bodies are unfairly (and inaccurately) pathologized and seen as a problem. I’ve written about this pathologization before, and how damaging it can be.

Yet despite the above examples of thin privilege, many people still don’t believe it exists, and some argue rather violently against it. But why?

A few arguments against the idea thin privilege...

Being fat is a “choice” and therefore thinness is a “choice” (and available to everyone).

This is the narrative we are sold in our culture. The U.S. diet industry is worth 66 billion dollars per year. The amount of money that is spent on advertising, trying to convince people that "if only you try hard enough you can be thin forever" is huge. But it’s simply not true. In fact, dieting is making us bigger. It’s actually one of the ways to ensure that, over the long term, our weight goes up (and stays up). I talked about this in another blog post.

“But I’ve lost X number of pounds and kept it off, so see, it IS a choice!” is a common argument I receive from people as “proof” that weight loss is possible.

I myself “kept the weight off” for over eight years, but what I had to do to keep the weight off required hyper-vigilance. It required that I tailor my entire life around keeping the weight off. It required that I distrust my body, ignore my hunger and desires, punish myself with exercise and harsh self talk to “just say no” to basically any kind of food (or rest) that my mind and body craved. It required that I say no to social occasions or when I was at my worst, bring my own “approved” food to potluck dinners so I wouldn’t stray off my food plan and calorie allotment.

So sure, it was a “choice” to keep the weight off, but it wasn’t much of a life, and it certainly wasn’t natural. Actually, it was disordered eating. Disordered eating has become so normalized in our culture that it’s difficult to even notice when it’s happening.

My motivation to keep the weight off was almost 100% driven by fear. Fear of what? Fear of losing my thin privilege. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, that’s exactly what I was fearing. Growing up I subconsciously (and consciously) absorbed the message that thin is better (as we all do growing up in western culture), and saw that those who were thinner were treated better (aka privilege) and sadly, experienced that privilege when I became thin.

But here’s the thing, we are told we earned the privilege that comes with losing weight. After all, we’ve worked our asses off (quite literally), denied our body's needs and desires and made sacrifices to lose the weight and keep it off. Of course we "earned" the privileges that come from that. But because of that, we are unaware of how unfair and systemic this type of privilege is.

Why is it unfair? There are people who work just as hard and will never lose the weight due to their body type. Are they simply not “trying hard enough”? No. Biologically they are simply not meant to be thin.

No matter how we choose to look at it, we can’t deny that thin privilege exists, whether we want to believe it’s “earned”, “fair” or not.

“But I’m thin and I get teased all the time about my weight!” is another argument against thin privilege. How can thinness be a “privilege” if someone who is naturally very thin can be teased, have trouble finding clothes that fit, or seen as “underweight” and potentially unhealthy? This is where we need to look at whether this type of experience is personal or systemic. Yes, people who are very thin can have similar experiences to people on the opposite end of the weight spectrum, but as a whole, much more privilege is given to thinner people.

When it comes down to it, my theory as to why people are so uncomfortable with the word “privilege” is because it puts us face to face with the inequalities that exist in the world, and that feels uncomfortable. We are forced to acknowledge that our culture is designed to give more power to some groups of people over others. Desiree Adaway writes about this in her blog post Who’s Got The Power.

Here’s where it gets more complicated: even if we were born into privilege (for example a naturally thin body), we can still feel powerless. We can feel insecure and unworthy - no one is immune to hardship. We can also spend our lives working extremely hard and feel that we earned everything we achieved. That can be true, and it doesn't negate the way our culture is designed. Our social structures are set up in a way that makes life easier for some people (in our western culture that’s men, white people, heterosexual people, christian people, able-bodied people, and thin people).

People can feel a lot of guilt when they realize they have a certain amount of privilege. There is this idea that if someone is privileged they are spoiled, born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and never had to work a day in their life. In a culture that values hard work and loves a good rags to riches story, we don’t want the notion that we have “privilege” to overshadow our work ethic and achievements. But whether we realize it or not, we all have some privilege, and this is where we can begin to work to make a culture that is more inclusive and fair to all of us - thin and fat people alike.


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