The checkout lady is eyeing my body in juxtaposition to the ice cream I’ve put on the conveyor belt. As a long time fatty, I’ve often treated the act of eating as private, even a secret on occasion. Because of course, fat bodies have to feed themselves, but when others see a fat body eating, they treat it as an invitation to scrutinize, insult, and mock. Grocery shopping has never been any different. Strangers have often commented on the contents of my cart, asking me if I knew the pitfalls of including carbs in my diet, or if I’d ever tried the paleo diet to lose weight.
The way the checkout lady is watching my rolls, I know she wants to say something. She’s got the aura of the health crusader — those extra self-righteous strangers who want to tell you all about your health based on a glance at your size. Maybe I simply don’t know I’m fat, she might be wondering. Maybe I just need someone to shame me into making better choices, like publicly calling me out for buying a pint of vegan ice cream.
“You sure found the ice cream,” she says, glancing downward at my stomach. Much like a dog with a favorite chew toy, she won’t let it go. She won’t stop mentioning the ice cream even as it’s already disappeared into my grocery bag. In a different time, I would probably say something. I would probably demand her to just say what she meant: just call me a fat fuck! An insult would be so much easier to process than dancing around it, trapping us in this quagmire of half-spoken judgments.
But this is a pandemic, and this is a grocery store. This is a woman who has probably had a worse day than I have. This is a woman who is performing a high-risk, essential service likely for minimum wage and no hazard pay. So I don’t say anything. Maybe that was the right decision; maybe I should have told her she was making me uncomfortable.
Either way, this isn’t a unique interaction. This is just one in a long-standing series. As long as I have been fat, people have felt inclined to comment on it, offer up “advice,” or become openly hostile. Restaurants, gyms, and grocery stores have always been emotionally unsafe. Participating in physical activities is even worse than eating; someone always feels inclined to tell me how if I keep it up, I’ll eventually be thin. As if the joy of doing something isn’t enough, and it only becomes worthwhile if it can change my body into something worthwhile.
But while I am often the subject of fatphobic aggression, I am keenly aware that I still benefit from thin privilege.
What is thin privilege?
Thin privilege does not mean you feel good about your body. It does not mean you don’t suffer from low self-esteem, disordered eating, or body dysmorphia. It doesn’t mean you, too, haven’t been victimized by an industry that feeds off of our self doubt and makes us insecure about how we look.
Thin privilege has to do with how others treat you, not how you feel/treat yourself. Thin privilege means you are excused from the knee-jerk judgments and microaggressions (and Regular Sized Aggressions) fat people deal with every day, from doctors, strangers, family members, friends, and significant others. Some examples of thin privilege include:
- No one assumes you’re unhealthy based on your size.
- You can walk into any clothing store and expect to find an array of styles offered in your size.
- When you go to the doctor, they don’t prescribe weight loss as a cure-all, no matter your symptoms.
- People don’t assume you’re lazy.
- Your body type is well-represented and doesn’t exist solely as a joke/vilification.
- People don’t ask your partner what it’s like to have sex with you.
- Your body isn’t fetishized due to its size.
- Your body is not described as “an epidemic.”
- You can eat/shop for food without harassment.
These are examples of thin privilege that I don’t benefit from. All of the above have happened to me and continue to happen on a regular basis. However, because I am physically fit and able-bodied, I fall into the stereotype of “The Good Fatty.”
The Good Fatty is the fat person who makes visibly healthy choices. I.E. I eat a lot of healthy fruits and vegetables, I cook my own food, I work out most days, etc. This stereotype is often treated differently because people assume I am trying to change my fat body into a thin body (I am not).
This stereotype is incredibly harmful when we’re talking about trying to destigmatize fatness. Fat bodies shouldn’t have to prove their worth by being healthy. For one thing, the existence of The Good Fatty implies the existence of the reverse: The Bad Fatty. That implication is what a lot of so-called health crusaders use to justify their virulent fatphobia. For another thing, it is incredibly ableist. Using health as a factor to determine how much respect someone deserves is fucking awful. All bodies deserve respect and dignity. All bodies are important.
Thinking about this, I made a short list of some of the thin privileges I do benefit from:
- My health is often used to justify my body to others (however, it is also used to vilify other fat bodies).
- Because I am below a size 22, while I cannot shop anywhere, I can usually be confident that if there is a plus size section, it will have sizes that will fit me.
- My body type is often considered “acceptable.”
- I usually don’t have to worry if a place will have seats that will accommodate me. Which also means:
- I generally don’t have to pay extra for seating that will accommodate me.
- If a doctor chooses to believe me when I tell them about my lifestyle, this also saves me from a bad (often life threatening) diagnosis of “lose some weight.”
Fatphobia & thin privilege are incredibly insidious. It is an everyday challenge to unpack it, identify it, and fight against it. I used to wrap these privileges society “charitably” awarded me around myself as a kind of comfort: because I hated my fat body so much, I would take any humanity that was offered to me after years and years of being made to feel unworthy of it.
However, seeing these things all typed up now makes me feel kind of ill; I don’t want the scraps of respect, and I certainly don’t want to take these meager helpings while knowing they are being withheld from others who are deemed “undeserving.”
Because thin privilege means that some bodies get to exist unharassed, unperturbed, and peaceful for the sole reason that they are the “right” size. Everyone else gets screwed to varying degrees. Some people get to just buy their ice cream without anyone feeling the need to comment on it. I’ll say it again, because it’s important:
All bodies deserve respect and dignity. All bodies are important.