Thin Privilege and Fat Shaming: Recognizing the Problem

We don’t think about body type as being in the same category as race or gender or sexual orientation, with regards to privilege and oppression.  Racism, for example, appears so frequently in our news, and has such a deep history in our society, that it’s relatively easy to recognize that race divides people in this country, that certain groups are disadvantaged.  Black individuals are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to go to jail, and become targets for police brutality.  Feminists have, of course, been pointing out ways in which men are privileged over women, from the controversy over contraception to pay inequities to issues related to immigration.  Disabled persons also suffer from discrimination that is more readily seen by able-bodied people, who can recognize when buildings are not handicap accessible, or when schools fail to meaningfully help students with learning disabilities, or when mental illness is vilified.  We can see ableism, and racism, and homophobia, and recognize that these are related to systemic oppression of certain groups.  But we have trouble seeing the ways in which this applies to body type.

Thin privilege is a topic I haven’t really discussed much on this blog.  It’s something I wasn’t sure I knew how to discuss, but it’s something that needs to be talked about.  As much as feminists try to promote self-love and combat eating disorders and talk about accepting your body-~-and those are still good things to do, because people still shouldn’t feel bad about their bodies and because body type exists on a spectrum and people are impacted differently-~-but the reality of the situation is that larger bodies are policed even more heavily than thin bodies, and that while you may be made to feel bad about being thin, people who are considered “fat” face much bigger problems, on a bigger scale.

There are obviously health consequences of being overweight or obese-~-there’s increased risk of  conditions such as type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.  Certain medications, including forms of emergency contraception, are less likely to work if one is over a certain weight.  But there are secondary consequences of being overweight which also impact people’s health, particularly with regards to mental health.  It’s fatphobia that is linked to problems like eating disorders-~-it’s a combination of the need for control, and a fear of not being thin, because not being thin comes with real social consequences.  Moreover, individuals considered overweight are at risk for other psychological consequences, such as an elevated risk for depression and anxiety, and poor self-esteem, particularly among children considered obese.

There are other consequences as well, though.  Weight stigma in the United States is particularly prevalent among healthcare providers, resulting in biased diagnoses or a failure to address real problems presented by patients because the doctor is fixated on the patient’s weight.  This is particularly true for female patients, for whom this bias kicks in around when a woman has a BMI of 27, as opposed to men, who begin to suffer this discrimination when they reach a BMI of 30, according to a 2007 study by Yale University researchers.  The reality that doctors make assumptions about patients’ lifestyles and conditions based on their appearances is troubling (it is, after all, bad medicine), but is also tied into cultural narratives that vilify larger bodies and blame them for any issues at play.  These same narratives, along with the health statistics previously referenced, health insurance often costs more for people considered overweight.  As a result of this discrimination, both by insurance companies and healthcare providers, many obese women are less likely to seek medical care, which can have detrimental effects on their health and their lives, as they may forgo preventative care that is cheaper, less invasive, less time consuming, and ultimately easier to handle.  Overweight persons at risk for pregnancy also face barriers to access to contraception, as many medical providers maybe reluctant to prescribe birth control.

This problem doesn’t end with health and healthcare, though.  Overweight persons are more likely to be convicted of crimes by juries, particularly female defendants, who are more likely to be perceived as being guilty than their leaner counterparts.  Persons considered overweight are also less likely to be hired or promoted at their jobs.  There are jobs for which heavier individuals may not be considered, or which they may not be able to hold, including some service jobs (like waiting table), where employers are less likely to hire or keep employees whom customers may find “unappealing”.  In face-to-face interviews are a part of the admissions process, overweight students are less likely to be accepted into college than leaner students, and again, this bias is stronger for young women.

This doesn’t even account for some of the day-to-day lived experiences of being overweight and dealing with weight bias.  Though I can’t speak from personal experience about these, friends’ and other accounts (like the one I just linked) outline a number of general hurdles, everything from social isolation and negative comments from peers and family members, to struggling to find fashionable or appealing clothes available in your size, pressure to lose weight from doctors and family members, feeling self-conscious…like all other kinds of micro-aggressions and subtle forms of prejudice, these add up to an uncomfortable living situation that no one deserves to have to deal with.


So why is this less discussed than other forms of oppression?  According to a study published in the Journal of Obesity, weight bias has increased 66% in the last decade, making it comparable to race bias today.   This means that it lacks the history that other forms of oppression come with, and is therefore talked about less.  But it definitely matters, because weight bias impacts the life outcomes of individuals and communities, and the way we talk about weight isn’t helping.  Researchers at Yale Law School point out that the government’s “war on obesity” places the onus on individuals to stay thin or to become thin, and fails to address the reality that even if one wants to solve for the health consequences of obesity, there are structural issues at play, including access to safe areas to exercise and access to healthy food.  On top of that, referring to a body type as an “epidemic” may exacerbate or seemingly validate some of the forms of prejudice already seen, which in turn reinforces the problems that persons considered overweight already face.  Thin privilege does play a role in people’s lives to various degrees because fat-shaming plays a role in people’s lives to various degrees, and it’s dangerous when official organizations endorse rhetoric or actions that may legitimize this divide.  Everyone deserves a fair shot at college, employment, healthcare, and good quality of life, no matter what their body type, no matter who they are.


~ by Randi Saunders on August 15, 2014.

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