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Thin Privilege: What is it and How Is It Harmful?

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What Is Thin Privilege 

Thin privilege is the unearned advantages automatically given to people who have thin bodies.  

There is not one single body size that is defined as receiving “thin privilege.” However, what is generally seen is the smaller the body the more unearned  privilege someone is likely to receive. 

Here we will define thin privilege as: 

  • The ability to go in a mainstream clothing store and find something that fits your body
  • Being able to easily access public services like busses, airplanes, and seating at the physician’s offices
  • The ability to live without fear that your body size may result in physical or mental abuse

Thin privilege is a problem because it elevates and values the thin body type over other body sizes in all sectors of our culture.  

An obsession with thinness  makes it very difficult for people who do not live in small bodies to exist in the world without experiencing oppression. 

Lets dig into some of the ways that thin privilege is harming those in both lean and larger bodies, and how we can divest from promoting thin privilege. 

Where Does Thin or Skinny Privilege Come From? 

Thin or skinny privilege comes from social ideas like: 

  • Thin bodies are healthier than large bodies 
  • Everyone could be in a thin body if they made the right lifestyle choices
  • Thin bodied people are more disciplined 
  • People who are thin care about themselves more than people who are not thin

Most people who are thin come into the world in smaller bodies. Thinness is typically a genetic trait. 

However, diet culture gives us the false impression that thinness is a choice.  It creates the facade that those that don’t live in thin bodies are a burden to society. 

Diet culture tells us that because people that live in larger bodies are choosing to be that way, it’s okay to reprimand them for this decision. 

Unearned Privileges of Being Thin

Thin bodied people might not feel like they are “privileged.”  In fact, many thin bodied people probably have feelings of inadequacy and shame around their bodies as a result of diet culture. 

Thin privilege does not mean that you don’t experience body shame or negative comments.  It simply means that negative body thoughts tend to exist more on an intrapersonal (within your own thoughts) and interpersonal (in peer groups) level rather than at the systemic level. 

Here are some privileges of being thin that often go unnoticed 

  • Being able to walk into a mainstream clothing store and get clothes
  • Ability to match with a variety of people on dating websites
  • Not having to pay for an extra seat on airlines
  • Not having to pay extra for clothes, wedding dresses, sporting equipment, etc. 
  • Ability to not feel threatened in public spaces solely based on your body size 
  • Not having higher insurance premiums(health insurance, life insurance) solely based on your body size 
  • Going to public places and having seating available that fits your body 
  • Ability to go to the doctor and be treated for your medical condition rather than a focus on losing weight 
  • Not having certain medical conditions missed because of your body weight
  • Ability to go on an amusement park ride without concern 
  • Compliments and praise
  • Being selected for sports 
  • Greater access to job opportunities and higher pay scales 

Do People Who Are Thin Struggle With Body Image? 

Yes. 

In fact most people that live in western cultures are subject to body scrutiny, regardless of their body size.  

Media and cultural norms make it clear that nobody is thin enough.  Even if someone is living in a thin body, pressures are still present to: 

  • Shrink the body further 
  • Prevent any change in body shape regardless of age, health condition, or pregnancy
  • Refrain from any “unnecessary” body fatness 

While people with thin privilege do not experience oppression on a systemic level, no one is safe from body image abuse.  

Who Does Thin or Skinny Privilege Harm? 

The greatest level of oppression from thin privilege falls to those in larger bodies.  

The larger the body, the greater the oppression and limited access to resources. 

We typically see oppressive behavior being justified if a body falls outside the BMI threshold, and increased levels of oppression as we move up the weight spectrum.  

Although BMI is proven to be an outdated tool and an insufficient predictor of health, it doesn’t prevent society from using it as a tool to elevate thin bodies over fat bodies. 

Thin privilege harms everyone.  Including those in thin bodies.  

Ways thin privilege harms include: 

People in larger bodies also report experiencing behaviors such as: 

  • Bullying 
  • Physical violence
  • Death threats
  • Encouragement to self harm 

By offering the thin body privilege in social spaces, we are essentially saying that larger bodies are less valuable and deserve less equity.  This harms everyone. 

graph of the ways thin privilege creates oppression

Thin Privilege And Eating Disorders

At its core, thin privilege exists as a result of fatphobia.  

We often receive messages diet culture which tell us: 

  • People in larger bodies are not loveable
  • A fat body means you are undisciplined 
  • Everyone has a moral obligation to maintain a thin body
  • Anyone could be in a thin body if they wanted to
  • People in larger bodies are a burden to society 

These types of messages make the separation between thin bodies and larger bodies distinct.  It also glorifies thinness above all else.  

The value on thinness can increase the risk of  eating disorders such as: 

I also want to note we see thin privilege in who is likely to receive eating disorder treatment.  People in larger bodies are less likely to receive eating disorder treatment than those in thin bodies, even if their symptoms are identical. 

How Can We Fight Against Thin Privilege 

In order to fight against the oppression that thin privilege causes to we must: 

  1. Recognize our own biases around body weight 
  2. Get critical of spaces that support thin privilege 
  3. Speak up about oppression of those in larger bodies 
  4. Respect your body as it is now (refrain from the desire to shrink your body, which further advocates that thinner bodies are better bodies)
  5. If you have thin privilege, use it to speak up!  Refuse unnecessary weights at doctors offices, speak up against fatphobic comments, and disengage from diet conversation. 

People in all body sizes play an important role in eliminating unearned thin privilege.  However, it’s important to remember that for those in thin bodies, it may be much safer to advocate for equality in all body sizes. 

 
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Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!