People Get Confused About 'Thin Privilege' — Here's What It Means

by Katie Cloyd
Originally Published: 
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Okay, so remember when a cop brutally murdered George Floyd and somehow, instead of being outraged, a certain subset of white folks decided to hem and haw about how white privilege doesn’t exist? The rest of us did our best to provide them with cartoons, infographics, and explanations so simple that my preschooler could understand them, but somehow there were still a bunch of people that just declined to understand it?

As it turns out, this absolute refusal to acknowledge your own privilege extends to any and all kinds of privilege that exist. All of them. Literally. There’s not a single type of privilege that someone won’t deny.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you think white privilege doesn’t exist, this discussion is not going to be your jam, either. I mean, white privilege is literally the most pervasive and obvious form of privilege in existence. It’s been demonstrated, explained and proven to death. If you can’t see that white privilege is a thing, what I’m about to say is not going to sit well with you. You’ve been warned.

We’re going to have a little chat today about thin privilege.

Thin privilege is the set of inherent advantages that living in a thin body provides a person in our society because thin is considered the default setting for a human being.

What do those advantages look like? Glad you asked. Let’s dig into that.

Thin privilege means that the world you live in was built to accommodate your body. You rarely to never encounter a public space that is too small for you to fit. Public transportation, turnstiles, chairs, restaurant booths, airplanes, and bathroom stalls are more than big enough for you to use them with comfort. You don’t exceed weight or size limits for recreational activities. The world is open to people with your body size.

Thin privilege means that your voice is heard in medical situations. If you go to the doctor for unexplained pain, they are very unlikely to blame the size of your body. When you make an appointment to discuss a valid medical concern, your provider doesn’t use up the appointment time suggesting things like weight loss surgery. Regardless of your actual habits, you don’t receive blame for your health problems based solely on your body size.

It means that the size of your body is almost never the reason you are not hired for a job, not selected for a role, denied a place on a team, or otherwise passed over for something you are qualified to do.

Thin privilege means that when you need clothing, you have a wide selection of options in every clothing price range. You aren’t charged extra for needing a larger size, and you don’t have to order online to find things that fit you comfortably. Your basic body shape is considered the “correct” shape, so the clothes are cut in a way that makes sense for you to wear.

Thin privilege is your ability to eat and drink whatever you choose in public without fear of judgment. It means you can walk into a gym or dance class with no idea what you’re doing, and your clumsiness will be blamed on inexperience, not your body size. It means that nobody will call you brave for wearing appropriate clothing to the beach or pool.

I could give example after example, but in short, thin privilege means that, generally speaking, the size of your body doesn’t play a huge negative role in how you experience the world and interact with other people.

Thin privilege is real, even though thin people have problems and negative experiences in their bodies.

Thin privilege doesn’t mean your life is easy. People can have thin privilege and suffer immensely at the same exact time. Acknowledging that your body provides you certain comforts and spares you from certain discomforts does not mean admitting that your life is perfect. Thin privilege means that you might have plenty of problems, but the size of your body isn’t the root of any of them.

When we hear the word “privilege,” sometimes it conjures up ideas of an upper crust society, where financial privilege reigns and nobody wants or needs anything that money can buy. Thin privilege is not financial privilege. It doesn’t have anything to do with money. People with no money still benefit from thin privilege.

Thin privilege absolutely does not mean that you have never experienced bullying or harassment because of your body’s shape or size. Individuals in thin bodies can definitely suffer when individual people around them choose to be cruel about their bodies. Thin privilege doesn’t mean nobody has ever been mean to you — it means that society as a whole does not pathologize your body simply based on its size without knowing anything about your actual health. It also means that people will generally assume you are healthy until/unless they find out otherwise, whereas fat bodies are assumed to be unhealthy unless we go out of our way to prove we are not.

Here’s a really interesting one: You can have thin privilege and not be thin!

The closer you are to the cultural beauty ideal, the more you benefit from thin privilege. For example, a curve model in a small plus size with a flat stomach, small waist, large breasts and wide hips will receive more validation based on her shape and her proximity to thinness than a fat woman in a larger plus size with a round tummy and large arms.

Someone who is a mid-size or small plus-size might be subject to anti-fatness in social or medical situations, but will still have no trouble existing comfortably in the world or shopping for clothes. You can have one foot in both worlds, benefitting from thin privilege in some areas and suffering the consequences of fatphobia in others. Talk about complicated.

So, now what?

First and foremost, you need to believe thin privilege exists. If you don’t, then nothing I’ve said here will matter to you or help anyone. But if we can both agree that a person’s body size can be an inherent asset or liability in our society, we can use that information to understand one another better.

As a fat person, I can extend grace to people who misunderstand how I feel or what contributes to my body size. As a person who benefits from thin privilege, you can start taking notice of public places where fat people would be uncomfortable. You can be a better friend to the fat people in your lives by recognizing that they might need an occasional accommodation. (But don’t assume! A lot of us can do anything we want to do!) You can also work on dismantling your own fatphobic beliefs, adjusting what you think about what fat people can or should wear, eat or do. You can just increase your own empathy. That’s a worthy pursuit.

And then, once you do that, you can use your voice. Speak up when people say harmful things about fat people in your presence. Correct people who assume every fat person is on death’s door and every thin person is destined to enjoy a long life. Don’t let fat jokes slide. Be the kind of person who is kind even when no fat people are watching.

Lots of different kinds of privilege exist. It’s a great idea to examine your life, see what types of privilege you are benefitting from, then work hard to level the playing field for everyone else. Everyone wins when more people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. It’s good for all of us to make society more accommodating, balanced and kind.

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