Defining thin privilege
So, what is thin privilege? Scholars and activists have described it as a set of social advantages that thin people have, as a result of prejudice against people who are heavier or less lean. For instance, because society values thinness, people in smaller bodies may experience social benefits, like making friends more easily, as well as accessing structural advantages, such as being able to find well-fitting clothes in more stores and appropriately sized seats on public transportation. According to body acceptance advocates, thinner people are often unaware of the fact that their body size comes with advantages, and that people in larger bodies are marginalized. (1)
While people of all genders experience the effects of thin privilege, society tends to pressure women especially to achieve a thin body and to put effort into maintaining a socially desirable appearance. In fact, some scholars argue that for women, fitting into the thin ideal can impact their success in multiple aspects of their lives. (2)
In summary, thin privilege describes the advantages that thinner people have because they meet societal standards of what is considered ideal or beautiful.
The problem with thin privilege
Thin privilege is the result of insidious hatred of fatness and people in higher weight bodies. For those who do not fit the thin ideal, internalized and external prejudice can lead to body dissatisfaction and shame. Since thin bodies are also viewed as healthier, people who are larger are often discriminated against and labeled as being unhealthy or irresponsible. (2)
This can lead to discrimination in many areas, including in healthcare and workplaces. In fact, studies have shown that healthcare professionals are strongly biased against larger patients, which can have an effect on the quality of care they provide, potentially resulting in life-threatening medical neglect and misdiagnosis. (3) Additional research has demonstrated that people view individuals in larger bodies as being less employable, which can negatively impact them in the job market. (4)
What all of this means is that thin privilege doesn’t just negatively affect the self-image of those in larger bodies; it can also significantly interfere with critical areas of life, leading to poor healthcare and fewer job opportunities. Given that anti-fat bias can reduce opportunities for those in larger bodies, it is truly a social justice issue.
Weight doesn’t define health
Not only is thin privilege linked with disadvantages and outright discrimination for people in larger bodies; it also places unfair judgment on those who do not fit the thin ideal. Thin privilege is closely related to healthism, which views health status as a personal choice based upon lifestyle habits and erroneously claims that a larger body size is a modifiable trait that increases the risk of health problems. (2)
Despite harmful misconceptions about the relationship between weight and health, there is evidence that being in a larger body is not inherently unhealthy or detrimental. A recent study found that regardless of their weight, physically inactive individuals are at higher risk of death from any cause when compared to people who are active. (5) While exercise can have positive health benefits for many people, it is not always safe, appropriate, or beneficial for people with certain illnesses and health conditions, including some people in recovery from eating disorders.
Beyond the fact that being at a higher body weight does not mean someone is of poor health status, being thin does not automatically equate to optimal health. Some people in smaller bodies may be physically active and consume an adequate diet, whereas others may be weight suppressed because they’ve used excessive exercise and restrictive dieting to attempt to conform to the thin ideal. Numerous studies have demonstrated that pressure to achieve the ideal body type can lead to body dissatisfaction, depression, and the development of eating disorders, none of which are health promoting. (2)
When discussing the relationship between thin privilege, body weight, and health status, it’s important to remember that the concept of health is complicated, subjective in some aspects, and affected by a variety of factors. Some individuals will never be considered “healthy” by mainstream standards because of chronic illnesses or disabilities. Some people in larger bodies may have increased health problems not because of their body size but because of their experiences of eating disorders, chronic dieting, and minority stress as a result of living in an extremely ant-fat biased environment.
Regardless of body size or health status, all people deserve access to competent medical care, respect, and freedom from stigma towards their bodies.
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Thin privilege and eating disorders
Ultimately, cultural standards that value thin bodies can lead people to take extreme measures to gain access to thin privilege. People who do not fit the thin ideal may resort to restrictive dieting and over-exercising in order to attempt to change their body weight. Over time, this can lead to the development of eating disorders, which can result in malnutrition and other significant health risks in people of all body sizes. Unfortunately, studies have consistently demonstrated that people who internalize the thin ideal are at increased risk of eating disorders. (6)
Thin privilege not only promotes discrimination among those in larger bodies, it also places people at greater risk of eating disorders, which may go undetected because of the incorrect belief that thinness and weight loss are always positive, no matter the circumstances. Thin privilege has a negative impact on all of society, as it limits opportunities for larger bodied individuals and sends the message that it is acceptable to utilize dangerous methods to achieve or maintain a thin body.
If you have been using restrictive dieting or other unhealthy methods to lose weight, and you have become fixated on achieving a certain body type, you may have an eating disorder, regardless of your weight. In this case, reaching out for treatment can help you to develop a healthier relationship with food and learn tools for coping with body dissatisfaction. In addition to this personal work, learning about and getting involved in body liberation and fat positive activist movements can help challenge the tyranny of the thin ideal on a more systemic level.