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What is thin privilege?

Many of us are bombarded daily with messages and images glorifying specific bodies, usually a thin and/or muscular body shape, and explicitly or implicitly shaming others. In addition to saturating the media landscape, body size or shape ideals go beyond aesthetics, as having a socially desirable and celebrated body type can result in certain unearned advantages. The benefits and freedom from discrimination associated with having a smaller body in an anti-fat-biased society is referred to as thin privilege.

5
 minutes read
Last updated on 
August 24, 2023
August 24, 2023
Thin privilege
In this article

Defining thin privilege

So, what is thin privilege? Scholars and activists have described it as a set of social advantages that thin people have due to prejudice against heavier or less lean people. For instance, because society values thinness, people in smaller bodies may experience social benefits, like making friends more easily and accessing structural advantages, such as finding well-fitting clothes in more stores and appropriately sized seats on public transportation.

According to body acceptance advocates, thinner people are often unaware 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. Some scholars argue that fitting into the thin ideal can impact women's success in multiple aspects of their lives.2

In summary, thin privilege exists—it describes the advantages of those with a thin body type because they meet societal standards of what is considered ideal or beautiful.

Thin privilege

The problem with thin privilege

Thin privilege results from 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, larger people are often discriminated against and labeled as unhealthy or irresponsible.2

This can lead to discrimination in many areas, including healthcare and workplaces. Studies have shown that healthcare professionals are strongly biased against larger patients, which can affect 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 less employable, which can negatively impact them in the job market.4

This means 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. Since anti-fat bias can reduce opportunities for those in larger bodies, it is truly a social justice issue. 

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Weight doesn't define health 

Not only is thin privilege linked with disadvantages and outright discrimination against people in larger bodies, but it also unfairly judges those who do not fit the thin ideal. Thin privilege is closely related to healthism, which views health status as a personal choice based on lifestyle habits and erroneously claims that 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 active people.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 recovering 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. In contrast, 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 various 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 with eating disorders, chronic dieting, and minority stress due to living in an extremely anti-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.

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 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 but 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 hurts 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. 

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If you have been using restrictive dieting or other unhealthy methods to lose weight, and you have become fixated on achieving a specific body type, you may have an eating disorder, regardless of your weight. In this case, reaching out for treatment can help you develop a healthier relationship with food and learn tools to cope 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.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Nash, M., & Warin, M. (2017). Squeezed between identity politics and intersectionality: A critique of 'thin privilege' in Fat Studies. Feminist Theory, 18(1), 69-87. 
  2. Donaghue, N., & Clemitshaw, A. (2012). 'I'm totally smart and a feminist…and yet I want to be a waif': Exploring ambivalence towards the thin ideal within the fat acceptance movement. Women's Studies International Forum, 35(6), 415-425. 
  3. Phelan, S. M., Burgess, D.J., Yeazel, W. L., Hellerstehdt, J.M., & van Ryn, M. (2015). Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and outcomes for patients with obesity. Obesity Reviews, 16(4), 319-326. 
  4. Grant, S., & Mizzy, T. (2014). Body weight bias in hiring decisions: Identifying explanatory mechanisms. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 42(3), 353-370. 
  5. Dankel, S. J., Loenneke, J. P., & Loprinzi, P. D. (2016). Does the fat-but-fit paradigm hold true for all-cause mortality when considering the duration of overweight/obesity? Analyzing the WATCH (Weight, Activity and Time Contributes to Health) paradigm. Preventive Medicine, 83, 37-40. 
  6. Keel, P. K., & Forney, K. J. (2013). Psychosocial risk factors for eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(5), 433-439.

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