What is thin privilege?

No items found.
No items found.

Many of us are bombarded daily with messages and images glorifying specific bodies, usually thin and/or muscular ones, 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.

Last updated on 
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, 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.

You might be interested in

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.

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.

Resources

  1. Nash, M., & Warin, M. (2017). Squeezed between identity politics and intersectionality: A critique of ‘thin privilege’ in Fat Studies. Femnist Theory, 18(1), 69-87. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700116666253
  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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2012.07.005
  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. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12266
  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. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2014.42.3.353
  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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.12.002
  6. Keel, P.K., & Forney, K.J. (2013). Psychosocial risk factors for eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(5), 433-439. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22094

FAQs

Further reading

Thumbnail image of an article

HAES in the LGBTQ+ community

The LGBTQ+ community, much like the rest of our Western society, is rife with anti...
Thumbnail image of an article

Why using the word obese is a problem

How often have you seen in the news a proclamation that “obesity is the largest...
Thumbnail image of an article

Why am I eating so much?

Anyone can have a complicated relationship with food, particularly in American culture...
Thumbnail image of an article

What is thin privilege?

Thin privilege describes the advantages that thinner people have because they meet...
Thumbnail image of an article

What is diet culture?

You’ve probably heard of the term “diet culture” if you’ve spent any time immersed in...
Thumbnail image of an article

Understanding picky eaters

Many young children are very selective about which foods they will eat. Although...
Thumbnail image of an article

Meal planning in anorexia nervosa recovery

Treatment for anorexia nervosa (AN) involves a combination of services that help...
Thumbnail image of an article

Learning the intuitive eating principles

Intuitive eating is an approach to eating based on responding to the body’s...
Thumbnail image of an article

How diet culture can lead to eating disorders

From advertisements and food labels to social media and influencers, diet culture is...
Thumbnail image of an article

Why body weight isn’t an indicator of health

Our culture of toxic healthism and fatphobia may have led you to believe that...
Thumbnail image of an article

What is health at every size?

Health at Every Size (HAES) is an alternative approach to healthcare that proposes...
Thumbnail image of an article

Fat is not a bad word

The word fat is not a bad word. It is a descriptor, just like thin. Yet society has...
Thumbnail image of an article

Healthism: When a focus on healthy living becomes problematic

Healthism refers to a set of attitudes and beliefs that health is the most...
Thumbnail image of an article

What is body neutrality and why is it important in eating disorder recovery?

Body neutrality is a body image movement that is slowly replacing body...